Last week I accompanied my daughter's second grade class on a field trip to a dairy farm. It entailed a long, crowded bus ride with 50+ excited kids, some of whom I'm pretty sure had coffee and chocolate for breakfast. As I bounced along, precariously perched on the edge of the seat for that nice long ride, I consoled myself with the reminder that compared to the trips my ancestors had to make, this really wasn't so bad. Those few hours on the bus were a piece of cake compared to weeks and even months that many of my forebears spent cramped in steerage compartments on their journey to America.
These ancestors are very much in my mind as I look through the Immigration Collection on Ancestry.com, so I thought we'd take a look at some ways to get the most from this great tool.
Identifiers to Help Locate Your Ancestor
Before beginning a search for your immigrant ancestors in the Immigration Collection, or in any collection of immigration records, you're going to need to review what you know about your ancestor so that you'll be able to pick him or her out of the millions of other immigrants.
The first thing you'll need to know is, who is the immigrant ancestor and what is his or her name. Yes, this would seem to be a no-brainer, but you're going to want to make sure you have a good list of variants, particularly looking at spellings that may have been used in the "old country," phonetic interpretations, and Anglicized translations.
You're going to want more than just a name though—and even those of us who think we may be searching for very rare names are included here. I used to think that my maiden name of Szucs was fairly uncommon. After all, I've been through most of my life without ever meeting another Szucs. Nope. On a list of the most common Hungarian surnames, Szucs (and its variants) rates number 36 out of 886. While it's still not that high on the list of common surnames in the U.S., looking through ships full of other Hungarian immigrants during the peak Ellis Island years, there are 157 hits for Janos Szucs in the Ellis Island database.
If your ancestor came from a non-English speaking country, you'll also want to determine the ethnic version of your ancestor's first name. Search for [ethnicity] given names or first names (e.g., Polish given names, Italian first names, etc.) to see if there is a helpful website that can help you translate your ancestor's name. BehindtheName.com is a great resource as well.
In addition, since pre-twentieth century passenger lists typically don't contain a whole lot of identifying information, it's important that we glean whatever we can from other records we have located on the ancestor. Using timelines and information found in other records we can establish, or at least estimate, the answers to at least some (if not all) of the following questions:
A Hint and Word to the Wise
One last caveat: While having all of this information will be helpful, it's also important to remember to be flexible with our searches. As with all record creators, there were some who were more diligent about their jobs than others, and the accuracy of the information found in the lists will vary greatly. As with any search, it's a good idea to cast a wide net and then try to gradually narrow it by rotating in and out various pieces of information.
Helpful Housekeeping Hint: Assembling this information before you begin your search will save you from having to drag out all of your family history binders and folders. My first night of exploration in this database resulted in one huge mess in my workspace! I'm now in the process of creating charts with my word processor, including this information for each immigrant family. This way as new data is added, I can just reference the charts and be able to see quickly and easily what ancestors I might find in a particular dataset.
The Immigration Collection
The Immigration Collection on Ancestry.com is a large collection of databases available by subscription, including passenger lists (with an image of the list and sometimes an image of the ship), naturalization records, and more. Among the most popular of these databases are:
Passenger Lists category search
This category includes passenger lists from the most used U.S. ports as well as some international lists and Great Lakes passengers. It's a good idea to search from this level, as your ancestor may have traveled through a port you didn't expect. If you need to narrow your search, you can access links to some of the more popular ports from this page as well.
New York Passenger Lists (index and images)
Copied from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) microfilm, M237 (rolls 95-580), this database covers the years 1820-1957. The index includes the immigrant's name, arrival date, age, gender, port of departure, destination, country of origin, and ship name. All of these fields are available in the search template as well, allowing for greater flexibility in searching. After locating one ancestor, I was able to view all the passengers on his ship by leaving out the surname, searching by ship name, year of arrival, and date (in this case: 15 May) in the keyword space. This is a great way to look for other family members and acquaintances that may have traveled with your ancestor.
Naturalization records can include wonderful details for your family history, particularly those after 1906. Before 1906, an alien could be naturalized in any court of record. Many immigrants, anxious to become citizens, began the citizenship process by taking out papers in the county where they first arrived in the United States. One might have started the process somewhere on the East Coast, for example, and then completed the requirements in the county or state when final residency was established somewhere else. This presents a challenge for family historians seeking the naturalization records of their ancestors. Fortunately, as more and more of these records are being made available online through collections like those on Ancestry, that search is getting easier. Even where the actual records are not available, indexes can lead us to the actual records.
U.S. Passport Applications, 1795-1925
The U.S. government has issued passports to American citizens since 1789 through several different agencies over the years. For the most part, passports were not required of U.S. citizens for foreign travel until World War I, although they were mandatory for a short time during the Civil War (Aug. 19, 1861–Mar. 17, 1862). An Executive Order given in 1915 and a later act of Congress in 1918 established the passport requirement for citizens traveling abroad. This law lapsed with the formal termination of World War I and treaties with Germany, Austria, and Hungary in 1921. With the onset of World War II In 1941, the Congressional act of 1918 was reinstated requiring U.S. citizens to carry a passport for foreign travel as is required today. Like naturalization records, passports can be rich in detail, particularly the records of immigrants that often include naturalization information, and arrival details.
Not everyone came into the U.S. by sea and in 1895, the government began keeping track of those arriving via its northern and southern borders. Ancestry.com has border crossing records for both Canada (to and from) and Mexico (arrivals only) and they can be searched through the Border Crossings and Passports category page.
There are many other databases included in the collection, and all told they include over ten million names. All of the databases included can be searched here.
For those of you who haven't already abandoned this article in search of your ancestors, I commend you for your perseverance. Unfortunately, I don't have your will power and am off to find some more of my ancestors!
Juliana Smith is the editor of the Ancestry Weekly Journal and author of The Ancestry Family Historian's Address Book. She has written for Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing.