First Papers

By Ernest Thode Premium

Q. My widowed great-grandmother Rosalie (Heinz) Thoendel immigrated from Germany to the United States in March 1877 with her four sons. In May 1877, she moved to Columbus, Neb. How do I find the ship and immigration papers? Being a female, was she required to be naturalized? I am at a dead end.

A. Twenty-five percent of immigrants did not get naturalized, or even apply for “first papers” (also called a a declaration of intention, the first step in the naturalization process). Females and children were automatically naturalized under their husband or father until 1922—learn more about women and naturalization in this article from the National Archives’ Prologue Magazine. But a widow may have applied for naturalization on her own.

From 1824 to 1906, minors who had lived in the United States for five years and were at least 23 years old could apply for naturalization immediately without first filing a declaration of intention. If the family members applied for naturalization, they may have filed in a local, district, state or federal court. Look for naturalizations in the Platte County court (Columbus is the county seat) and check indexes on the free as well as subscription sites and

The passenger list should normally be in the book series Germans to America. Unfortunately, I do not find Rosalie and her sons listed.

New York was by far the major port of entry for US immigrants, but other ports are possible, such as New Orleans for someone going to Nebraska (up the Mississippi River). You’ll find a free index for New York arrivals from 1820 to 1892 at Also check the immigration records collection at, which includes indexes and records for nearly every US port. It may be necessary to view microfilms of ships arriving in March 1877 in New York.

Hamburg and Bremen were the largest German ports of emigration, but the Bremen lists no longer exist. One source that might simplify your search is the Hamburg Direct index, containing the names of those passengers on vessels that sailed from Hamburg directly to an overseas port. Learn more about the Hamburg Direct index at A bonus to this index is that if your ancestor is on it, you also find the last place of residence in Europe listed. has passenger departure records from Hamburg, and the Family History Library has it on microfilm.

Research your German ancestors with expert help from the German genealogy books, video classes, articles and more from Family Tree Shop. Start by checking out these items: