So how did my ancestors get here? It is one of the primary questions a family historian asks. Sometimes the answer is easy – often it isn’t. My family is like night and day. One side of my family is German, and I have traced some ancestors back to the old country. But they started arriving in the United States about 1850. On the other side, where the last family member arrived in the 1820s, I haven’t been so fortunate in my endeavor to trace family history.
Tracing ancestors back to the boat is easier if you use the elimination process. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were over 2 million immigrants a year entering the U.S. in 1850. By 1900, the number had increased to more than 10 million a year. There are many websites with information on immigration and immigrants, including ship’s passenger lists. So where should genealogists begin their search?
1. Census records
2. Naturalization records
3. Ship’s passenger lists
There are three major time frames for researching ship lists:
3. 1892 to the present
Genealogists often start their search for ancestors with census records. Every census asks different questions. With the increase in immigrants in the late 1800s, the federal government became interested in gathering information on them. The 1900, 1910, 1920, and 1930 censuses asked the year of immigration to the United States, and if the individual was a naturalized citizen.
The censuses taken between 1880 and 1930 also asked for the parental nativity of the respondent, which can be a clue as to when the family came over. If a couple came over together, the date of arrival should be the same. If they had children when they came, the nativity will supply the information regarding who was born where and when. One set of my great-great grandparents were married and had their first child in Germany. Their second child was born in the United States. That information should agree with the year the parents came over as listed in the census.
When working with the census to find ancestors, be sure to check for other adult family members – such as brothers or sisters – living close by. Experienced genealogists sometimes get a look of exasperation when someone starts telling the family story of two siblings who came over together. The story often includes the line that one was a stow-away. The stow-away part may or may not be true. The fact is, though, that often there were two or three ancestors who did come over together, or within a couple of years of each other, and settled in the same neighborhood.
Family genealogists need to remember that, in many cases, some ancestors may not have naturalization records. They were an extension of the husband or father – who would have a naturalization record. In early naturalization records, the emphasis was transferring allegiance from the birth country to the United States, so don’t count on finding a lot of information. Later naturalization papers have a wonderful amount of information.
Naturalizations often took place in the county where the individual was living. It is also a part of court records, many of which have been moved to courthouse basements or attics. That’s the bad news. The good news is that many naturalization records have been microfilmed or are being digitized and are online or going online.
Ship Passenger Lists
Now it is time for the family history researcher to start looking for the boat. There were five major immigration ports: Baltimore, Boston, New Orleans, New York, and Philadelphia. For a variety of reasons, well over half of the immigrants came through New York. Individuals looking to settle in the southeast may have come through Baltimore or New Orleans. Because of its location and access to river transportation, some immigrants planning to settle in the Midwest may have come through New Orleans, too.
As a genealogical researcher, do not assume that your ancestor came to the United States by boat. In the mid-1800s, about 40% of the foreign passengers arriving in Canada were bound for the U.S., and border crossings with either Canada or Mexico were not recorded.
A Time Line:
• 1790 – Congress passed an act to establish uniform rules of naturalization.
• 1819 – Congress passed an “Act Regulating Passenger Vessels.” One section of the Act required masters of ships to file a manifest of all passengers who boarded at a foreign port with the district collector of customs. Prior to 1820, any passenger lists would probably be sketchy.
• 1855 – New York City’s Castle Garden became the Emigrant Landing Depot.
• 1891 – Congress passed the “Immigration Act of 1891.” The federal government took control of the immigration process. Among other things, the federal government began to maintain information about people entering the United States overland from Canada and Mexico.
• 1892 – Ellis Island became the major location for processing immigrants.
Before 1820, passenger records were not required by the federal government. There may be customs or baggage lists that include the name of a passenger, but those lists – if they exist – are not located at the National Archives. Where are they? They could be at a local archives, library, historical society, or government office. However, many have been published and may be found in a number of places.
So you think you have a time and place to look for your ancestor. I would venture to say that there are well over a 100 websites to look for the passenger list. My first seven choices to look would be:
1. Castle Garden (1855-1890); free, donation suggested.
2. Ellis Island (1892-abt. 1920); free, donation suggested.
3. National Archives; free.
4. One-Step Webpages by Stephen P. Morse; free.
5. Cyndi’s List; free.
6. Ancestry.com; $$$.
7. FamilySearch.org; this is a work in progress.
Now, does the search seem like it may be a little overwhelming? Would a little help be welcome? This is one of the things the expert, professional genealogists at RecordClick can do. We can analyze census records, assist in obtaining naturalization documents and research passenger lists to find your ancestor. We can also work with you in developing a research strategy.