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Place Name Identification Strategies

Ancestral Village Sources

Immigration File | Social Security | Ship Manifests | Slovakia Phone Book

Present and Former Place Names | Terminology

Very few folks make much progress by searching by a surname.  Name variations due to errors and overt changes are renown.  The same name can arise in distant villages and never be related.  Your key to success will be identification of the ancestral village.  Archival records are organized by geographic place names - this will turbo-charge your search.

Here are the most reliable places to find the ancestral village are in one of the following documents, especially if they emigrated to US. 

Most Reliable Places to Find an Ancestral Village

  • US Port of Entry Records (Ship Manifests)

    Ellis Island Manifests


    MICROFILM: Microfilms of these items are available via the USA National Archives or more conveniently through the Mormon's Family History Center.  There is an index for records, organized by last name (Port of NY SOUNDEX) referenced to date of arrival (records 1902 and later).  SOUNDEX is particularly useful in locating surnames that sound-alike.   Port of New York:   The Ellis Island Database (we like to call it the "EIDB") contains a database and images of manifests from 1892 to 1924 from the Port of NY.  Since 80% of all U.S. immigrants between 1892 and 1924 passed thru here, it's convenient and easy to check these records via the web. 


    ONLINE - ELLISISLAND.ORG  An important tool for searching the Ellis Island records online is the Steve Morse 1-step Web Tools replete with sounds-alike tools.  It is a better mechanism than entering your query into Ellis web site directly, conducts superior sounds-like searches, allows searching by village name.  All results are shown in a convenient, clickable chart, allowing you to go directly to images or lists at EIDB.  The 1-Step facility also allows you to "manually" scroll through films, frame-by-frame.  This is handy when the image you are looking for is "missing."

Other Ports of Entry - Ports such as Baltimore, Boston, Halifax and others were also used, but far less frequency.  I would only consider these ports after  you have exhausted the Ellis Island resources.  Many of these records are available at 

Departure Lists - If you really get stuck and can't find your immigrant on any manifest, consider looking at the Hamburg and Bremen departure lists, from where most of our ancestors departed.  Most departure lists were not preserved or were destroyed, so picking will be slim. 

  • Immigration Files - Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (formerly INS) May include Alien Registration Form, 1st or 2nd papers, naturalization documents and yearly reports amongst items. INS Alien Registration Form (if a resident alien in the US in the year 1940 only).  Most files are quite small, so request the entire file.  Expect 3-6+ month response time, or longer since 9-11.  I've include information on how to request (petition) for a copy of the file.

  • Social Security Application SS-5 (if legally employed in US 1936 or later).   Contains place of birth and mother and fathers' names. Petition the Social Security Administration (SSA) through the Freedom of Information Act.   More information on the Social Security Program can be found at the SSA web site.  As an aside, the Social Security Death Index is well known to be incomplete and should not be relied on.

  • Family Documents or Memories – passports, correspondence back home, other documents.  Ask elders for whatever place names they can recall.  Or simply record the words and sort out later if it is a place name or something else.  Record words phonetically. 

When the going gets tough - Other ways to find your village

Once you've exhausted the above, consider some of these options:

  • Immigrants' Friends and Family - What I call the "Indirect Method".  Involves tracing individuals who may have traveled with them, been left behind or met up with in the States.  Neighborhood friends, Godparents and social club friends should be examined.  Very useful to trace them when yours cannot be located through any other method.  Reading their records may help you locate places and dates, especially useful clues.  Sometimes also the name is so badly bastardized in the ledger, that you would not find it, no matter that you have tried all sounds-alike and looks-alike name variations.

    • Adjacent villages - Often friends, wives and husbands were from a neighboring village.  Knowing the village of one of these folks may help you in locating your ancestor's village.  Using period-maps (available online), look for villages adjacent or separated by one village away.  

  • Phone Books If all the above fails, consider looking at a present-day phone book.  Country phonebooks for the region are quite helpful with identifying people with similar sounding surnames.  (Phone books are also useful for hypothesizing about how your surname is spelled today.)  For Slovakia, Peter Nagy has put together a great guideline on using the Slovak Republic phone book.  Put in partial names, minimum of the first three letters and see what names fall out.  Most surnames, with the tragic exception of Hebrew names appear to have survived, though the spelling may vary from what you expect.   Although descendants may have moved from the ancestral village, it is likely you’ll still find some of them nearby.  Take the villages listed for the probable surnames and plot them out in a map.  One possible strategy from here is to take these village names (misspellings too) and enter them into the 1-Step web tools, searching for all immigrants from a specific village.  Czech and Poland phone books are also available online.

    • Phonebooks can also be useful when you have a village name and either want to see if a particular surname is still found in the village.  It may be a useful first step before you open up the church books, just to validate you may be in the right place.  This strategy is risky however, since in the past 50 years many people have moved to larger towns and villages for employment, leaving nobody with that surname in the village today.

  • Contemporary Slovakia Census - In the mid 2000's, Slovakia released a list containing surname distributions by village within the country.   These lists were published online and may provide a clue as to where the surname may be located.  This is far better for validating that you've found the right village, rather than primary identification.  It's a longshot as a primary resource, since during the 20th century, many people migrated about Slovakia for employment.   It's also risky because the surname may exist many miles apart and have no familial relationship at all.  this approach is an alternative to the Slovakia phone book method above, but far less up to date.  The key to using the Census and Phone book is that finding clusters of surnames in one or more nearby villages provides a strong clue to pursue - it is not definitive.  At that point, I'd be pulling the church records for those villages and see if any names show up for the period of your ancestor's living.  Access a database of the census here Instructions for using this free database.

  • US Census (from 1900, 1910 or 1920) or Canada Census.  Well, I'm not a big fan of Census documents for genealogy purposes.  It may help to locate the person, but unfortunately, in most cases, all that is listed is the country of origin (i.e., "Hungary" or "Austria") which is of little use.

  • Church (place of destination) records of immigrant's marriage or offspring's birth.  Ask the priest to look in the actual church record, NOT a church-issued certificate.  The down side is that many priests are too busy to honor such requests and success is often hit-or-miss

LEAST reliable places to find an ancestral village

  • U.S. Death Certificate – the information is only as good as the informant, who is many times uninformed or in error.  This information generally remains unverified.

  • Obituaries – For the same reason.

  • Certificates of Naturalization - This is mostly a ceremonial document and contains very little helpful information.  In many cases, this information is in error.

  • Phone Books - Great for corroborative evidence, but often leads to wild goose chases as people moved around.

General Guidance

  • Always remember that your ancestral village probably had multiple names.  Follow the place names guidance to be certain that your search doesn't preclude any of these names

  • The closer in time the document was to the event documented, the greater the probability of accuracy.  Time has a way of fading memories.

  • Authoritative documents trump anecdotal information - Church records and government documents have a much higher chance of having accurate information.

  • Seek corroborative evidence - Try not to rely on a single source of information before drawing conclusions.   You will have much greater confidence in your information if you see it in multiple documents independent of each other.


After you've got a Place Name, Verify It

Even after you've found a place name on a document, you've got more work to do to ensure you've got a viable name.  More often than not, there is more investigation to follow.


  • Spelling In many cases, the place name that you receive may have been incorrectly spelled.  This happened for many reasons - the transliteration or translation into another language, poor penmanship, name only spoken, never written.  The best way to verify the name and its proper spelling is to consult with people who are knowledgeable about your region.  Although there are thousands of villages, these people can quickly recognize the misspellings due to their knowledge of the indigenous languages. 

  • Town, County and Administrative Names - Knowledge of counties and administrative districts cannot be under-emphasized.  Many immigrants sometimes included these as their place of origin.  Do not be discouraged if only the county name is listed.  This can be extremely helpful in limiting your search area.

  • Duplicates  There are many villages within Slovakia that had or have the same or very similar place names.

  • Old versus Present-day Place Name

Someone familiar with the area will also be able to recognize an "old" Magyar (Hungarian) language name versus a present-day Slovak language name.  These people also have access to numerous cross-reference books.   While these books are available for purchase, it is faster and more effective to post a message or email the individual.  This will save you a tremendous amount of time looking for an old name (which is often what we start with) on a new map!

  • Members of discussion groups (see below) often have village name cross-reference books and will happily do lookups.

  • Online cross-reference of old names, (instructions) especially from the Mitjan book is a useful resource for name variations.

  • Shtetlseeker reliabilty for determining alternate place names is low to moderate.  In my experience, many alternate forms, including most popular, are often missing.

  • Case of the Missing Village - Occasionally a village will come up "missing".  There are various reasons, some of which include:

    • Villages removed due to construction, pogroms or desertion.  The construction of the Starina Reservoir in East Slovakia or Operation Vistula in Southern Poland (Galicia) are primary examples.

    • Incorporation of a village into a larger, adjacent town or city.

    • Place name Prefix or Suffix removed or added.  (Velky Lucska becomes Luckska). 


Discussion Groups - Help With Name Variations

Once you're confident of at least one village name, you have a decision to make at this point.  You can verify by either "do it yourself" by utilizing Present and Former Place Names or you can post a query on a discussion group/email list seeking out the various village names over time.  I suggest starting with the latter.  The chief benefits are that it is free, it's fast and it's another data point.   Several correspondants on these lists have access to cross-reference books listing various village names.  It is also apt bring forth some issues that didn't occur to you.   If you then want to research further, you've got some information to build upon.


Today, the most efficient way to locate folks familiar with the region or even your village is through discussion groups.  The Delphi group has a terrific set of regulars who are very helpful for identifying Czech Republic and Slovakia settlement names.  Some of the people who participate in these forums are for-hire genealogists, but the great majority of participants are hobbyists. 


Once you identify the village name, many doors will open for you, as most of the records, resources, databases are organized geographically.  The Mormons are actively filming church and civil records in this region and are nearing completion.


Find Others Searching for Your Village

I cannot emphasise enough how it is to find others searching for your village.  Of the more than 2,700 villages in Slovakia, the vast majority were very small, well under 1,000 inhabitants, more often 300 to 700 people in size.  The chance that you are related to these folks is probably quite high, and the number of people searching for your village will be low.  Villagers followed each other when they immigrated.  Sharing information between researchers will yield huge rewards.


Other Guides

The guides below are more oriented towards research in the US, but the same principles apply.

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Last Update: 15 November 2020                                                    Copyright © 2003-2021, Bill Tarkulich