Expert answers on finding your ancestor's immigration record.
I've hit a brick wall. Based on family stories, census records and other sources, my great-great-grandmother died on a ship coming to America with her husband and seven children in 1880. The origination point was Poland.Her husband and children finally settled in Chicago. I can't find any family members on ship records coming to Baltimore, New York, New Orleans and many other ports. I've scrutinized each microfilm for the years 1878 to 1882. The first record of the family is in the Chicago census of 1910, which mentions 1880 as the immigration years. I have also searched for naturalization records and found none. What would my next step be?
Genealogy experts suggest finding all the US records you can before jumping to passenger lists.
It sounds like the earliest US record you have for this family is the 1910 census. If they did immigrate in 1880, that’s 30 years of unrecorded time. You don’t say which family members are in that 1910 Chicago census, but children on a ship in 1880 likely wouldn’t be living with their father 30 years later, so verify that you’ve found the right family in the census.
Your family could’ve moved around to any number of places—including Canada—between 1880 and 1910. So start with the earliest known location in 1910 and keep looking in US records. Have you tried searching Chicago city directories and newspapers around that time? Have you searched for death records, wills and probates of every family member? Looked for WWI draft registration cards for any male family members alive in 1917 and 1918? These records will provide clues to help you find the right passenger list.
Not every immigrant was naturalized, so these records may not exist for your family. If the 1910 census indicates your family members were naturalized, be aware that pre-1906 naturalizations could’ve been filed in any courthouse where they lived. You’ll need to find out where they resided when naturalized. See more information on naturalization records in this article
A few pointers for finding family in passenger lists:
- Your family stories and the records you’ve found may be wrong about the year of immigration, and scrolling microfilm for every port is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Your time may be better spent searching Ancestry.com ’s database of passenger lists (your library may offer the free Ancestry Library Edition version), so you can look for arrivals at all ports and broaden your year range.
- Many immigrants “Americanized” their names after arrival, so your ancestors may appear on passenger lists with different names than the ones you know. Your continued searching in US records may turn up this name. Searching an online database also will let you experiment with spelling variations and wildcards.
- To learn more about Polish immigrants and develop theories for when and where your family might have migrated, consult books and references such as Polish Immigrants: 1890 to 1920 by Rosemary Wallner and John Radzilowski (Blue Earth Books) and Polish Immigrants and Industrial Chicago: Workers on the South Side, 1880-1922 by Dominic A. Pacyga (University of Chicago Press). Also explore the website of the Polish Genealogical Society of Chicago.
- Your family may have immigrated to Canada and later crossed the border into the United States. Canada started keeping passenger lists in 1865. Subscription site Ancestry.ca has an index to these records; you’ll also find indexes for some years and ports on the Library and Archives Canada website. US border-crossing records for most areas start about 1895and are included in Ancestry.com's immigration collection. Keep in mind that people crossing into the United States where no official entry port existed won't be listed.