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Immigration Records <<

| Immigration Records | Types of Records |
| How to Find Immigration Records |

Immigration Records

immigrating family America is a nation of immigrants, so the entry into this country is a dramatic turning point in most of our family histories. This is the chapter in our respective stories where our ancestors gave up all that was familiar to them and embarked on radically different lives, usually in search of a brighter future for themselves, their children and all their descendants.*

immigrating family* It is a rare genealogist who hasn't wondered about what it must have been like for their immigrant forebears, what conditions they must have endured. Fortunately, as interest in this topic grows, more resources are becoming available to help us answer these questions. In England, the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool has recreated the steerage cabins of ships to give us an appreciation for the physical reality of the ocean crossing. New York's Lower East Side Tenement Museum has reconstructed the living conditions of a cross-section of the many immigrants who lived at one time or another at 97 Orchard St. At Ellis Island, the Wall of Honor now has the names of over 500,000 immigrants to the U.S. Exhibits there allow us to walk in the shoes of our ancestors who entered through Ellis Island, and the American Family Immigration Center will soon make it easier for those whose ancestors came between 1892 and 1924 to find their record of entry.

To find actual evidence of our own ancestors' entry into America, immigration records are the key, as these are the documents that most directly link us to the homelands of our ancestors. The two most important immigration records are ship passenger lists and naturalization records, but it's also possible to search emigration records from some ports of departure as well. For instance, the Office of Public Records in London has records for people crossing the ocean from a British port. These include countless non-English emigrants as many from the continent made their final departure for North America from Liverpool. Similarly, the Hamburg State Archive has started to make its records of departure available on the Internet. For more information about these and other emigration records, see The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy and/or try searching by locality in the Family History Library Catalog.

Types of Immigration Records

When genealogists speak of immigration records, they are generally referring to ship passenger arrival lists and naturalization records. Ideally, you'll want to obtain both of these documents for each of your ancestors as they often include complementary information. Of course, the earlier they came, the fewer the details provided, but it's always interesting to learn exactly when your ancestors first arrived in America, and there's always the chance of an unexpected clue, such as who they're traveling with.

How to Find Immigration Records

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Ancestors expert Loretto Szucs talks about the specific information you must have before trying to tackle a passenger list.

Before looking for either a ship passenger list or naturalization record, it is necessary to gather some basic information. In order to find a passenger list, you will need to know an approximate date of arrival, the approximate age of your ancestor, and an idea of where he was from. Knowing where he settled in the U.S. can also help.

These details may be learned through talking to older relatives, family records, religious records, military records, vital records, cemetery records and other sources. Twentieth century census records census records are a particular favorite because they include the year of immigration. If your ancestor arrived after 1906, his naturalization records will usually save you a lot of time by providing the name of the ship and the port and date of arrival. Be forewarned, though: many immigrants did not begin the naturalization process until they had been here for many years and may have forgotten these details. For this reason, it's not uncommon to find some guesswork in these papers.

Once you've gathered some basic information, you can consult an index. If you're lucky, your ancestor's arrival may have been included in a compiled index such as P. William Filby's Passenger and Immigration Lists, the major index for arrival records in North America from the 1600s to 1820. This multi-volume work is available at many Family History Centers, larger libraries, and genealogical societies. There are also a number of other compiled sources focusing on specific ethnic groups, time periods and so forth. Better still, generous volunteers have transcribed passenger arrival lists and uploaded them on the Internet, so you can search these databases in the comfort of you own home.

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Ancestors expert John Philip Colletta discusses the best ways to begin looking for your ancestors immigration records.

If you aren't fortunate enough to find your ancestor online or in one of these compiled indexes, you'll want to search the microfilmed indexes of the ships' passenger lists at the National Archives or in the Family History Library Catalog (look under locality records for your port of interest and search under the subject of "emigration and immigration"). Many major libraries also have these microfilms.

When searching these indexes, be sure to consider every possible spelling of your ancestor's surname. If you still don't manage to find your ancestor or suspect he or she came through a port during a period for which the records have not yet been indexed, you may have to get more creative. If you haven't already, try to find some evidence of the ancestor's arrival date through naturalization or other records. If you are fairly certain of the port from which your ancestor would have embarked, try looking for emigration records. These may be available through the original repository, the FHL Catalog, and/or online.

Consult They Came in Ships: A Guide to Finding Your Immigrant Ancestor's Ship by John Phillip Colletta for still more ideas of how to find this elusive record. And if all else fails, consider working on other aspects of your genealogy for a while and returning to the immigration search later. The remaining unindexed port records are being transcribed by various groups, and with each year, more of these records are being made available. For instance, if you believe your ancestor came through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1896 - currently unindexed years - you will probably be able to find him or her in the database that the American Family Immigration Center will launch in 2001.

To find a naturalization record, identify the area in which your ancestor most likely lived when he would have filed papers. The more recent census records of 1900, 1910 and 1920 may help you narrow the time period of naturalization by noting if an individual is an alien, has filed papers, or has been naturalized. Once you've done this, locate and contact the local court (most often a county court, but possibly a federal or municipal court) in that area. Records for naturalizations that occurred after 1906, when the Immigration and Naturalization Service assumed responsibility for these records, may or may not exist at the local court, but it is surprising how often county courts continued to maintain a complete set.

Alternatively, search the FHL Catalog by the place in which the court is situated and the topic of "naturalization and citizenship." You may find indexes and possibly copies of the naturalization records themselves. If your ancestor was likely naturalized after 1906, you can also submit a request to the Immigration and Naturalization Service to obtain a copy of his records.

In all cases, provide as complete information as possible - name, place, approximate date, approximate age, where your ancestor was originally from, and any other details that may be useful. You may also wish to note some of the spellings you have found for your ancestor's surname, especially if you are dealing with an unusual or hard to pronounce name.

* Photos courtesy of The Statue of Liberty Foundation, Inc.

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