Searching for records of your immigrant great-great-grandfather, you may feel as if you’re tossing a lasso at the prize bull but always coming up empty-handed. Rounding up those elusive records will be easier if you know your ancestor’s full original name, age at arrival and date of arrival. Additional facts such as country of origin, names of family members traveling with him, port of departure, port of arrival and ship name will focus your search further.
It also helps to understand the history behind the records you’re hunting. Beginning in 1820, the US government required shipmasters to complete pre-printed passenger lists. Those lists documented each passenger’s name, age, sex, occupation, country of origin and destination. Once the ships arrived on American shores, shipmasters gave the lists to customs collectors at the port and inspectors verified the arriving passengers’ names with those on the lists.
Some of the resources here index lists from various ports and years. You can find passenger lists on microfilm at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) <www.archives.gov>, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Family History Library <www.familysearch.org> and large public libraries. Still can’t find your ancestors arriving in America? Try checking the records of popular ports of departure.
If your kin applied for US citizenship, their naturalization papers will provide details about their immigration. Locating those documents can be a challenge, though: Until 1906, when the federal government standardized the citizenship process, immigrants could file for naturalization in any common law court in any state. Married women were tacked onto their husbands’ applications until 1922 and single women could submit applications, but rarely did.
We’ve wrangled up a list of Web sites, books and organizations to help you track down your on-the-move ancestors’ records. You’ll find everything from passenger lists to ship photos.
- Check the date range of records in the database or index you’re using to ensure you’re searching records from the right time period. Such compilations of passenger-arrival information may not cover all ships or years — for example, Ellis Island’s Web site doesn’t include records for 1925 to 1954.
- Despite popular lore, it’s a myth that officials at Ellis Island changed immigrants’ names. Passenger lists were filled out at the port of departure, and American clerks (fluent in many languages) only verified the names already on the lists. Those employees had strict instructions not to alter any information from the lists unless the inspection process revealed an error.
• Ellis Island <www.ellisisland.org>: Search this well-knowndatabase for 17 million immigrants who entered the country through New York between 1892 and 1924.
• From the Book Planters of the Commonwealth by Charles Edward Banks and Other Sources <members.aol.com/dcurtin1/gene/passent.htm>: Find passenger lists for 17th-century ships, including the Lyon, Griffin, Planter, Angel Gabriel, Confidence, Martin and the Winthrop Fleet of 1630.
• Immigrant and Passenger Arrivals:A Select Catalog of the National Archives Microfilm Publications <www.archives.gov/publications/microfilm_catalogs/immigrant/immigrant_passenger_arrivals.html>:Read this introduction to using microfilms.
Ship manifests include information such as passengers’ names, ages, countries of origin and intended destinations.
• American Immigration by Maldwyn Allen Jones (University of Chicago Press)
• American Passenger Arrival Records by Michael Tepper (Genealogical Publishing Co.)
• The Atlantic Migration, 1607-1860, reprint edition, by Marcus Lee Hansen (Simon Publications)
• Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life, 2nd edition, by Roger Daniels (HarperCollins Perennial)
• Crossings: The Great Transatlantic Migrations, 1870-1914 by Walter Nugent (Indiana University Press)
• Ellis Island and the Peopling of America: The Official Guide by Virginia Yans-McLaughlin and Marjorie Lightman (New Press)
• Ellis Island Interviews: In Their Own Words by Peter Morton Coan (Barnes & Noble Books)
• The Family Tree Guide to Finding Your Ellis Island Ancestors by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack (Family Tree Books)
• Forgotten Doors: The Other Ports of Entry to the United States edited by M. Mark Stolarik (Associated University Presses)
• Galveston: Ellis Island of the West by Bernard Marinbach (State University of New York Press)
• A Genealogist’s Guide to Discovering Your Immigrant and Ethnic Ancestors by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack (Betterway Books)
• The Great Migration: The Atlantic Crossing by Sailing-Ship Since 1770 by Edwin C. Guillet (Jerome S. Ozer Publishing)
• Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives, 3rd edition, edited by Anne Bruner Eales and Robert M. Kvasnicka (NARA): The Population and Immigration section contains a rundown of NARA’s immigration-related microfilm holdings.
• Immigration: From the Founding of Virginia to the Closing of Ellis Island by Dennis Wepman (Facts on File)
• La Storia: Five Centuries of the Italian American Experience by Jerre Mangione and Ben Morreale (HarperCollins)
• Passenger Ships of the World, Past and Present, 2nd edition, by Eugene W. Smith (George H. Dean Co.)
• Ships of Our Ancestors by Michael J. Anuta (Genealogical Publishing Co.)
• They Came in Ships, 3rd edition, by John Philip Colletta (Ancestry)
• They Came to America: Finding Your Immigrant Ancestors by Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak (Santa Fe Publishing)
• Czech Immigration Passenger Lists by Leo Baca (Old Homestead Publishing Co.)
• The Famine Immigrants, 7 volumes, edited by Ira A. Glazier and Michael H. Tepper (Genealogical Publishing Co.)
• Germans to America edited by Ira A. Glazier and P. William Filby (Scarecrow Press): You can purchase it on two CDs from Ancestry.com.
• Italians to America, 18 volumes, edited by Ira A. Glazier and P. William Filby (Scarecrow Press): This index is also available from Genealogy.com’s International and Passenger Records and on a CD.
• Migration from the Russian Empire: List of Passengers Arriving at the Port of New York, 6 volumes (Genealogical Publishing Co.)
• Passenger Ships Arriving in New York Harbor by Bradley W. Steuart (Precision Indexing)
• Russians to America, 1850-1896 Passenger and Immigration Lists CD (Genealogical Publishing Co.)
• The Danish Emigration Archives <www.emiarch.dk>: Search by name, occupation, age, last known residence, parish, county, destination or date.
• The Data Banks on Italian Emigrants to the United States, Argentina and Brazil <22.214.171.124/radici/ie/defaultie_e.htm>: These databases cover 200,000 Italians who made their way to New York in the decade before Ellis Island opened (1880 to 1891), as well as more than a million Italians who flocked to South America. You must register (for free) in order to use the site.
• Emigrant Tracking <sydaby.eget.net/swe/emi_intro.htm>:Browse databases and other resources for 19th- and 20th-century Finnish emigrants.
• Emigration to U.S.A. <www.proni.gov.uk/records/emigrat1.htm>: Learn how to access emigration information from the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.
• British Emigration, 1603-1914 by Alex Murdoch (Palgrave Macmillan)
• The Complete Book of Emigrants in Bondage, 1614-1775 by Peter Wilson Coldham (Genealogical Publishing Co.)
• The Distant Magnet: European Emigration to the U.S.A. by Philip A.M. Taylor (Eyre and Spottiswoode)
• Emigrants in Chains by Peter Wilson Coldham (Genealogical Publishing Co.)
• Emigration from Europe 1815-1930 by Dudley Baines (Cambridge University Press)
• The End of Hidden Ireland: Rebellion, Famine, and Emigration by Robert James Scally (Oxford University Press)
• Out of Ireland: The Story of Irish Emigration to America by Kerby Miller and Paul Wagner (Roberts Rinehart Publishing)
• Scottish Emigration to Colonial America, 1607-1785 by David Dobson (University of Georgia Press)
• Lists of Swiss Emigrants in the Eighteenth Century to the American Colonies, 2 volumes, by Albert Bernhardt Faust and Gaius Marcus Brumbaugh (Genealogical Publishing Co.): Available online at Ancestry.com.
• Migration, Emigration, Immigration: Principally to the United States and in the United States, 2 volumes, by Olga K. Miller (Everton Publishers)
• The Swiss Emigration Book by Cornelia Schrader-Muggenthaler (Closson Press)
• American Naturalization Processes and Procedures, 1790-1985 by John J. Newman (Indianapolis Historical Society, $5.50)
• American Naturalization Records 1790 1990: What They Are and How to Use Them by John J. Newman (Heritage Quest)
• Becoming American: An Ethnic History by Thomas J. Archdeacon (Free Press)
• Guide to Naturalization Records in the United States by Christina K. Schaefer (Genealogical Publishing Co.)
• Locating Your Immigrant Ancestor: A Guide to Naturalization Records by James C. and Lila Lee Neagles (Family History Network)
• They Became Americans: Finding Naturalization Records and Ethnic Origins by Loretto Dennis Szucs (Ancestry)
• Colonial Maryland Naturalizations by Jeffrey A. and Florence L. Wyand (Genealogical Publishing Co.,)
• Denizations and Naturalizations in the British Colonies in America, 1607-1775 by Lloyd deWitt Bockstruck (Genealogical Publishing Co.,)
• Early New York Naturalizations by Kenneth Scott (Genealogical Publishing Co.)
• An Index to Naturalization Records in Pre-1907 Indiana County Courts (Indiana Historical Society)
• Naturalization Records in Sonoma County, California, 2 volumes, by Sonoma County Genealogical Society (Heritage Books)
• Philadelphia Naturalization Records: An Index to Records of Aliens’ Declarations of Intention and/or Oaths of Allegiance, 1789-1880 edited by P. William Filby (Gale Research Co.)
After the government standardized naturalization in 1906, filing a declaration of intention (“first papers”) was the first step in the citizenship process for immigrants. The forms have valuable information such as the person’s name, age, occupation and birth date. After satisfying residency requirements, immigrants could file a petition for naturalization (“second papers”).