Step-by-Step Immigrant Search: Two Examples

By David A. Fryxell Premium
Library of Congress

Searching for Early Arrivals

While there are plenty of options for finding ancestors who arrived in the great waves of the 19th and early 20th centuries, what about those who came to America before it was the United States? can help find the elusive origins of these Colonial ancestors, too.

1. Francis Stanfield is way back in my family tree — my seventh-great grandfather — so I didn’t have much information to fill in the blanks in an online search form. For these bare bones,’s basic search form would do. Note that it doesn’t give you the Exact or “Exact plus” choices for dates, names and locations.

2. The upside of this simple search was that not very many people born about 1643 were coming to America from anyplace. Luckily, not knowing much about Francis Stanfield proved no problem: I got hits right away — and I could ignore the site’s nag about “A little more information will give you better results.”

3. The first three hits proved to contain similar information, but look what a gold mine! Not only did I find the year and arrival port in Philadelphia, but the names of his wife and the children who accompanied them.

4. Going back and clicking on a match (further down the list) to the digitized book Passengers and Ships Prior to 1684, I got a lengthy writeup — a footnote to a brief listing for Francis Stanford (Stanfield) narrowing his arrival to July 1683. Besides details about the traveling party (even their death dates) and the name of the ship (Endeavour), this footnote includes the critical data that they came from Garton, Cheshire — I’d “jumped the pond” in tracing them back to England.

Finding Post-1820 Immigrants

I knew my great-grandmother Mary Eckstrom (Maria Ekström back in Sweden) had immigrated to America about 1875, based on her listing in the 1900 census. But I’d struck out completely searching for her at, the free site with an index to arrivals at the port of New York prior to Ellis Island. Could help solve this puzzle?

1. In’s main Immigration and Travel Advanced search form, I entered the basic information I was most sure of, typing the name Mary used in Sweden and presumably on her first US records. I entered my best guess of her birth year, plus 1875 for the migration date — but I didn’t check Exact for either, to see what would come up with. (Selecting male or female from the Gender drop-down box at the bottom of the search form can dramatically focus your finds, though some passengers may have been mistakenly miscategorized.)

2. After hitting Search, at first I was disappointed. But’s results — and how it ranks them — are only as good as the data you enter. I’d forgotten to type Sweden in the Origin field, thinking I’d covered that by saying she was born in Sweden. So my top results were both German women who immigrated in 1886. Not my Maria — not even close. “Maria Esterman,” the first 3-star entry, was clearly a miss, too. But hold on: Further down the list, what about Maria Ekström, born about 1856, arrived May 12, 1876 (not 1875, but our ancestors weren’t always precise about dates when responding to the census enumerator)? Plus she’s even from the right county, Örebro.

Don’t despair if the first few results from a very general search fail to match your ancestor. Keep scrolling down and add your intelligence to that of the software search engine. I wouldn’t have thought to be so specific as Örebro, for instance, but once I spotted it among the results I knew I had my great-grandmother.

3. Not all immigration databases are linked to images of original records, but this transcription gave me the crucial information I needed: Mary has arrived in Philadelphia, not New York, and left Sweden in 1876, not 1875.

4. Refining my search to add the exact migration year and place of arrival, I now got the Swedish emigration record plus Maria’s Philadelphia passenger list as my top two hits.

5. Picking the Philadelphia link, I could click to an image of her original arrival record. And look who’s listed right after her: sisters Amanda and Caroline. The sisters traveled from Sweden to England to book passage to America, a common pattern.

A version of this article appeared in the January 2011 issue of Family Tree Magazine.

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