Immigration records can fill in crucial details of your history. Start with passenger lists to understand your ancestors’ trip to America, then search for passports and naturalization documents to learn more about their lives once they arrived.
When it came to immigration, it was often “women and children last.”
Some immigrants never made it to America.
Sometimes there’s more to the story than an ocean voyage.
The U.S. government asked a lot of questions before they let people cross the border.
They didn’t just leave a country. They left behind a story.
Sometimes an unforeseen circumstance can bring you closer to your ancestors.
What does a mole on your chin have to do with being a citizen?
How did your relative prove his identity before picture IDs?
TOP RESOURCE: 10 tips for tracing Americanized surnames
Changing names and spellings can be challenging. Discover how to follow a surname before and after it changed. Learn more
One ship. Very different experiences.
Where a traveler’s accommodations were on board – first class, second class or steerage – made all the difference. Learn more
Ellis Island wasn’t the end of the road
See what immigrants went through after they arrived in port. Learn more
Why did they leave?
Whether it was war, famine, persecution or just a better life, our ancestors had their own reasons for coming to America. Learn more
Maryanna Kapinski was a long way from home when she arrived in Philadelphia on the S.S. Friesland in 1907 with three daughters in tow. Kapinski, age 39, was born in Strelno, Prussia, the same town she lived in before departing for Liverpool to catch the boat to America.
This was no luxury cruise. Kapinski and her daughters traveled in steerage, third class, where conditions were anything but glamorous. But other passengers likely commiserated with the mom and daughters. More than half of the people listed on the page with Kapinski are women. And each was traveling to America to meet a male relative — either a brother, brother-in-law, or husband — who had gone ahead to pave the way in a new country.
Incidentally, Kapinski seemed to fare her 13-day journey well, landing in New York with a couple of bucks (6 to be exact) to spare.
The Liverpool arrived in the Port of New York on March 9, 1849. Since the Atlantic crossing typically took 1 to 2 months, the passengers were on the Atlantic for at least most of February and possibly part of January. That would have made for a cold crossing and a particularly dangerous one for passengers who may not have been in the best of health following the famine years.
Of the 416 passengers on board the Liverpool, 37 would die before reaching American shores — nearly 9 percent. From the Tierney family, only young Francis, aged 8, survived. Another passenger, Eliza Flynn, left home with a husband and child and arrived in America a widow.
With Holland occupied by German troops, the Reijmers — Max (lawyer), Stella (housewife), Bernhard and Josefine (students) — a Dutch family living in Liverpool, apparently decided they had no home to return to. They left for the United States on the Volendam in August 1940, intending to make the U.S. their new permanent residence. Nothing unusual about that; according to the passenger lists, there was a Dutch naval and a Dutch air force officer on board as well. What is unusual is that the Reijmers family appears on a passenger list again, leaving Liverpool a month later on the Scythia.
Did they miss the boat?
The clue lies in what’s missing on both lists. Passenger lists were compiled based on tickets sold. People who had paid for passage but didn’t board typically had a line drawn through their names. There was no line drawn through the Reijmers’ names because they actually left Liverpool twice. The Volendam was torpedoed on August 30th. Only one life was lost, but the rest of the passengers were carried back to Scotland, where the Reijmers would have started their journey again. This may account for the change in last permanent address in the two lists as well. The August list gave a street address in Liverpool. In September, they left from the Dutch Consulate in Liverpool.
In November 1930, husband and wife Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo de Rivera left Mexico for the United States, where Diego would begin painting a string of commissioned murals over the next few years, projects that would take the couple from San Francisco to Detroit to New York. It’s interesting to note that on Kahlo’s 1930 crossing document, she lists her occupation as “none.” This would change by the time she flew into El Paso in 1935. By then she embraced her talent, listing her occupation as “Artist (Painter).”
Husband and wife Schlomo and Schewa Korner and their three children returned to the United States after a short time in Canada in early February 1946. While the family lived in Oswego, New York, for the two years prior to the trip to Canada, their last permanent residence was “Camp Ferramonti, Italy,” a concentration camp built by the Italians just prior to World War II. Coupled with their intended destination, “C/O N.R.S.” the National Refuge Service in New York City, you’ll understand why the family listed its nationality as “Stateless.”
In June 1914, five-year-old Margarethe Prawatschke left New York City to see her grandparents. It turned into a long visit.
On the Affidavit to Explain Protracted Foreign Residence and to Overcome Presumption of Expatriation, which was filed with her 1920 emergency passport application, Margarethe explained what happened:
“I came to Germany with my mother to visit her parents, the war broke out and it was impossible for me to travel alone, as my mother was afraid to travel, I had to remain here with her.”
After naturalization forms were standardized in 1906, you can count on them for all sorts of details. It’s probably no great surprise that by the time you’ve finished reading Mildred Auerbach’s, you learn that she was born in 1906 in Mogilow Russian-Rumania, has a husband named Louis, and lives in New York. But that’s only the beginning. Mildred came to the United States not from Russia, but from Buenos Aires, arriving on the ship Southern Cross under the name Montche Cohen in October 1923. Louis was born in New York in 1916, they married in 1939, and in 1942, Mildred had a daughter named Joyce.
Mildred-Montche is short (5 foot 1) with brown eyes, brown hair and a mole on her chin. And all of this without the Internet or hiring a private detective.
As part of their efforts in behalf of a growing wave of immigrants, the Irish Emigrant Society founded the Emigrant Savings Bank in 1850. No secret login information needed. Instead, the bank created test books listing details that could be used to help identify depositors.
James Kelly’s entry indicates that as of November 19, 1859, he was infirm and lived at 34 John St. He was a native of Glackmore County in Donegal, Ireland, and had arrived at Halifax 30 years before. His wife, Bridget McLoghlin, had died, but James still had four children: James, Mary, Jane, and Elizabeth. No word, however, on his balance or overdrafts.
“On Ancestry.com, I found my mom listed on the ship’s manifest when she was a child with all her brothers and sisters and my grandpa and grandmother, and again listed in the 1920 census. It was absolutely thrilling because all her life, my mom told me she was born in Boston. It was only after she was in the nursing home at 92 years of age and the Director of the Home needed proof of her U.S. citizenship, that I thought it would be easy enough to find her birth certificate in Massachusetts. I was dumbfounded when Boston had no records of her birth.
That’s when I went onto Ancestry.com. And there she was, all the way from Poland (Russia then) listed with her family. This led to the ship’s manifest and to naturalization documents. There was Grandpa Morris, Grandmother Ida and my mother - whose given name was Elizabeth, but my grandpa always called her Lizzie. That’s how I knew it was her because the name listed was not her birth name, it was written as Lizzie!”
— Faith Gitlow
New York, New York
How comfortable was the journey? That depends upon the ticket your ancestor bought — and whether it landed him or her in first class, second class or steerage.
First or second class accommodations likely included a private room, restroom, dining hall, attendants and a quick onboard inspection upon arrival in the new world.
Third class or steerage accommodations were a bit more sparse; some meant
Most immigrants to America opted for steerage, including all passengers inspected at Ellis Island. Some passenger lists also spell out the class directly on the page above the first traveler entry:
Others may require an educated guess. Look for clues in the traveler’s occupation and/or dollar amount in possession, if listed. Laborers, for example, and people with just a few bucks to their names were most likely traveling on a steerage ticket. Passengers accompanied by maids, servants, listed as “lady” or holding a professional occupation were more apt to travel first or second class.
Caution: the surname you know may not be the one your ancestor arrived with. While census records and other details can help you trace slight variations and phonetic interpretations of a surname, they don’t always account for immigrant ancestors who may have opted to Americanize a surname shortly after arrival. But the following tricks for translating a changed name may help:
Tip 1. Use the Internet to help you determine the ethnic equivalent of an ancestor’s name. Sites like BehindtheName.com let you type in your ancestor’s name and search for related names that include various ethnic equivalents.
Tip 2. Study the alphabet of the country of origin. The Polish alphabet, for example, contains the letter ę, which is pronounced ”en“ and can explain certain surname changes (ex: Mękalski becomes Menkalski).
Tip 3. Look for literal translations: the German surname Schwartz may have been changed to Black just like the French surname LeBlanc may have been changed to White.
Tip 4. Lengthen and shorten names. And remember that more than one ancestor may have changed a surname. So Weisenberger may have become Weisenberg then Weisen and finally Wise.
Tip 5. Try a wildcard search in which you use asterisks to replace some of the letters in a name. For example, if the surname was Berlengauem, B*rl*g*m* would produce it as well as Burlingame and other variants.
Tip 6. Search by criteria. Forego the surname and search using birthplace, age, gender, occupation and other details to find people who match the ancestor you’re seeking. Pay special attention to the names in your search results. Do any of them seem to reflect your family?
Tip 7. Follow your ancestor backwards by address in a city directory – you may get lucky and discover that, while the name changed, the residence remained the same.
Tip 8. Check immigration records and passports carefully – at times they may include notations indicating a previous name change.
Tip 9. Try maiden names. Female ancestors may have traveled using them, even when married (this was very common with immigrants from Italy).
Tip 10. Listen for stories. There may be more truth in those tales than you realize – including a clue about a person’s birth name.
From famine to freedom, there were countless reasons our ancestors left their homelands to settle in America. But what caused mass migration out of any one place? We’ve collected some of the key drivers that sent our ancestors to America during peak periods of immigration and added a few research tips, too, to help you locate your family in America even faster.
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