Now What?: Beating an Immigration Brick Wall

By Family Tree Editors Premium

Q. 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 year.  I’ve also searched for naturalization records and found none. What would my next step be?

A. 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 citizenship 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, so you’ll want to find out where they resided when naturalized. See more information on researching in naturalization records here.

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 online databases of passenger lists, such as those on (your library may offer the free Ancestry Library Edition version) and These will let you look for arrivals at all ports and broaden your arrival 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. And searching online passenger databases will let you experiment with spellings and wildcards.
  • To learn more about Polish immigrants and develop theories for when and where your family migrated, consult books and references such as Polish Immigrants: 1890 to 1920  by Rosemary Wallner and John Radzilowski (Blue Earth Books) and explore the website of the Polish Genealogical Society of Chicago.
Get more immigrant research help and see online search demos in our webinar Online Immigration Records: Retracing Your Ancestor’s Journey.


In-depth help finding your ancestors’ immigration records also is available in Family Tree University‘s course, Tracing Immigrants: How to Research Your Family’s American Arrivals