This lesson includes opportunities for class discussion and a video presentation. Vocabulary words are included at the end of the lesson, though not specifically brought into the lesson in the form of an assignment. The resulting measurable assignment is a creative writing paper. While the lesson's main ideas logically build on one another, the activities and assignments suggested can be adapted or omitted according to your needs.



Most Americans trace their roots to a homeland outside the United States. Your parents may have recently immigrated from Central America, or perhaps your great-grandparents arrived in New York from Russia then settled in Pennsylvania. Do you live in northern California because your ancestors came from China or Korea? Over one hundred years ago, Africans were forced into immigrating to America and elsewhere as slaves.

In the early days, most people came to America by boat, landing at Ellis Island in New York, or perhaps the ports at New Orleans or San Francisco. Today, some immigrants still arrive by boat while others land at any airport.

If records of arrival exist, it might be possible to trace your ancestor to a homeland where his or her parents were born, and their parents, and so on. Just think of what a discovery such as that would do to your pedigree charts!


Episode Description

Meet Cathy Horn. Through immigration records, Cathy uncovers a chapter of her family history long forgotten. She learns of her great-great grandmother who, as an immigrant mother, was forced to part with her baby, quarantined at Ellis Island with a fatal illness. Cathy's discovery reconnects this lost child to her family tree. Experts describe a variety of immigration records and how to discover the details of your immigrant ancestor's journey.

Discussion Questions

  • Immigration records are divided into two groups. What are they?
  • What types of information can be found on ship's passenger lists?
  • What do you need to know in order to search for a passenger list?
  • Is searching for an original passenger list the best way to begin?
  • Where are immigration records housed?
  • What two types of naturalization records exist?
  • How might naturalization records help you uncover your immigrant ancestor?
  • Where are naturalization records housed?



From the 1600s through the early 1900s, most immigrants entered the US by ships. Sometimes, they were counted before they left the port in Europe or Asia. If they survived the journey, they were counted again when they landed in America, and their names entered on a ship's passenger list. These passenger lists contain vital information for ancestor detectives. They include such things as the immigrant's name, age, marital status, occupation, and nationality.

1907 holds the record for the year with the most immigration, boasting 1,285,000 people. Unfortunately, in 1897, a fire broke out on Ellis Island and destroyed most of the records for immigrants arriving before 1855.



Typically, when an immigrant wanted to become a citizen, he would file a "Declaration of Intent" with his local county courthouse. Between two to five years later, he would petition the court for citizenship. If all went smoothly, the immigrant would be accepted as a citizen. Along the way, other documents might be created.

Not only are naturalization records interesting alone, but they also provide clues to the ancestor's country of origin, his date of arrival in America and sometimes and even what ship he arrived in.

More than one ancestor detective has heard an immigrant story from their oral history gathering and set out to find that ancestor's immigrant records. Many of these exuberant family historians found out that, after sometimes years of researching, they had the wrong name, or the wrong year of arrival.

Even if you think you know the name of your immigrant ancestor, don't begin your family history search there. Start with yourself and work backwards in time. Use census records to confirm where your parents, grandparents and their parents lived. Religious records will help fill in the blanks, and perhaps even tell you if your ancestor has moved to the area from another state or another country.

Eventually, you'll look for naturalization records, since this event is closer to you in time then the actual immigration.


Author and professional genealogist Myra Vanderpool Gormley outlines helpful tips for searching passenger lists.

One of the most famous ships to ever sail was the S.S. Titanic. After it sank, the survivors were rescued by the S.S. Carpathia. A partial listing of the survivors can be found on Carpathia's Ship Passenger List. Note that this list was lost for a while - can you tell why?

Enjoy a virtual tour of Ellis Island.

Check out old time shipping terminology.

The State Historical Society of Wisconsin has a wonderful page outlining the various documents involved in the naturalization process, with actual documents included. Check it out!


After taking the virtual tour through Ellis Island, write a letter as if you were an immigrant arriving at Ellis Island with your family. What are your feelings at this time? Are you homesick? Let your friends in the old country know what the ship is like, the food, and anything else you can think of that an immigrant your age might think to tell a friend back home.


Working from yourself backwards in time, you will, most likely, come to an ancestor who has adopted citizenship in America. The records made during this process of becoming a citizen, of being naturalized, will often include information about the immigrant's homeland and immigration to the United States.

. . . WHAT'S NEXT?
Many of the immigrants who arrived in America came to build a better life for themselves and their children. Early African immigrants, brought here as slaves, stayed in America after their emancipation in order to build a better life for their children. Their hard work and dedication created a legacy that we now enjoy. What legacy will you leave to your children?


Naturalization: The process by which an immigrant becomes a citizen.

Immigration: The process by which a person leaves the land of his or her birth to obtain citizenship or to live in another country.

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