How to Use Ancestry to Research Your International Family

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Sky HISTORY is partnering with Ancestry, the world's leading resource for online family history. Bring your backstory to life in this series of sponsored articles.

Even if you’ve not yet used Ancestry to explore your family's past, you’ll probably be aware that the site provides a vast library of invaluable historical documents. From census and electoral rolls to birth and marriage records, Ancestry’s collection can help bring your family's backstory to life.

But what if some or all of your relatives migrated to and from the UK, many generations ago? Can Ancestry still be used to uncover those fascinating stories from your family’s past?

In a word: absolutely. Ancestry has an extensive collection of international records. This is important, given that many of us may not yet be aware that we have migrants among our ancestors. People change countries for many reasons, from those who relocated internationally for economic reasons to those who were uprooted by major events that permanently changed life in their home countries.

Even if your family originated in another country, tracking their bygone journeys is relatively easy with Ancestry. Using the Search tab, you can select the Immigration & Travel section of Ancestry. Here, some notable record collections include passengers lists of ships which docked in the UK from ports across the world (like The Empire Windrush), the lists of crew members of various vessels, and UK naturalisation certificates issued from 1870 to 1916.

One particularly engrossing section covers Australian Convict Transportation registers, where you can search the details of convicted criminals in the British Empire who were transported to penal settlements in Australia. You can go as far back as the 18th Century to find the names of convicts, their exact sentences and which penal colony they were sent to. Could one of your own ancestors have been among them?

One major event that caused mass migration to the United Kingdom, was the Irish Potato Famine which unfolded in the mid-19th Century. Resulting from a catastrophic blight that ravaged potato crops, the famine was a pivotal moment in Irish history. The famine caused more than a million deaths and spurred on the mass migration of desperate people to England, Scotland, Wales and the New World. One city that saw a major influx of Irish people fleeing the famine was Liverpool. In fact, according to an 1851 census, more than 22% of the city’s population was Irish-born. Could a few of them be among your great-great-grandparents?

Famines, wars, natural disasters, domestic economic downturns, and the simple, personal cravings for a new life abroad – all of these have shaped the course of countless families over the centuries. Delving into your research on Ancestry could easily reveal some startling revelations about your own heritage. So, how can you find out for sure?

Well, the user-friendly interface makes it very straightforward. Say you wanted to look into international records, for example. Simply navigate your way to the main Search page on Ancestry, then scroll right down to the bottom of the page where you can ‘Explore by Location’. Here, you’ll see a map of the world, as well as tabs for places such as Africa, Asia and Europe. Click on the latter, say, and you can then pinpoint a specific country, such as Ireland. You’ll then be presented with a variety of collections, such as Ireland’s marriage records from 1845 to 1958, and baptism records going as far back as the 17th Century.

These kinds of resources have even been used by professional historians to undertake painstaking, original research into their subjects. To take a recent example, Dr Fern Riddell – who presents Sky History’s Not What You Thought You Knew podcast – was able to use Ancestry’s collection of baptism records from Germany to uncover juicy personal details about an almost-forgotten, Victorian-era acrobat called Miss La La. This is the kind of research that would have once required long-distance travelling and the manual scouring of dusty old records in foreign countries, but which you can now do at home on a Sunday afternoon.

The world is your oyster when using Ancestry, and by simply searching through a few archives over a few hours, you may well discover information that completely alters everything you thought you knew about your family tree.