Tracing ancestors who claimed Austria as their birthplace requires more than the usual amount of digging to determine exactly where they came from because of the country's complex history. Many different ethnic groups were governed by the Austrian state until 1918 when the Republic of Austria came into existence.
Before 1867, the year Austria-Hungary was created, the term Austrian applied to all subjects of the Hapsburg monarchs without regard to their ethnic background. After 1867, however, a distinction was usually made between the residents of the Austrian and Hungarian parts of the empire. But Germans who lived anywhere within the borders of Austria-Hungary were called Austrians and the term then included not only people of Austria proper, but also such groups as the Sudetenland Germans of Bohemia and Moravia, the Siebenburger Saxons of Transylvania and Danube Swabians of the Banat.
If immigration and census records describe your ancestor as Austrian, but no exact place of origin is given, talk to older family members who may recall the name of the village or city your immigrant ancestor came from. You may have to begin your research based on the apparent ethnic origin of your surname. Possibly your Austrian family came come from what is now Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Italy, Yugoslavia, Poland, Romania or the Ukraine. If such is the case, your research will be in those countries rather than in Austria.
If your family emigrated in the 19th Century, they probably left from the ports of Hamburg, Bremen or Antwerp. If you are lucky, they debarked from Hamburg and you will be able to find them on those ship passenger lists, which have been microfilmed and are available through the Family History Library in Salt Lake City and its branches.
Most Austrians who came to America were either Roman Catholic or Jewish. However, if your family came from the province of Burgenland, they may have been Protestant--most likely German Lutheran.
You probably will have to hire a researcher in Austria, as few genealogical records pertaining to Austria have been filmed by Salt Lake City's famous library.
Founded in 1879, the Heraldisch-Genealogische Gesellschaft Adler is Austria's oldest and most important genealogical society. Experts are available who will do research and conduct investigations in modern Austria as well as in the records of the old empire. This organization will refer your inquiry to a member who is willing to do the research. Then you will have to negotiate the fee with your researcher.
Write your initial inquiry, in English, for a researcher to Heraldisch-Genealogische Gesellschaft Adler, Haarhof 4a, 1010 Wien, Austria. Be sure to enclose two International Reply Coupons (these are available at most larger U.S. post offices).
Military records are valuable in tracing Austrians as universal conscription began in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1868. Every male had to serve three years in the army or navy. These records include date and place of birth; all the records exist, are readily available and many are indexed. They are located in the military records branch of the national archives (Kriegsarchiv, Stiftgasse 2, 1010 Wien). Dating from the 16th Century up to 1919, these records also include information on regular soldiers. Before the days of conscription, men enlisted for life. These military records are especially valuable if your ancestors were Jewish and civilian records are not extant.
For additional tips on tracing your Austrian lines, consult "In Search of Your European Roots" by Angus Baxter ($14.95 ppd., Genealogical Publishing Co. 1001 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md. 21202) and "Handy Guide to Austrian Genealogical Records" by Dagmar Senekovic ($5.50 ppd., Everton Publishers, P.O. Box 368, Logan, Utah 84321).
Myra Gormley welcomes genealogical questions for her column, but is unable to answer individual letters. For her beginner's how-to genealogy kit (with charts) send $4 to Kit, Box 64316, Tacoma, Wash. 98464.