My advice to anyone trying to connect an immigrant ancestor back to the country of origin is to start by thoroughly documenting the life of the person in the USA first. You want to have enough information that when you are ready to work your way back to Germany, you'll recognize that you have the right person and not someone with the same name. Collecting records in the USA will also help you narrow down the time frame for when the person arrived. See Sources of Genealogical Information for a checklist of what kind of records to look for.
Anyone who is researching ancestors from Germany should take a look at Joe Beine's outstanding website German Roots. His Basic Research Outline for German Genealogy gives the beginner an outline of the entire process of collecting data and working methodically. But don't forget to look at the rest of the website, too. I'm constantly going back to it and finding new things that I didn't notice before, because I wasn't paying attention, or didn't have the experience yet to realize how a resource could help me. Everyone goes through this process, because our brains can only absorb so much at a time. Don't be afraid to review your data from time to time and re-integrate information from resource guides and from the information you've already looked at and collected.
Now let's look at the specific case of researching Henry Fischer. We need to take the information from these research guides linked to above and to focus on the period from 1821-1898, give or take a little. You have the following timeline so far:
- 1821: his birth
- ????: his marriage to Dorothea Holiday
- 1850: he is enumerated on the census in Houghton, Houghton, Michigan
- ????: someone with his name applies for a passport (This could be a VERY important clue, because it might show if Henry was naturalized or not -- see When were passports first issued in the USA?)
- 1898: he dies
Since your great great great grandfather died before the really nosy 20th-century records, you won't have the same opportunities to find pointers to records that descendants of later immigrants have, so you'll have to work a bit harder. Make a Research Plan. You want to find as many records as you can that will support what you already know. Start with his death and work backwards.
While you are researching, broaden your search to consider not just Henry, but his other family members, his friends, associates, and his neighbors. People rarely immigrated alone. They usually came in groups, or had other friends who came before them and came after them. Check your local libraries to find resources about the local German community in that period. If Henry was part of a larger wave of immigration to the area, you might be able to find pointers about how people traveled by learning about the bigger pattern.
So keep an eye out for the people around Henry -- the "cluster" or FAN club. See QuickSheet: The Historical Biographer’s Guide to Cluster Research (the FAN Principle) and QuickLesson 11: Identity Problems & the FAN Principle by Elizabeth Shown Mills. If Henry had siblings, the clues for when he might have entered the country and/or what part of Germany he came from might be in a sibling's record instead. Be prepared to work through this entire process for any of Henry's siblings that you might find.
Here's why studying the entire group, and reviewing your previously-collected records, pays off. I was not able to find several of my German immigrants in the Naturalization indexes because when I searched, I was looking for them as individuals. While reviewing the records I had already collected, I finally realized why not: because I had the index cards pointing to their father's Naturalization records. If their fathers had been naturalized, they didn't need to go through the process themselves, so they would not have Naturalization records of their own.
Filling out the details of Henry's Life
Death Records: Assuming for the moment that he died in Michigan (not necessarily the case, because people do travel, and they can die anywhere): Joe Beine has a handy page on Online Michigan Death Records & Indexes that outlines all the places you might be able to find death records there, including Houghton County Cemeteries. Make a checklist of all the places you've searched, and note what you find. If you find nothing, make a note of how you searched, so when you review your data again, you can see what you did.
I would also recommend that you try to find out when Dorothea (Holiday) Fischer died, because that might be an important clue to finding Henry's whereabouts. If he is widowed, he might be living with one of his children in the census records after 1850. Probate records might give you many bits of information that have nothing to do directly with the immigration question, but the information lays the foundation for the search backwards in time.
The 1890s: If Henry served in the Civil War, there might be records associated with him or Dorothea in the surviving 1890 schedules enumerating Union veterans and widows of Union veterans. You won't find the general population schedules for that decade because the 1890 federal census was destroyed. Joe Beine has a link to a research guide, 1890 Census Substitutes.
Try to collect all the census records available, working backwards from 1880. Use the ideas from the 1890 Census Substitutes article as a guide to finding census records. See whether the information agrees with or contradicts the Census records you find.
Collect whatever you can find to fill in the years between the census, and to complement the official government records. Newspaper research can be especially productive. If you are lucky and the right newspapers survived, there might be obituaries, notices about probate, land transfers, social news, travel news, the arrival of new immigrants to the community. I've found short news articles about people traveling back to their country of origin on a visit that told how long they stayed; using that information, I was able to find the specific passenger lists for those travels.
Emmigration and Immigration and Naturalization records
If Henry was naturalized, these are the papers you really want to get clues about where he might have come from in Germany. NARA's introduction to the process is here: Naturalization Records. An important change happened in 1906. Since we know that Henry died before 1906, that means any Naturalization records he might have will have been created before 1906, so they would have been recorded at the local level. NARA says
Contact the State Archives for the state where the naturalization occurred to request a search of state, county, and local courts
Contact the NARA regional facility that serves the state where naturalization occurred to request a search of Federal court records
The Family History Library might also have microfilmed records for Henry's local courts. See Joe Beine's page on Online Searchable Naturalization Records and Indexes for ways to search online.
If you can find Naturalization papers for Henry, those papers might give you the name of the ship he arrived on and a date of arrival. Bear in mind that the date might not be completely accurate, because sometimes people didn't remember. In any case, once you have narrowed down the period when Henry might have arrived in the USA, you can try looking for his passenger list.
Other Research Guides:
The FamilySearch Wiki article says "Keep searching and the connection from America to Europe will reveal itself." That's great advice. Work from the known to the unknown. Research, review, research again.