Immigration Research Approaches

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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

To find an immigrant's origins, it may be necessary to comb through every piece of information and every record an immigrant and his or her contemporary relatives left in America. Clues may come from compiled genealogies and pedigrees; census records; land records; court documents; employment records; fraternal organizations; insurance companies; religious records; vital records; military records; federal and state sources; or immigration files. The most common mistake is to begin a search in foreign sources before exhausting American records. You are most likely to find the immigrant's birthplace or last foreign residence in American records: search them thoroughly before getting into sources created in the country of origin.

Family and Home Sources

In some cases, the only evidence of a family's origins will be found in personal possessions. For more information, see Overview of Family History Research.

Organizing and Evaluating Material for Clues

A particularly useful way to organize information and clues is to keep a summary of the people the immigrant came in contact with'potential relatives (father-in-law, spouses of children, brothers-in-law) and traveling companions. After you have tracked the individual through life, make a summary of contact points: sponsors and godparents for children, witnesses for deeds and wills, fellow soldiers or officers in military units, neighbors who settled near each other, business partners, surnames of those marrying into the family, and those who worshipped in the same religion, or were buried in the same cemetery lot.

Previous Research

After reviewing home and family sources, look for research that has been completed by others. Begin with large collections of compiled records before original records, because they are usually easy to search and often provide important clues. Electronic family trees and databases often include helpful information about immigrants. See Introduction to the General References and Guides. You may find that someone else has already identified the immigrant's place of origin. Even if you do not find the place of origin, you will probably uncover important clues that will lead to this information. As you work through these records, seek information for both the immigrant ancestor and other members of the family.

Local Resources

Libraries, archives, and societies in the area where an immigrant settled may have collected previous research about local people. For example, local genealogies, biographies, town or county histories, and genealogical and historical periodicals may furnish place-of-origin information. Seek compiled works done at the town, county, state, or provincial level. Also look for local genealogical or historical societies that may publish periodicals or have research registration programs that could provide valuable information.

Among local records, first seek records related to the immigrant's death. These include church records, vital records, obituaries, cemetery records, and probate records. These may give the immigrant's date and place of birth, or the names of parents and other relatives or friends. They can also provide important clues about religion, naturalization, length of residence, arrival, and property in the old country.

After death records, seek out the records of other vital events, such as the immigrant's marriage and births of children. Vital record entries for marriages and births were kept by both church and civil authorities. Other local original records include a wide variety of record types. Use census records, city directories, court records, and land and property records to establish where an immigrant settled, his or her occupation, neighbors, and other information.

Page from an 1892 poll list of Chicago voters that was found in the Cook County, Illinois, County Recorder's Office. The records have since been microfilmed and are available through the Illinois State Archives and through several microfilm rental libraries.

Voter registrations are not available for every city or county in the United States, but when they are, they can be valuable sources of immigration information. Typically the registrations (usually in list form) are kept at the county level and provide the full name, address, birth date, birthplace, and, for naturalized citizens, the naturalization court and date. Many lists will note the number of years the voter was a resident of the state and county.

Immigration Sources

After the previously-mentioned sources have been investigated, a search of immigration records is in order. Citizenship (naturalization) papers, oaths of allegiance, alien registrations, passenger lists, passport applications, and immigrant aid society records fall into this category. Some records, though created for other purposes, will provide evidence of citizenship status. If the immigrant served in the U.S. military, there may be special naturalization papers connected with that service. Local and federal courts usually record military naturalizations in separate ledgers, and these may be indexed with other naturalizations in that jurisdiction. Some religious denominations kept separate lists of immigrant families as they arrived, reporting on their arrival, place of origin, and where they settled.

Passenger arrival lists for most available ports and time periods are indexed and are available in card files, books, or on CDs. More recently images of passenger lists have been linked to indexes and posted online, so approximate dates may be sufficient to begin a search. Lists of ship arrivals may be useful in determining possible arrival dates if an approximate arrival date or a ship name is known. Note, however, that a ship may have arrived in North America several times in a year. Details of immigration records are further discussed later in this chapter.

Passenger lists created before the late 1800s, such as this one for the ship Rhine, which sailed from London to the port of New York on 9 August 1873, rarely indicate a precise birthplace. Found on

While none of the records mentioned should be overlooked, most American immigration and naturalization records before 1906 fail to name the town where the immigrant was born or lived in the old country. A passenger list for the ship Rhine is typical of passenger lists created before the late 1880s in that it includes only the country of origin for each passenger, rather than naming a city or town.

The Immigration Process

In their eagerness to find the town or city that was home to their ancestors, researchers frequently spend too much time and energy looking in the wrong places'or in the right places but in the wrong sequence. For example, as novices, many are tempted to begin immigrant research with a search of passenger lists. This is a natural instinct since most researchers have a strong desire to find detailed documentation of the ship on which their ancestors came to America. Such a passage, after all, is a seminal event in the history of any family. From a passenger list, we hope to learn exactly where an immigrant ancestor came from, how old he or she was at the time, what occupation he or she claimed, the ports of departure and arrival, and anything possible about the journey. But getting answers to these questions depends on when and where an ancestor arrived in the United States. Until the 1880s, a typical passenger list gave only the name, age, sex, occupation, country of origin, and destination of the passenger. The native town was seldom named.

Is the port of the ancestor's arrival known with certainty? Are passenger arrival lists indexed for the port of entry and for the right time period? If there is an index for the port, will the person of interest appear in the index, or can he or she be identified in the long list of frequently misspelled names? If the surname is a common one, how will the person be distinguished from others? While many individuals traveled in groups, making them easier to find, a larger number came to the United States on their own. Unless you are fairly certain of the date and port of arrival, or unless you can quickly and surely identify the immigrant by name, age, occupation, or traveling companions, it may be better to postpone a passenger list search until other sources have been investigated.

Immigration Patterns

Success in finding an immigrant's origins is often dependent on understanding group immigration patterns. Some immigrants came directly to the United States from their places of birth. Many, however, came via other countries where they may have stayed for months, years, or even generations. Some French Huguenots stayed for extended periods in Germany, Switzerland, Holland, England, or some other place before coming to America. The Palatines who immigrated in 1709 to New York came via England and Ireland. English, Irish, French, and several other nationalities may have made Canada their home before coming to the United States. Some Germans went to Russia, Lithuania, or Brazil before establishing residency in America. Australia, the Carribean, and South America were stopping places for many groups before they came here. The researcher who is unaware of these possibilities may miss births, marriages, or records of deaths of parents or spouses in the temporary residences.

Another overlooked fact is that immigrants did not always stay in the United States. Many came as adventurers or looking for temporary jobs that would enable them to return to their homelands with their savings. Some immigrant groups traveled back and forth across the ocean as work opportunities presented themselves. Some researchers have documented two or more generations settling in this country, and then have been puzzled by the sudden disappearance of one or more of the family members. In some cases the fathers or both parents, and in other cases the children, became disenchanted with the American lifestyle and returned to the home country permanently. When a family or individual being tracked in American records suddenly disappears, it is easy to assume that there was a death or a move within the U.S. In these less-than-common circumstances, it sometimes pays to look back into the records of the country of origin.


The purchase of tickets and travel accommodations was usually done through an emigration agent. Early agents were appointed by church or emigrant groups to secure the best price and to insure that fellow travelers were not cheated. These agents, some of whom were pastors or church clerks, traveled with the group to their destination. Later agents worked for shipping lines to fill steerage compartments so the trip was profitable for the company. They were licensed by local authorities and paid on commission or percentage, some by the length of the journey and some by the total cost of the ticket and provisions. For a more detailed description of how these agents operated, see R. J. Dickson's Ulster Emigration to Colonial America, 1718'1775, Norman McDonald's Canada: Immigration and Colonization, 1841'1903; and Clifford Neal Smith's and Anna P. Smith's American Genealogical Resources in German Archives.<ref>R. J. Dickson, Ulster Emigration to Colonial America, 1718'1775 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966); Norman McDonald, Canada: Immigration and Colonization, 1841'1903 (Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1976); Clifford Neal Smith and Anna P. Smith, American Genealogical Resources in German Archives (New York: R. R. Bowker, 1977).</ref>


During the Colonial Era, emigrants too poor to pay their own way could agree to sell themselves into service for the cost of their passage. Those who contracted through an emigrant agent before they left their country of origin were referred to as indentured servants. They carried a copy of the contract with them, knowing in advance how much time they owed. These contracts would be sold to employers in the New World. Those who did not negotiate contracts before they left redeemed the cost of their passage and provisions by selling themselves to the highest bidder once they arrived in America. They were called redemptioners. English emigrants were most often indentured with articles signed before a magistrate; Germans usually redeemed their passages at auction. Richard B. Morris's Government and Labor in Early America is the classic work on the subject.<ref>Richard B. Morris, Government and Labor in Early America (New York: Harper and Row, 1965).</ref> Other studies examine servitude in individual colonies'for example, Warren B. Smith's White Servitude in Colonial South Carolina.<ref>Warren B. Smith, White Servitude in Colonial South Carolina (Danielsville, Ga.: Heritage Papers, 1972).</ref> A list of these local studies is included in Barbara Bigham's 'Colonists in Bondage: Indentured Servants in America,' Early American Life.<ref>Barbara Bigham, 'Colonists in Bondage: Indentured Servants in America,' Early American Life 10 (1979): 30'33, 83'84.</ref> Finding indentures can be difficult, but a few are beginning to appear in print. An excellent example is Farley Grubb's German Immigrant Servant Contracts, Registered at the Port of Philadelphia, 1817'1831.<ref>Farley Grubb, German Immigrant Servant Contracts, Registered at the Port of Philadelphia, 1817'1831 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1994).</ref>

The Journey

Conditions on the immigrants' voyage changed and improved over time, especially with the advent of steamships in the mid-1800s which considerably shortened the journey. Also, as early as the 1810s, some foreign governments established rules and regulations regarding the number of immigrants a ship could carry, based on its size. Because much of the interest in the nature of the voyage pertains to colonial immigrants, the following descriptions will provide a general picture.

Emigrants traveling from German principalities to Pennsylvania faced a long, three-part journey. The first stage was the trip down the Rhine to Rotterdam or Amsterdam. Wrote one 1750 voyager:

This journey lasts from the beginning of May to the end of October, fully half a year, amid such hardships as no one is able to describe adequately with their misery. The cause is because the Rhine boats from Heilbronn to Holland have to pass by twenty-six custom houses, at all of which the ships are examined, which is done when it suits the convenience of the custom-house officials. In the meantime the ships with the people are detained long, so that the passengers have to spend much money. The trip down the Rhine lasts therefore four, five, and even six weeks. When the ships come to Holland, they are detained there likewise five to six weeks. Because things are very dear there, the poor people have to spend nearly all they have during that time.<ref>Gottlieb Mittelberger, 'Journey to Pennsylvania in the Year 1750,' trans. Carl T. Eben, in Strassburger with Hinke, Pennsylvania German Pioneers 1:xxxiii.</ref>

The second stage was from Rotterdam to the English port of Cowes on the Isle of Wight, then the principal port for immigrant traffic, although ships also stopped at Dover, Plymouth, London, and other ports. Here was another delay while ships awaited customs clearance, provisioning, and favorable winds. This phase took fourteen to twenty-one days.

The final stage of the journey was the seven-to-twelve week ocean crossing, later shortened by steam to fewer than fourteen days. The passengers were densely packed into the steerage decks below the ship's waterline. Shipping companies, to increase profits and cut expenses, often filled the cargo spaces with people too, rather than carry adequate food and water. By the mid-nineteenth century, government authorities required minimum rations of food and water from the ships' provisions; but earlier travelers risked disease, storm, and a high mortality rate. For a detailed description of the ocean voyage, see Philip Taylor's The Distant Magnet: European Emigration to the U.S.A.<ref>Taylor, Distant Magnet.</ref>

The process of arrival in the new country generated another series of records. The Reverend Henry M. Muehlenberg described the arrival process in a report to his superiors in Halle, Germany, in 1769:

After much delay one ship after another arrives in the harbor of Philadelphia, when the rough and severe winter is before the door. One or more merchants receive the lists of the freights and the agreement which the emigrants have signed with their own hand in Holland, together with the bills for their travel down the Rhine and the advances of the 'newlanders' for provisions, which they received on the ships on account. Formerly the freight for a single person was six to ten louis d'ors, but now it amounts to fourteen to seventeen louis d'ors [one louis d'ors equalled about $4.50]. Before the ship is allowed to cast anchor at the harbor front, the passengers are all examined, according to the law in force, by a physician, as to whether any contagious disease exists among them. Then the arrivals are led in procession to the City Hall and there they must render the oath of allegiance to the king of Great Britain. After that they are brought back to the ship. Then announcements are printed in the newspapers, stating how many of the new arrivals are to be sold. Those who have money are released. Whoever has well-to-do friends seeks a loan from them to pay the passage, but there are only a few who succeed. The ship becomes the market-place. The buyers make their choice among the arrivals and bargain with them for a certain number of years and days. They then take them to the merchant, pay their passage and their other debts and receive from the government authorities a written document, which makes the newcomers their property for a definite period.<ref>Ibid., xxxvii.</ref>

Many aspects of the immigrant experience were traumatic'selling all earthly possessions, traveling for weeks to reach a new land, watching loved ones sicken and die far from the rest of the family. Many immigrants cushioned the shock by living, at least temporarily, with family and friends who had already immigrated. When searching census records, it is sometimes helpful to record the names of all boarders listed in a multiple-family dwelling, because they are often related to the head of house even if the surname is different. As the family head of house acquired work and earned some income, the family moved into its own residence, often rented, sometimes owned.