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Finding Immigrant Ancestors in Passenger Arrivals

Whether it’s around the corner or across the country, relocating to a new home is a memorable event in our lives. There are always trials and tribulations that come with moving, but when we compare it to what many of our immigrant ancestors went through, not being able to find the can opener for a few weeks pales in comparison.

For many, leaving home meant saying goodbye to family members, knowing that they would never see some of them again. In some cases, parents left their children for extended periods to get established in their new home and raise the necessary funds to send for them. Embarking on a sometimes hazardous voyage, moving to a foreign land, and beginning life anew requires a special kind of courage.

Passenger arrival records are highly valued by family historians not only for the information they may include, but also for what they represent—that decision by an immigrant to leave the old world behind and thus, set a new course for themselves and their descendants. The trick is in locating the records. Here are some tips to help find the arrival record for your immigrant ancestor.

Search Multiple Ports of Entry
Many a search has been thrown by the inherited story that an ancestor came through Ellis Island. While close to 22 million immigrants did pass through the famous immigration station, many arrived through other U.S. ports, and through Canada, which was often a cheaper route.

Some may have even entered the U.S. more than once. Janos Szucs arrived in the U.S. twice, once through Baltimore in July of 1902, and then again in October of that same year, through Ellis Island. This is a good reminder not to overlook other matches once you do locate an ancestor. You may find that he or she made several trips too.

You can search all of the passenger arrival records that are available at Ancestry.com through the Immigration Collection page here.  The search form includes specialized fields for immigration records (e.g., immigration date) that will help you to search for your ancestors more effectively. (Tip: In the upper right corner of the list of matches, select the view “Summarized by category.” This allows you to view all of the databases that may contain close matches rather than a mix of records from various collections sorted by relevance. You may find your ancestor hiding behind a slightly altered spelling or some other minor discrepancy.)

If you think perhaps your ancestors came to the U.S. via Canada, you’ll want to search the database of Border Crossings: From Canada to U.S., 1895-1956 and Canadian Passenger Lists, 1865-1935 

When Did Your Ancestor Arrive?
Often you can learn, or at least estimate your ancestor’s arrival date using records found here in the United States. The 1900-1930 U.S. federal censuses ask for the year of immigration for immigrants. In earlier years, look at the place of birth for all family members. This is particularly helpful in records where some children in the family were born in the old country, and some in the U.S. Naturalization and vital records may also include the number of years in the U.S.

Search for Ethnic Names
Back in June, we discussed tools for translating your ancestor’s name.  This is particularly helpful when you are searching for your ancestor’s immigration record, because passenger arrival records were created before they arrived in the U.S.

Can’t Catch Them Coming In?
If you haven’t been able to locate your ancestor coming in to the U.S., it may still be possible to locate a record of them leaving the old country. Ancestry.com has several collections of emigration records worth exploring. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century Hamburg, Germany, was a popular port of departure for European emigrants and there are currently 5 million emigration records from the port of Hamburg for the years 1850-1934 available on Ancestry.com  . While only records from 1885-1914 are indexed, all of the records are browsable and there is also a handwritten index  that can help you to locate the records of your ancestors. These records are in German but there are tools available in the German Research Center that can help you to understand the records.   

There is also a large database of Swedish Emigration Records at Ancestry.com (in Swedish
 ). These international databases are available to World Deluxe members.

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