Discovering your family roots abroad and at home

Every family has a story – what’s yours?

Discovering your ancestral roots is one of the most humbling experiences you can have. Most of us might not be able to think beyond our oldest living relatives, such as grandparents and great-grandparents. It’s absolutely mindblowing to realize that countless generations of people came before you, all with lives as vibrant and full as your own.

Taking on a project like this might seem daunting, but it’s worth every bit of effort and can even be easier than it may seem. Whether you’re in your ancestral homeland or sitting at your own kitchen table, here are some tricks to make the most out of your family research experience.

While abroad

In the summer of 2013, I was studying abroad in Germany with a program from my own college. We were assigned to complete a project about some area of German-American relations, and since I have mostly German ancestry, I thought it might be interesting to do mine about German immigration to the United States. I decided to try and learn about my own ancestors in order to use more concrete examples in my project.

Old and new in Dresden, Germany: a building that was destroyed by bombs in WW2 has been reconstructed using as many of the structure’s original bricks as possible.
  • Communicate with family back home about existing resources. I knew that my dad had a genealogy book that a relative on his side of the family had put together some years ago. I vaguely recalled a reference to our original German immigrant ancestors being in that book, so I emailed him, asking if he could please look through it and send me scans of any pages that mentioned ancestors born in Germany. He emailed me some information from the book on my third-great grandfather, Wilhelm Zimmermann (whose name was Americanized to become William Zimmerman). Among the information listed were his birth and death dates and locations, along with the year he immigrated, all of which was hugely helpful in beginning my search. If you’re abroad, talking to your family back home and finding out what information they already know is a crucial first step.

  • Location is key. Luckily for me, the city where I was studying abroad was very close to Dresden, where Wilhelm Zimmermann was born and lived before coming to America. If possible, absolutely make an effort to visit anywhere your ancestors may have lived – walk where they walked, breathe the same air that they did.

  • Consult with native speakers of the local language. A bit of Googling led me to an old address book from Dresden that actually had my ancestor’s name listed. One problem: since I only knew a traveler’s handful of basic German words and phrases, I couldn’t read anything other than his name. After showing the online record of the address book to a German friend, I was able to find the exact street address where he had lived before coming to America. While visiting Dresden, I got to see the street itself, which really made it feel like my family’s history was coming full circle.

  • Talk with local experts who can shed some light on obscure facts. I got the chance to talk with a professor of American studies at the University of Leipzig. He had extensive knowledge about German immigration to the U.S. I showed him the pages from our family’s genealogy book, where it briefly mentioned that Wilhelm Zimmermann had been a “noted violinist” while he lived in Dresden. The professor pointed out that he had lived in Dresden around the same time that the composer Richard Wagner was working there, and that he may have even been a violinist in Wagner’s orchestra. This is something I never would have considered otherwise, so it was really amazing to hear that possibility!

A chilly spring day in Dresden.

At home

My maternal great-grandmother passed away about a month after I returned from studying abroad. In order to honor her memory, my mom decided that she wanted to learn about her own side of the family and asked me to help her out. We managed to trace back to our German ancestors on that side as well (the oldest ancestor we found, my fifth-great grandfather, was born in 1796!), all from our own home. Here are some tips we picked up along the way.

  • Use your free trial wisely. offers a two-week free trial. This is a fantastic resource, but make sure you choose a two-week period where you have a decent amount of free time (for example, over summer or winter break). And don’t forget to cancel the trial at the end of two weeks so your credit card doesn’t get charged!

  • Names are important. My great-grandparents’ last name was Morgenstern, which I had always considered to be a pretty unique name. Turns out it’s not – there were tons of Morgensterns coming up in the search results. We were able to sort through the list of Morgensterns a lot faster by considering factors such as places and years of birth for each individual ancestor. Consider alternative or Americanized spellings of names as well – for example, one of my ancestors was born “Katrina” in Germany, but American records from after her immigration referred to her as Katharine, Katharina, and Catherine.

  • Don’t give up when you hit a roadblock. At some point, you’ll probably get stuck. Instead of letting yourself get frustrated, give it a break. Sleep on it and pick up where you left off the next day. You’ll come back to your search feeling refreshed with an open mind.

Standing: my grandmother, Martha Morgenstern Mercer (left, holding my mom as a baby) and my great-aunt, Marilyn Morgenstern Wilson (right). Middle: my great-great grandparents, Peter and Ella Ross. Front: my great grandparents, Rita and Howard Morgenstern.

In a sense, discovering where you come from makes your ancestors come alive again. Ancestors go from being vague terms such as “fourth-great grandmother” to people with names who had rich and fulfilling lives. I think my mom put it best when, after we’d traced back several generations, she said, “I feel like I just met a whole bunch of people.” Even though you may have never met these people, it truly makes you realize that they are a part of your family.

Best of luck with your search!

This post was originally published on

Author: lindseyzimmerman

I'm a marketing pro, writer and cat person from Columbus, Ohio living in southern Spain since 2015. Usually drinking manzanilla, reading Lorca, or attempting to dance flamenco (not all at once).

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