Foreign Sources for Immigration Records

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Using Immigration Records

This article is part of a series.
Overview of Immigration Research
Immigration Research Approaches
Major Settlements, Immigration, and Naturalization
American Sources for Documenting Immigrants
Using the Ellis Island Database
Foreign Sources for Immigration Records
List of Useful Immigration References
This article originally appeared in "Immigration Records" by Loretto Dennis Szucs, FUGA, Kory L. Meyerink, MLS, AG. FUGA, and Marian L. Smith in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy

If, after carefully searching American sources, a reference to the town from which the immigrant left is still undiscovered, it is sometimes possible to use foreign sources to determine immigrant origins. When searching records in the country of origin, the general process is to search nationwide records first. Next, search other records that will narrow the possible locations until the right one is found. The foundation for such a search lies in the information located in American records. The following sections will facilitate systematic searches of records in the country of origin. As new information is gathered, consider which tactic to apply next.

Name etymologies can help identify the region a name comes from, its meaning, and common spelling variations. For less-common surnames these books often provide clues to localize the surname. Regard such sources with caution because they may not be comprehensive in the sources surveyed, and a name's presence in one location does not preclude it from appearing elsewhere, especially for occupational or descriptive names. Surname etymologies exist for most major countries that emigrants left. For example, an etymology for German surnames is Hans Bahlow's Deutsches Namenlexikon.<ref>Hans Bahlow, Deutsches Namenlexikon (Munich, Germany: Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1972).</ref>

Nationwide Records

Some countries in Europe have kept significant records at a nationwide level. Also, many countries have many fully indexed compiled records where the emigrant may appear. Where these records are available and indexed, they are excellent tools that may identify the emigrant. Countries that have been influenced by British law have some excellent national-level records, more and more of which are being indexed. Published genealogical collections in Germany, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, and other countries may also be helpful.

Published Genealogy Compendia

In many countries, books are published which collect genealogies (lineages) of hundreds or thousands of families. Usually the families come from the same geographic region or social rank. The higher classes tend to be better represented in most compendia and they often mention emigrants. They are often published as periodicals. Indexes are published only occasionally for many of these compendia. An outstanding series with approximately two hundred volumes for Germany is the Deutsches Geschlechterbuch.<ref>Deutsches Geschlechterbuch (Limburg an der Lahn, Germany: C. A. Starke, 1889').</ref>

Indexes and Bibliographies

Many countries have bibliographies of published family histories with alphabetical indexes to the major surnames included in the books and articles cited. Periodical indexes may also help locate emigrant families. The comprehensiveness of these sources varies by country. The genealogies cited in these bibliographies or indexes often mention emigrants. The chapter reference section identifies some of the most significant of these.

Foreign Researchers and Collections

It is often possible to find a person researching your immigrant's surname in the very country the immigrant left. You can place queries in local genealogical periodicals or ask local genealogical societies in the foreign country for a list of researchers. A particularly useful publication for immigrant research is Keith A. Johnson and Malcolm R. Sainty's Genealogical Research Directory, an annual volume identifying researchers and the families they are working on.<ref>Keith A. Johnson and Malcolm R. Sainty, Genealogical Research Directory (Washington, D.C.: Johnson and Sainty, 1985').</ref> Each annual edition includes thousands of new listings from many countries throughout the world. There are many private researchers in Europe who keep a file of emigrants, often culled from newspaper announcements and government records.

The next step is to search the records that may have been created when he or she left the native country. Records of departure are generally easy to access and almost always identify the place where the emigrant left. However, not all such records have been preserved, and others are not indexed or available on microfilm. Furthermore, some emigration was illegal. In such cases, there will be few, if any, records of departure.


The country of departure is generally not hard to discover from other sources; the district is more difficult to determine. For this reason, learn as much as possible about the emigrant, including the state or area of residence and the port of departure. Immigration sources, such as passenger arrival lists, usually identify the port of departure.

When a family or an individual decided to emigrate, there were several steps they followed'some to comply with the law, some to prepare for their journey, and some based on local custom or tradition. Each step generated records. Many countries required the emigrant to receive permission to leave. If the emigrant obeyed this law (approximately one-third emigrated without permission), there may be an application to leave or a passport. Emigrants also had to book passage and board a vessel for the new country. Each of these steps potentially saw the creation of a new record. Records of departure in the country of origin are called emigration records. Most of them give the name, age, close relatives or traveling companions, and usually the last place of residence (sometimes the birthplace) of the emigrant.

Departure records are generally kept under the jurisdiction of the port city (such as passenger departure lists) or by the state or national government where the emigrant lived, such as permissions to emigrate. To use such lists, you should know the emigrant's state or region of residence, and/or the port of departure. Sometimes knowing only the country of origin allows access to these records. You also need to know when the emigrant left that country or port. These sources may be difficult to use; however, a growing number are indexed. The archives in some countries and provinces, in order to better document emigration, have prepared indexes of emigrants from particular regions. In other cases, private authors have compiled or indexed specific emigration records. The following discussion describes many of these records.

The emigration/immigration process generated a wealth of records, both personal and administrative, to keep track of who emigrated, where they were going, the status of their personal affairs at the time they left, and their ability to care for their own needs on arrival. Some have been indexed and abstracted by government order or by genealogists who need faster access. Many more are available on microfilm through the National Archives and Records Administration and its regional archives system and through the Family History Library and its family history centers.

Some important projects to publish emigration lists are ongoing. For example: In the first half of the twentieth century, Germans accounted for 20 percent of this new growth of the immigrant population in the United States. Close to 1 million of these Germans made applications to emigrate at Wuerttemberg. To date, Trudy Schenk and Ruth Froelke have transcribed handwritten lists and indexed the names of 131,000 individuals who emigrated from Wuerttemberg from 1750 to 1900 in The Wuerttemberg Emigration Index.<ref>Trudy Schenk and Ruth Froelke, The Wuerttemberg Emigration Index, 8 vols. (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1986'2002).</ref>

Letters of Manumission

If the head of the house was tied to the soil on which he lived by medieval serf-lord commitments, the first step was to obtain a letter of manumission. This document freed him, usually with payment of a fee, from these obligations.

Sale of Property

If the head of the house owned property, he would advertise it for sale or dispose of it among family members who stayed behind. Some emigrants left their property in the care of relatives or friends and returned to sell it after they were sure they could make a success of their move to America. These documents are duly recorded with the proper authorities, often with direct statements of intent to emigrate or precise locations in the New World.

Letters of Recommendation

Letters of recommendation from local church authorities stating that the emigrant was a member of the congregation in good standing were often obtained by would-be emigrants. With these documents in hand, the emigrant could approach local authorities for permission to leave.

Permit to Emigrate

The permit to emigrate certified that the emigrant's bills were paid, affairs in the community were settled, and that he or she was free to leave. The passport allowed the emigrant to cross country, provincial, and district boundaries. In some countries, the permit to emigrate and the passport were combined in a single exit visa issued by district or provincial authorities. These identification papers were carried on the person of the emigrant, and copies may still be in the family's possession.

Shipping Company Records

An invaluable tool for English research is P. Mathias and A. W. H. Pearsall's Shipping: A Survey of Historical Records.<ref>P. Mathias and A. W. H. Pearsall, Shipping: A Survey of Historical Records (Newton Abbot, England: David and Charles, 1980).</ref> The survey is in two parts: (1) shipping companies and their record holdings and (2) shipping records in county and other record offices. There is an index of named ships, an index of persons and firms, an index of places and principal trades, and there are separate entries for dozens of shipping firms. Often, passenger lists retained by these shipping companies can be substituted for official lists missing for English ports. Where lists exist in United States or European ports, they can be compared for details. Included among the collections are pictures of ships sailing of each line.

Emigration Permission

While the largest collections of emigration records pertain to passenger departure lists, many other lists of emigrants await the diligent researcher. Often overlooked by North American researchers are the foreign records that document the permission many emigrants were often required to receive before leaving their home country. Of course, legal requirements did not mean that every emigrant requested, or received, such permission. Many left as 'clandestine' emigrants and so do not appear in such records. A growing number of such records are now available either as microfilms of original documents, published abstracts or indexes, or as databases on CD-ROM or the Internet.

Shortly before the Revolutionary War broke out, England required permission to move to the colonies. These records, identifying over 6,000 people with their specific town of origin, were transcribed in Peter W. Coldham's Emigrants from England to the American Colonies, 1773'1776.<ref>Peter W. Coldham, Emigrants from England to the American Colonies, 1773'1776 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1988). </ref>

During the 1700s, the Swiss cantons of Bern and Basel kept regular records of people requesting permission to emigrate. At the same time, authorities in the canton of Zurich requested local authorities (chiefly the church ministers) to identify those who had and were leaving from their parishes. Abstracts from these records, identifying about 5,000 emigrants, were published by Albert Bernhardt Faust and Gaius Marcus Brumbaugh as Lists of Swiss Emigrants in the Eighteenth Century to the American Colonies.<ref>Albert Bernhardt Faust and Gaius Marcus Brumbaugh, Lists of Swiss Emigrants in the Eighteenth Century to the American Colonies (Washington, D.C.: National Genealogical Society, 1920'25). </ref>

Several German publications include abstracts from similar emigration records housed in state archives. One excellent example is Inge Auerbach's Auswanderer aus Hessen'‘Kassel, 1840'1850.<ref>Inge Auerbach, Auswanderer aus Hessen'‘Kassel, 1840'1850, vol. 2, Veroeffentlichungen der Archivschule Marburg, Institut fuer Archivwissenschaft, no. 12 (Marburg, Germany: Institut fuer Archivwissenschaft, 1988).</ref> Most of this volume is an alphabetical list of persons named in the emigration documents, but it serves to abstract those records as it provides the emigrant's name, age, town of residence, destination, year of departure, and other information for about 10,000 emigrants. Similar published sources exist for many other German states or regions.

As valuable as microfilm collections of the original records, are, they are very difficult for English-speaking researchers to use, since they are often complex documents with inadequate (if any) indexes. For this reason, abstracts of such records are extremely valuable, such as Trudy Schenk's and Ruth Froelke's index of 131,000 emigrants from 1750 to 1900 in The Wuerttemberg Emigration Index.<ref>Schenk and Froelke, Wuerttemberg Emigration Index.</ref> This index is now also available online at where it joins other databases available only online, such as Marion Wolfert's Brandenburg, Prussia Emigration Records. This is an ongoing project identifying over 36,000 emigrants from one key Prussian province during the 1800s.

Less prominent websites also house significant emigration sources, particularly sites based in our ancestral countries. The Baden and Wuerttemberg Emigration website available in English and German, is extremely useful, since it identifies more than 300,000 emigrants.

Port of Departure Lists

Some ports made lists of passengers as they departed. These included such information as age, occupation, and last place of residence or birthplace, which can be of particular value in determining an ancestor's place of origin. While some of these records have not been preserved, many others are now on microfilm. Where available, these are excellent sources for determining the emigrant's origin. Many of the existing departure lists are available at the Family History Library and other research libraries that specialize in emigration records. Of particular interest are the records of the Scandinavian ports and those of Hamburg. Unfortunately, the records of Europeans who emigrated through other ports, such as Bremen, LeHavre, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and Antwerp, have either been destroyed or lost. There are also published transcripts and indexes for some ports and countries. Significant published departure lists for Europe and Great Britain are noted in the chapter reference section.

Hamburg Passenger Lists

The Hamburg passenger lists comprise the most significant collection of port of departure lists for immigration research (search them in German on They contain the names of millions of Europeans who emigrated through Hamburg between 1850 and 1934 (except 1915 through 1919). Nearly one-third of the people who emigrated from central and eastern Europe during this time are included on these lists. If your ancestors emigrated from these areas, the Hamburg passenger lists could provide important information about them, including their native towns. Extensive indexes make these records easier to use than most other passenger lists and emigration records. These lists and indexes are on 486 rolls of microfilm at the Family History Library. Some of these same materials are available online for a fee.

The Hamburg passenger lists are made up of two sections: the direct lists, which include passengers who left Hamburg and sailed directly to their destination without stopping at other European ports, and the indirect lists, which identify passengers who stopped at other European ports before sailing to their final destination. About 20 percent of the immigrants leaving Europe took indirect routes.

Most of the Hamburg passenger lists have been indexed. The only ones not indexed are those from 1850 to 1854, which are arranged alphabetically. There are two sets of indexes: the Fifteen-Year Index to the Direct Hamburg Passenger Lists, 1856'1871, and the regular indexes.

The fifteen-year card index arranges all the names on the direct lists from 1856 to 1871 in one alphabetical index. Though it is convenient to use, this index is not complete. After checking the index, you may still need to use the regular index for the same time period. The regular indexes are more complete, but they are more difficult to use.

The regular indexes, for both the direct passenger lists and the indirect list, are divided into segments that cover one year or part of a year. The direct indexes begin with 1854 lists and end with 1934 lists. The indirect indexes begin in 1854 and end in 1910. To use the index, you must find the year the emigrant departed and the initial letter of the ancestor's surname. Names are arranged by the first letter of the surname only, so you may need to search the entire section to find the person you are looking for. Sometimes the index pages for one letter were continued on blank pages under another letter. Usually a notation will refer you to the proper letter for the continuation. An index entry contains the name of the ship, the departure date, the passenger's name, the ship's captain, the destination port, and the page on the actual passenger lists with this information.

For more information on the Hamburg Passenger Lists and how to use them, see The Hamburg Passenger Lists.<ref>The Hamburg Passenger Lists (Salt Lake City: Genealogical Society of Utah, 1984).</ref>

Localizing the Surname

When departure records are not available, or if the state or region of residence is not known, it may be possible to narrow the search by determining the general region or area where the family came from or where the surname is most common. After the surname has been localized, there may be local emigration indexes or other sources available that cover only specific regions or localities.

Records exist at all levels of jurisdiction. Some emigration and even vital records are kept on a national, regional, provincial, county, or local level. The more closely a residence is determined, the more levels of records you can search.


To localize a specific, uncommon surname, it is often useful to check city and telephone directories. Computerized telephone directories are available for Germany and the Netherlands on CD-ROM and in France through Minitel computer services. Expect similar sources to become available for other major countries within the next few years. With such tools, you can search for a name for the entire country. While this approach locates currently living persons with the surname, you may find relatives of the emigrant or other persons interested in your research. Often, families with the same surname (if it is not a common surname) know the area where the family originated.

Several research libraries have good collections of city directories of the nineteenth century from major cities of several countries. These directories may identify the emigrant, if he or she lived in a city. They also serve to indicate how common the surname was in the region where the city was located. To use older directories to localize a surname, search all available city directories for the country where the immigrant was born. Note the number of occurrences of the surname compared to the total names (or pages) in the directory. You will usually find that uncommon surnames are more strongly represented in one or two cities. This indicates the region where the name was most common.

Reading the Place Name

The final principle to consider when tracking an immigrant's origin is the necessity of reading the place name after it is correctly located. There is nothing more frustrating to an immigration researcher than finding the long-sought place name and then learning that such a town does not exist in the native country.

Some sources are more likely to give an accurate place of origin than others. When a place name is found in the records, use gazetteers and other reference tools to evaluate the information. After information about an immigrant's place of origin is discovered, you will need to interpret the findings. To accurately read the place name you have found, you need to understand foreign spellings and then evaluate if you have found the place name.

Place Name Changes

Many places have been known by more than one name historically. Place names have changed when other countries occupied weaker countries.Bratislava in Slovakia was known as Pressburg under German rule. Some changes were for political reasons; Kitchener, Ontario, was Berlin before World War I. Other changes have evolved over time. Oxfordshire, England, is still sometimes referred to as Oxon, its old name, while Hants is the common abbreviation for the English county of Hampshire. Examples of similar name changes include the following:

  • Christiania
  • Oslo
  • Hindenburg
  • Zabrze
  • Königsberg
  • Kaliningrad
  • Tilsit
  • Sovetsk
  • Chemnitz
  • Karl-Marx-Stadt
  • Lemburg
  • L'vov, now L'wow
  • Schneidemühl
  • Pia


Foreign place names have often been misspelled in American records because the clerks who wrote it did not know the foreign spelling. And often the spelling was not standardized in the foreign location itself, so many variations may exist. Such errors in spelling can sometimes make it very difficult to interpret the correct locality. Spelling errors can be of several types:

Phonetic spelling. Some letters have a different sound in other languages. For example, in many languages J is pronounced like the English I or Y; J in French is pronounced like Zi in English. In Polish, X is often used for the ks sound. The Swedish å is often written in English as o.

Misreading. Handwritten or gothic printed letters can be misinterpreted either by you or by a previous reader. Example: The German handwritten letter W can be confused with M and the letter K often looks like R. The German ss is written like the Greek letter beta (ß) and is often misread as a capital B. Also, the German practice of capitalizing all nouns may make many words appear to be proper place names.

Special characters. Many languages use special symbols, often called diacritics, that indicate changes in sound, and sometimes alphabetical order of the letters. Sometimes these characters are eliminated in the new language. The German umlaut (¨) may be translated as the letter e following another vowel; therefore, the German ü often (but not always) becomes the English ue. The Czech Å¡ may have become sh or sch. The Dutch ij is usually translated as y.

English versions. The proper spelling of a town name in English may be quite different than the spelling in the native language. In such cases, you may find the native spelling of a town but not recognize it because it is not the spelling used in English. This is usually only a problem with larger cities that are well known in North America, such as the following:

Antwerp Anvers or Antwerpen
Geneva Genève, Genf, or Ginevra
Ratisbone Regensburg
Brunswick Braunschweig
Cassel Kassel
Prague Praha
Posnania Posen or Poznan
Gothenburg Göteborg
Prussia Borussua (Latin)
Cologne Köln
Vienna Wien
Nuremberg Nürnberg
Venice Venezia
The Hague s'Gravenhage

Multiple Places with the Same Name

Once you have found an actual town name, it may still be difficult to identify the town. Often there was more than one town in a country with the same or similar names. For example, there are ninety-six places named Newton or New Town in Great Britain and at least ten towns (and dozens of hamlets) named Lindenberg in Germany. Scotland has four Kildonans. While the city of Hoorn is well known in the Netherlands, there are also six villages and hamlets with that name, while another town and two hamlets are named Horn. This is why it is so important to know more about the area the immigrant came from, such as the name of the state, province, or county. It is also helpful to know of nearby cities.

Place Names that Are Not Towns of Origin

By far the most common mistake that researchers make is in assuming that the place name they have found in their research is that of the very town where the immigrant lived. In many cases, they have found a legitimate foreign location, but it is not the immigrant's home. It may be the name of the country, state, or region where the immigrant lived, but the researcher is not familiar enough with the country to identify it as such. In other cases, it may be the name of a city that is not the immigrant's home since, in many cases, the nearest large city or the port of departure was recorded as the home. In other cases the name of the city is also the name of the state or province. Here are some examples of these problems.

Country, state, regional, and provincial names. Many genealogical sources about immigrants only give the name of the country, region, or province. Foreign names of states, counties, provinces, or regions are unfamiliar to many researchers. Beware of place names, such as the following, that are not town names:

Deutschland Germany
Österreich Austria
Bayern Bavaria
Franconia Franken
Norge Norway
Cechy Bohemia
Eire Republic of Ireland
Piedmont Region in northwestern Italy
Fyn Danish island
Silesia Southwestern Poland
Burgundy Region in eastern France
Schwaben Old German Duchy in southern Germany
Valencia Region in eastern Spain
Wessex Southern counties in England
Erz Mountain range on German-Czech border
Holland Two provinces in the Netherlands
Siebenburgen Transylvania region in Romania

City and county share the same name. Many states or provinces have a major or capitol city with the same name as the state. If you find the names Baden, Hannover, Kassel, Luxembourg, Bern, Utrecht, Derby, or similar names in censuses or some other records, they likely apply to the county or state with that name and not the specific cities of those names. The name of the city Darmstadt often applied to the entire portion of Hesse that was ruled from the city of Darmstadt. Even the name Lüneburg in Germany can apply to the city or to the extensive region around the city. In fact, in many countries, districts are named after the chief city. Often the immigrant came from the district of that name, not the city.

Nearby large city. If you find the name of a large or well-known city, the ancestor is probably not from the city itself, but rather from some smaller, lesser-known place nearby. While some immigrants were from large cities, most were from rural areas. In fact, the same forces also encouraged many persons to migrate to the larger cities, where jobs were more plentiful. Because most people in North America were unfamiliar with small localities, immigrants often referred to their homes by the name of some significant, well-known city nearby. Thus, while many immigrants claimed to have come from London or Berlin, in reality the person was usually from a smaller town near London or Berlin. In some cases, the immigrant came from a place much further away and there seems to be no valid reason for citing the big city. One 'Berlin' emigrant was finally found in Cottbus, some eighty miles away. It is also possible that the immigrant traveled through the big city or lived there for a short period before leaving the old country.

If the records say that the immigrant came from a large city, look for clues that he or she actually came from a small town. A person who indicated to have been from a large city would not likely have had an occupation associated with small-town life, such as farming or fishing. Family traditions regarding trips to the market or traveling several miles to church are also clues that the immigrant came from a small town.

Port cities. Sometimes the place name found is really the port where the immigrant left the old country. However, the chances that he actually lived in the port city are slim. The major and many minor port cities for emigrants included Amsterdam, Antwerp, Bremen, Copenhagen, Cork, Danzig, Genoa, Gothenberg, Hamburg, Hull, Le Havre, Liverpool, Londonderry, Marseilles, Naples, Odessa, Oslo, Queenstown, Rotterdam, Southampton, Stockholm, Trieste, and others. Of course, such a city could be an important clue because departure records exist for some cities, and local police records in others may document the immigrant.


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