American Sources for Documenting Immigrants
| 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|
- 1 Family Histories
- 2 Local Histories and Biographies
- 3 Census Records
- 4 Societies
- 5 Periodicals
- 6 Library and Archive Collections
- 7 Vital Records
- 8 Ecclesiastical Records
- 9 Cemeteries
- 10 Funeral Homes
- 11 Newspapers
- 12 City Directories
- 13 Immigration Records
- 13.1 Passenger Lists
- 13.2 Published Lists and Indexes
- 13.3 Colonial Lists
- 13.4 U.S. Customs Passenger Lists (1820–ca. 1891)
- 13.5 New York City—Castle Garden and Ellis Island (1855–1892)
- 13.6 Immigration Passenger Lists (1891–1957)
- 13.7 Border Crossings
- 13.8 Improved Access to Passenger Lists
- 13.9 When Passenger Lists Are Not Indexed
- 14 Naturalization Records
- 14.1 Naturalization during the American Colonial Period
- 14.2 New States and Territories
- 14.3 Significant Changes in 1906
- 14.4 Women and Children
- 14.5 Military Service
- 14.6 African Americans, Native Americans, and Asians
- 14.7 Recent Government Changes
- 14.8 Genealogical Information in Naturalization Documents
- 14.9 Becoming a Citizen: The Process and the Records
- 14.10 Where to Search for Naturalization Documents
- 14.11 Naturalization Indexes
- 14.12 Federal Copies of Post-1906 Naturalization and Citizenship Records
- 15 Other Federal Records
- 16 Seamen’s Protection Certificates
- 17 References
- 18 External Links
Published genealogies and family histories comprise one of the most significant compiled sources. These genealogies, generally compiled by family members, may include biographies, pictures, maps, time lines, and heraldry; some include documentation, others do not. Often these genealogies go back to the original immigrant with information concerning ethnic and geographical beginnings. They generally tend to show all that was known about the family at the time it was written. Technological advances of the past few years have facilitated research, publication, and the distribution of thousands of genealogies and family histories. In some cases, nearby or distant relatives have completed well-documented genealogies, and their work can spare you hours of work and frustration. It may be that someone else has identified your immigrant ancestor’s place of origin in a published work. Keep in mind, however, that it always pays to double-check the accuracy of any such research.
Two useful finding aids for locating published genealogies are the Family History Library surname catalog, which identifies approximately 60,000 North American genealogies; and the catalogs of the Library of Congress. Among them is Marion J. Kaminkow’s Genealogies in the Library of Congress: A Bibliography and Genealogies Cataloged by the Library of Congress Since 1986. Most archives, historical societies, and genealogical societies have special collections and indexes of genealogies of value to immigrant origin researchers. Search as many library catalogs and indexes as possible. Collections vary from one library to another, and the ever-growing number of published family histories increases the potential for finding information on one or more of your immigrant ancestors as time goes by. Ancestry.com is continually adding family histories to its site at Ancestry.com, and Brigham Young University’s Family History Archive is building on its collection.
Electronic Family Trees
Since the 1980s, family historians have been creating personal genealogical computer databases based on the results of their research findings. They have, in turn, contributed their personal “electronic family trees” to a growing number of collections available on CD-ROM and/or the Internet, where others can search for clues to their own research. The most popular and largest electronic family trees are OneWorldTree at Ancestry.com, WorldConnect at RootsWeb.com, Pedigree Resource File and Ancestral File at FamilySearch, and World Family Tree at Genealogy.com. Factoring in the many duplications, these collections still provide varying detail about scores of millions of people. Among those entries will be hundreds of thousands of immigrants. Many entries for immigrants simply identify that they were born in a different country, but some include specific statements about an immigrant’s hometown. While most such databases lack adequate source citations, such specific statements are usually readily proved in church records or other sources in the ancestral country.
International Genealogical Index
This well-known index is actually a database of births and deaths, listing hundreds of millions of names by country or state. It serves as a partial index to church births and marriages, and is one of the most helpful tools for finding specific individuals or localizing where surnames were most common.
Early in your research check the International Genealogical Index (IGI) at the Family History Library, one of its family history centers, or at one of selected libraries across the United States. It is the largest genealogical database in the world. It indexes and abstracts births and marriages in civil and church records with some other records for some countries. The index is easy to check because it is available on the Internet, on microfiche, or on CD-ROM and combines spelling variants in one alphabetized sequence. Most countries can be searched by county, or by searching the entire country. For more information on the IGI, see Introduction to the General References and Guides.
Local Histories and Biographies
Published histories of towns, counties, or regions in which an ancestor lived are often the key to identifying the national and ethnic origin of an immigrant. Histories of a locality’s churches, schools, or businesses may also mention the immigrant. If an ancestor is included with the area’s founding families or was a prominent citizen, a local history may include an account of his or her life.
Despite their tendency to focus on society’s most prominent citizens, state and local histories, biographies, and biographical encyclopedias can be useful for tracking down some immigrants’ origins. State, county and local histories were especially popular during the late nineteenth century and the first twenty or thirty years of the twentieth century. Many were produced on a subscription basis and biographical sketches of the subscribers formed a substantial part of each history. Centennial publications of various institutions, organizations, churches, cities, and towns were frequently financed and formatted in a similar manner. If the subject of the biographical sketch was an immigrant, the exact birthplace might have been noted in such a source. If an immigrant or his parents did not make it into the pages of a biographical work, there is always a chance that the accomplishments of a sibling, or one or more descendants, will appear somewhere in print.
Local histories often mention less prominent immigrants as well. Common folk become especially important if they were among an area’s original settlers. Immigrants often considered it a mark of success to be included in the typical local histories of the nineteenth century, even if they had to pay to be included. If an immigrant was willing to spend the necessary money, the publisher would include him, no matter how obscure he was. Often, the names of immigrants are included in lists of early settlers as members of a founding church, as original town settlers, landholders, and school teachers, or in cemetery and sexton records. Bibliographies of local histories and biographical sources are available for most countries, states, and provinces where immigrants settled.
Histories are also available for many ethnic and religious groups. Examples include Martin Ulvestad’s Nordmændene i Amerika [Norwegians in America], and Rose Rosicky’s A History of Czechs (Bohemians) in Nebraska.
Some of the best sources of information about a given group or individual originate in the ethnic community itself. Immigrant groups clung together to sustain their memories, culture, and communication with the old country. Every ethnic organization in the United States has played a role in preserving and perpetuating group identity and national pride. Hundreds of ethnic organizations have flourished and published periodicals, newspapers, and historical and biographical albums—frequently in their native tongue. Histories produced by ethnic presses may focus on the national, state, or local level. A typical volume reviews the history of the group from its earliest involvement in American history, extols the group’s contributions to the development of the United States, and pays tribute to members of the ethnic group who had become prominent for one reason or another. Biographical sketches in these volumes tend to describe group members in only the most glowing terms, but frequently the degree of detail is very useful. Many a genealogical breakthrough can be attributed to an ethnic biographical sketch. Chicago und sein Deutschthum is one such example. Among the volume’s biographical sketches are many that give a specific date and place of birth of the subject as well as date of immigration, former places of residence, arrival date in the country and the city, educational and occupational history, and names of parents, spouse, and children. The reader must be proficient in German, however, because this Chicago source is printed in that language.
Histories also exist for most religious groups, such as Henry R. Holsinger’s History of the Dunkers and the Brethren Church. Histories of larger ethnic and religious groups, such as Germans or Episcopalians, can also provide valuable background information about migration and settlement patterns.
In addition to local and group histories, biographical sketches are often found in local and national collective biographical works. These were very common in the last half of the nineteenth century. Many other biographical records have been published and can be located in local libraries. An excellent bibliography listing more than 16,000 national and international collective biographies from around the world is Robert C. Slocum’s Biographical Dictionaries and Related Works.
Mirana C. Herbert’s and Barbara McNeil’s Biography and Genealogy Master Index, is one of several published biographical references described in Overview of Databases and Indexes. This index includes more than eight million references to three million individuals profiled in approximately 1,500 histories, blue books, and “who’s who” compilations. Like any other index, it is not all inclusive, but it will tease the imagination and point to other potential sources. This index gives the name of the subject of the biographical sketch, birth and death years, and cites the source for the sketch. By following through to cited sources, it is sometimes possible to find the foreign origins of a family.
Local histories and biographies are among the most popular of sources for locating information about nineteenth century immigrants, regardless of ethnic group or social status, particularly for those who settled in rural areas. For more information on the bibliographies and indexes to these sources, see Kory L. Meyerink’s chapters, “County and Local Histories” and “Biographies” in Printed Sources: A Guide to Published Genealogical Records. Biography and Genealogy Master Index as well as a large number of other local histories and biographical sources are available by subscription at Ancestry.com.
Census records from as early as 1850 indicate birthplaces for individuals and possible dates of immigration. Later census records provide more specific information on individuals as well as their parents. U.S. federal census records are widely available on microfilm in many large libraries, archives, and through online subscription services such as Ancestry.com.
While U.S. census records rarely indicate the exact birthplace of an individual, significant immigration facts can be gleaned from the federal enumerations, especially in later years. From 1850 to 1870, every person’s country or state of birth was shown. Censuses from 1880 to 1930 asked for birthplaces of both parents as well. Because the country of birth was asked for on the census, responses such as Hannover, Baden, or Cassel invariably refer to the German state, not the city of the same name.
With the federal census indexed for all years that are available to the public, the census is a logical starting point for determining family origins. Judging from ages and birthplaces, it is usually possible to estimate the date of arrival in the United States, even in earlier enumerations. Beginning with the 1900 census, more detailed immigration information was required. The 1920 census asked for specific birthplaces (state, province, or city) of foreigners who had been born in a country whose boundaries had been changed in World War I (the German, Austrian, Russian, and Ottoman empires). Approximately half of the enumerators complied with this requirement. Other clues in the 1920 census, such as mother tongue, may provide additional insights.
Even if you are unable to find your own ancestor’s country of origin in census records, the discovery of another relative’s origins or those of others of the same surname may prove helpful. With the availability of census indexes, it may prove useful to survey the occurrence of a given surname in a statewide index. Frequently individuals of the same family settled in close proximity. Concentrations of an unusual surname will provide a starting place to search for additional information.
State censuses can also be useful in tracking family origins. In addition to the standard questions asked by federal censuses, the 1925 Iowa State Census, for example, asked for the names of parents, mother’s maiden name, nativity of parents, place of parent’s marriage, military service, occupation and religion.
It should be remembered that, while census records are extremely useful in immigration research, the information provided in them is not entirely reliable. An individual might not have remembered his or her age exactly. Sometimes, foreigners fearing problems with a strange new government did not answer questions honestly, especially those that related to citizenship status. Some immigrants could not remember accurately the date of their arrival in the United States or the date of their naturalization. When they did, however, and when the date was recorded correctly, this information will facilitate naturalization and passenger list searches.
Many historical, lineage, genealogical, fraternal, and ethnic societies may have records concerning immigrants. Such societies often collect records, such as family and local histories, oral histories, church records, newspapers, cemetery collections, passenger lists, manuscripts, organization membership applications, early settler indexes, military records, directories, and other records that may help with your search. Genealogical and historical societies are organized for almost every geographic locality. Historical societies for most ethnic and religious groups also exist—for example, the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia. Also search for pioneer or old settler societies. Contact these various kinds of societies to learn about their services and hours. They are usually very cooperative and can help locate good local researchers. Genealogical and historical societies should be approached early in most searches.
Publications of genealogical and historical societies are especially rich and unique sources of local information. Especially useful are those groups such as Polish Genealogical Society of America; The Irish Ancestral Research Association; and other ethnic organizations that specialize in helping family researchers in with more specific immigration questions. Some genealogical societies, libraries, and archives maintain surname registries that have proved useful in linking individuals with similar research interests. These organizations tend to focus on the ethnic groups prominent in their respective areas, and this will be reflected in their publications. Newsletters and quarterlies published by societies can be especially rich sources of information on immigrant groups. The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book, by Juliana Szucs Smith, is a comprehensive list of local, state, and federal agencies and institutions, and ethnic and genealogical organizations. Most such societies now have Internet sites and can be readily found through careful use of such Internet search engines as Google. Even if you don’t know the name of a society, enter keywords, such as the name of the county or ethnic group, and words such as “historical” or “genealogical” and “society” into the search engine. Likely the society you are seeking will be one of the first few hits. Internet message boards such as those at RootsWeb.com and Ancestry.com are also popular places where researchers can exchange helpful information on specific ethnic groups and immigration themes. See Overview of Computers and Genealogy for effective ways to search for genealogical and historical societies.
Small and large, historical societies across the nation have collected and preserved pieces of local history that may not be found elsewhere. Historical organizations are traditional storehouses for manuscripts, letters, journals, news clippings, biographical and obituary files, old photographs and yearbooks, local business and institutional histories, memorial and cemetery records, and artifacts. Old settler and pioneer information found in historical societies will often point to Old World origins.
In Pennsylvania, for example, several county historical societies have “family reports” with information previously collected and filed by family name. Some societies will send photocopies of the materials they have on hand for a fee. When requesting information, write or call ahead to be sure of the particular society’s research policy. Some of these files are also available on microfilm at the Family History Library and its family history centers throughout the United States.
The records of societies an immigrant may have joined during his or her life may be hard to locate. Arriving foreigners often received financial and other assistance from immigrant aid societies that helped them settle in their new home. An immigrant may have sent money back to his or her family or brought relatives from the old country through an immigrant aid society. These societies were usually associated with ethnic, religious, or community organizations. The most famous is the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Ask local and ethnic historical societies for addresses of immigrant aid societies that operated in their area.
Immigrant aid societies sprang up to supply information on lodgings, work opportunities, and local resources; to provide credit references and sometimes cash or food where needed; to advise and caution immigrants against the unscrupulous; to collect and forward mail; to coordinate group insurance and benefits for living family members; and to aid in burial of loved ones and with legal transactions unfamiliar to new immigrants. These societies kept some invaluable records. See G. A. Dobbert’s “An On-Line System for Processing Loosely Structured Records,” in Historical Methods, for the use of 1,700 obituaries clipped by the German Immigrant Society of Cincinnati, Ohio; and John Guertler and Adele Newburger’s Records of Baltimore’s Private Organizations: A Guide to Archival Resources for ethnic and immigrant societies in the city of Baltimore. The YWCA operated institutes for women to help them adjust, learn English, and care adequately for their families. See Nicholas V. Montalto’s The International Institute Movement: A Guide to Records of Immigrant Society Agencies in the United States for a state-by-state listing of aid societies for women immigrants. Erna Risch’s important work, “Immigrant Aid Societies Before 1820,” in Pennsylvania History, discusses societies for Germans, Scots, Irish, and others throughout the American colonies. Also useful is Bradford Luckingham’s “Benevolence in Emergent San Francisco: A Note on Immigrant Life in the Urban Far West,” in Southern California Quarterly, which describes societies for French, Germans, Catholics, Protestants, seamen, ladies, Hebrews, and others.
Records of former immigrant aid societies continue to come to light. A recent example is the records of a New York savings bank founded by Irish immigrants in 1850. Data in the records included immigrants’ places of birth in Ireland, names of family members, and ship arrival information. The earliest records have recently been abstracted by Kevin J. Rich as Irish Immigrants of the Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank, 1850–1853. The Emigrant Bank records have also been scanned and indexed and they are available at Ancestry.com.
After the immigrant settled, he or she may have sought the company of people with similar interests and joined an ethnic or fraternal organization like the Veterans of Foreign Wars, a Jewish Landsmanschaft, the Grange, a Masonic lodge, Knights of Columbus, and so forth. Although they may be difficult to locate, ethnic and fraternal society records sometimes provide crucial immigration information. A book that helps locate some of these societies is the Encyclopedia of Associations: Regional, State, and Local Organizations.
Public libraries normally have guides to help locate these organizations. Particularly useful for locating societies dealing with immigrants is Lubomyr R. Wynar’s Encyclopedic Directory of Ethnic Organizations in the United States.
Genealogical, lineage society, religious, and historical periodicals are most helpful when you know the area in which an immigrant settled, and his or her ethnic group. Genealogical and historical societies usually publish periodicals about the people in the geographic area or ethnic group they cover. Family organizations often publish newsletters with immigrant information.
Periodicals often reprint a wide variety of material, including abstracts from original sources that discuss immigrants. Periodicals may include the following:
- Passenger list abstracts
- Naturalization list abstracts
- Sketches about early pioneers
- Ethnic group background information
- Genealogical sketches
- Pedigrees and ahnentafels
Periodicals published by genealogical societies are good places to publish queries asking for information about immigrant ancestors. There are sometimes fees for this service (especially for nonmembers). Also check indexes for previous queries and answers. Genealogical and historical societies in the United States have been churning out publications for more than 150 years. One of the quickest and most efficient ways to locate articles that relate to an ethnic group is to consult one of the periodical source indexes discussed in Overview of Computers and Genealogy. One of the largest compilations is the Periodical Source Index (PERSI), a comprehensive place, subject, and surname index to current genealogical and local history periodicals. The Foreign Places section of PERSI, for example, can be particularly helpful in immigration research; it is arranged first by country, then by record type. European locations may contain current smaller political subdivisions; for example, Great Britain may include materials of a regional nature; Germany includes entries for German provinces, as well as pre-unification East and West Germany, Prussia, and so forth; and U.S.S.R. includes articles pertaining to the Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, and other countries once part of the Soviet Union. PERSI is available online at Ancestry.com and HeritageQuestOnline.com and on Ancestry.com.
Library and Archive Collections
Libraries and archives in the area where an immigrant settled may have collected previous research about local people. For example, local genealogy collections, vertical files, scrapbooks, school records, newspapers, obituaries, and histories of organizations, towns, and counties are sources that may reveal an immigrant’s origins.
A growing number of organizations are devoted exclusively to collecting and preserving materials for specific immigrant or ethnic groups. An example of a repository dedicated to a particular ethnic group is the Swenson Swedish Immigration Center (Augustana College, 639 38th Street, Rock Island, IL 61201-2296). See listings for other single-nationality collections listed under the appropriate ethnic groups listed at the end of this chapter.
Look for catalogs, inventories, guides, or periodicals that describe the holdings of archives and libraries, then study these guides before visiting the repository. An example of a helpful guide is Suzanna Moody and Joel Wurl’s The Immigration History Research Center: A Guide to Collections. The Immigration History Research Center was founded at the University of Minnesota (311 Anderson Library, 222-21st Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN 55455) in 1965 to encourage study of the role of immigration and ethnicity in shaping the society and culture of the United States and to collect the records of twenty-four American ethnic groups originating from eastern, central, and southern Europe and the Near East. Working closely with ethnic communities, the Research Center has preserved and made available for research priceless documents of immigrant America, including personal papers, newspapers, books, periodicals, and the records of churches and cultural, fraternal, and political organizations. Ethnic collections include those for Albanians, Armenians, Bulgarians, Byelorussians, Carpatho-Ruthenians, Croatians, Czechs, Estonians, Finns, Greeks, Hungarians, Italians, Jews (Eastern European), Latvians, Lithuanians, Macedonians, Poles, Romanians, Russians, Serbs, Slovaks, Slovenes, and Ukrainians, and people from the Near East.
Foreign Collections in American Libraries and Archives
The Family History Library has several thousand reels of microfilmed emigration registers available to all genealogists. The library also has microfilm copies of original records pertaining to the Jews in Poland; they are available at Hebrew University in Jerusalem as well. These records are written in Polish, and their accessibility in Poland today is limited. However, in the United States they are available to anyone within driving distance of an LDS Family History Center.
The amount of information provided in vital records varies from county to county and from year to year. As a rule, vital records are limited in their usefulness as clues to immigrant origins, but it is always worth seeking out every vital record available for every member of the family if immigrant origins are being sought. In most instances, birth, marriage, and death records provide only the country of birth and not the hoped-for native town.
When using vital records, first seek records related to the immigrant’s death. These may give the immigrant’s birthplace and date, or the names of parents, relatives, or friends. They can also provide important clues regarding 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 his or her children’s births. Generally, records of later periods contain more information than earlier ones. While indication of birthplace is rare, it does sometimes appear. This illustrates the importance of locating every possible record, even when the likelihood of immigration information is slight.
As in every other aspect of genealogical research, the records of siblings, aunts and uncles, and even distant relatives can be very important. For example, members of an Irish family tracing their ancestry documented events and activities of their father’s, grandfathers’, and great-grandfathers’ lives back to the immigrant’s arrival in the United States in 1836. To their great disappointment, other than the census and death records noting Ireland as the birthplace, nothing in any of the records provided clues to specific origins. At the suggestion of a professional researcher, the family began to collect information on all the other children of the immigrant. Fortunately, on the death certificate of the eighth of the immigrant’s twelve children, more specific information appeared. The father’s birthplace was listed as Wexford, and the mother’s as Queenstown. Had the research not been extended to include the great uncles and aunts, it is doubtful that the project could have progressed.
For a complete discussion of vital records, see Overview of Vital Records.
For the new immigrant, a local religious congregation could alleviate “culture shock.” The church or synagogue was a haven that offered services in a familiar tongue, and its officials and members were often known to the immigrant. The formality of christening a child born en route or solemnizing a marriage begun as a shipboard romance provided a ritual sanction for the move. In some denominations, letters of recommendation for church membership were surrendered shortly after arrival. Loose documents kept by individual immigrants have seldom survived, but some religious denominations kept records of recommendations and removals.
Whenever possible, study immigrant church registers; patterns sometimes emerge that will point to the foreign home for an entire group. For example, while searching for a certain immigrant in Catholic Church records in a small Indiana town, a genealogist searched baptism and marriage entries in several ledgers. The native towns were noted in the church registers for many of those receiving the sacraments, as well as for the witnesses and sponsors. Unfortunately, there was no such notation identifying the birthplace of the subject of interest. The astute genealogist did not give up there, however. Knowing that sponsors and witnesses are frequently close relatives and friends, he noted the names of all the towns mentioned in the registers during the time the family resided in the parish. Next, he took a detailed map of the area near a recognizable city mentioned in the church register. Some towns were not on the map, but most were located, though their names had been misspelled in the registers. This study revealed that a large number of towns cited were within a thirty-mile radius of the central city on the detailed map. Once the Indiana genealogist focused on a specific area in Germany, another genealogist specializing in German research was able to find emigration records for the family of interest. In recent years, dedicated researchers have indexed a number of church records of various denominations. Some have been published by small presses; others remain in the card catalogs of various historical archives. Joseph M. Silinonte’s published volume of Bishop Loughlin’s Dispensations, Diocese of Brooklyn 1859–1866 is an excellent example of a book that has provided extraordinary clues to foreign origins. In this case, information in the dispensations granted by the Diocese of Brooklyn, New York, for such things as the marriage of a Catholic to a non-Catholic included the birthplaces of the bride and groom, many of whom were immigrants.
Surviving cemetery and mortuary records are important sources for immigrant research. Sometimes the only recording of an original name or the exact birthplace is on a tombstone. For example, one family historian had reached a “dead end” in researching the Doner name in New York. After many tries at locating cemetery records, it was discovered that the original cemetery deed had been recorded under the name Dooner. Once alerted to the original spelling, the researcher was able to determine when family members changed the name spelling, and to continue researching the correct spelling in older records.
Often, children and other relatives of immigrants honored the memory of their deceased ancestors by noting the person’s birthplace on his or her tombstone. Ethnic cemeteries, ethnic sections of larger cemeteries, and family burial plots of immigrants can be veritable gold mines for determining ethnic origins. Whenever possible, visit cemeteries personally to inspect and photograph monuments.
For immigrants, especially those living in cities or ethnic clusters, it was most common to conduct business with those who came from the same or similar backgrounds. The undertaker with Irish origins would best understand the needs and wants of his fellow countrymen when it came time for a wake and burial; likewise, a Jewish undertaker was best qualified to handle religious burial rituals for members of the Jewish community. Over the years, the undertaking establishments begun by immigrants have frequently changed in one way or another or have disappeared completely. Whether changes came about because of a shift in ethnic makeup of a neighborhood, the transfer of the business to another generation, or the complete shutdown of the undertaking company, it is frequently difficult to discover what has become of mortuary or undertaker’s records. Contacting currently operating cemeteries and funeral homes of the same ethnic or religious background may be the best method of tracking down the records of older mortuaries. Genealogical and historical societies, especially those with an ethnic focus, are also good sources of information because a typical goal for that kind of an organization is to preserve and publish information with historical and genealogical value.
Newspapers provide a variety of immigration information. Search both the local newspapers where the immigrant settled and the ethnic newspapers in the immigrant’s language or for the cultural group. In addition to obituaries (described later in the chapter), newspapers from the immigrant’s lifetime may also give the following kinds of information to help find an immigrant’s place of origin:
- Lists of passengers or new arrivals
- Immigrants treated in a local hospital
- Lists of immigrants who came as indentured servants or apprentices
- Missing relative or friend queries
- Marriage announcements
- Notices of probates of estates
Many of the immigrants had relatives and friends who had already come to America and frequently tried to locate them with newspaper advertisements. About ten German-language newspapers served German immigrants in or near Philadelphia by 1776. In addition, there were the English-language papers. Examples of extracts of inquiries and advertisements include Anita L. Eyster’s “Notices by German and Swiss Settlers Seeking Information of Members of their Families, Kindred, and Friends Inserted Between 1742–1761” in Pennsylvania Berichte and 1762–1779 in the Pennsylvania Staatsbote,” in Pennsylvania German Folklore Society; and Edward Hocker’s Genealogical Data Relating to the German Settlers of Pennsylvania and Adjacent Territory. From Advertisements in German Newspapers Published in Philadelphia and Germantown, 1743–1800.
Many Irish who settled in Boston used the newspapers to seek friends and relatives who arrived earlier. Often, their queries indicated where in Ireland the person they were seeking came from. Abstracts of thousands of notices from 1831 to 1930 have been gathered in Ruth-Ann Harris and Donald M. Jacobs’s The Search for Missing Friends: Irish Immigrant Advertisements Placed in the Boston Pilot.
Immigrants often had to redeem the cost of their passage by indenture. Announcements of new arrivals to be sold into indentureship were printed in newspapers, with dates of auction. After the negotiations were over, the results were also printed in newspapers.
Newspapers, now increasingly available online, carry more than indentures or letters and announcements seeking relatives. They also publish probate processes originating in Europe and obituaries of family members who died in Europe. Be sure to research both the original papers, often available on microfilm through interlibrary loan, and the abstracts published in the local newspaper. Indeed, immigrants can appear in newspapers for a variety of reasons, as this excerpt shows:
- Philadelphia, September 17. 1747.
- Run away, on the 11th of this instant September, at night, from William Plaskett, of Trenton, a Welsh servant woman, named Sarah Davis, about 27 years of age, middle stature, somewhat freckled, has a small scar in her forehead, and is slow of speech: Had on when she went away, a callicoe [sic] gown, a black fur hat, shagged on the under side, with a patch on the crown, and an ozenbrigs apron. Whoever takes up and secures said servant woman, so as her master may have her again, shall have Twenty Shillings reward, and reasonable charges, paid by William Plaskett.
Ethnic newspapers can be particularly helpful. According to Lubomyr R. and Anna T. Wynar, “The major function of the ethnic press lies in its role as the principal agent by which the identity, cohesiveness, and structure of an ethnic com-munity are preserved and perpetuated.” Unusual or special events in the lives of working-class immigrants that were routinely unnoticed by major daily newspapers often warranted lengthy articles in ethnic and religious newspapers. Birth, marriage, anniversary, and death notices and articles in ethnic newspapers can be invaluable sources for discovering immi-grant origins. Even mention of an individual’s running for public office, a promotion, or a trip to visit family in the native country may provide personal details that will not be found elsewhere.
An increasing number of historic newspapers are now appearing online, making it easier to find references to immigrants. Major collections are available through the two major genealogical subscription sites, Ancestry.com and ProQuest.com. Many others are identified on newspaper-specific sites, such as http://www.newspaperarchive.com. In addition, local collections are growing in many states, often as part of a state library consortium.
Obituaries are excellent sources for biographical information about immigrants. In addition to the name and death date of the immigrant, surviving family members, church affiliation, spouses, parents, occupations, burial places, and, most importantly, the native town in the old country may be noted. For many an immigrant, an obituary may have been the only “biographical sketch” ever written for him or her.
For example, research on Carl Schultz, a Mecklenburg immigrant to Wisconsin, was stymied because of his common name and the lack of good biographical information. His obituary, while not providing the town of origin, gave the year of immigration. This information then made it possible to identify him in the Hamburg passenger lists, which indicated his native town.
Obituaries were usually published in local and church newspapers. Some also appear in church, professional, company, and school periodicals. Although brief death notices appeared in the earliest newspapers, traditional obituaries are most common after the mid-1800s.
Obituary collections are appearing on the Web even faster than many of the newspapers from which they were taken. Many websites now exist which either collect obituaries, or point to obituary collections on the Internet. Several such sites are noted in Introduction to the General References and Guides.
City directories are among the best sources for tracking an immigrant through the years (see Overview of Directories, and Overview of Urban Research). Immigrants have typically settled in cities in the United States, especially in Eastern Seaboard cities, until they could find better opportunities in rural areas. City directories generally provide the names, occupations, and addresses of working adults in any given household, and are an important means of tracking individuals from year to year. While directories of residents may date back to a city’s earliest days, no directory is all-inclusive. Unfortunately, foreigners, especially those who did not speak English, were those most frequently excluded or overlooked as city directories were compiled. Some groups, such as the Poles in Chicago, independently published city or community directories in their own language to compensate. Ethnic and local historical societies have frequently microfilmed or reprinted these special directories.
While city directories seldom, if ever, name the town or even country the immigrant came from, they can provide other important information. From a directory you may learn, within a year or two, when the immigrant arrived. Carefully tracking the addresses of others with the same surname may reveal unknown siblings or children. City directories can also help you determine which church of the family’s preferred denomination was nearest the family residence.
Passenger arrival lists are among the most-used sources for documenting our ancestors’ immigration. Unfortunately, however, lists were not kept for every ship, some lists have been lost, and some are not indexed. The content of passenger lists has also changed significantly over the years. Passenger lists created before the 1880s rarely indicate the immigrant’s town of origin. In earlier years of record-keeping, lists typically showed only the immigrant’s name, age, and country of origin or the ship’s last port of call. The formats of lists in the 1880s gradually evolved to include more detailed information, including the place of origin.
The vast majority of immigration records are the passenger arrival lists kept by the U.S. federal government (after 1820) or by other authorities (cities, states, port officials, and shipping lines).
While most passenger lists have been indexed for U.S. ports, a few lists remain unindexed. However, this is changing as Ancestry.com and other online services are transcribing and posting arrival lists at a fast pace. As with all indexes and transcripts, there are errors—especially errors of omission or misreading. In addition to the problem of simply missing names in transcription, individuals who departed from a country illegally may not have been recorded at all. Children who emigrated with their parents were not usually included before 1820. Even if you find the name you are looking for in the index, in many cases it will be impossible to identify that person with a great degree of certainty. Illegible handwriting on passenger lists, combined with misspelled names, incorrect ages, and only a vague name of the country or region of origin, give passenger lists the distinction of being the most difficult-to-use immigration sources. What’s more, you may not know if the immigrant traveled alone or with other family members or friends. In other words, how will you know if John Miller, age twenty-three, laborer, is the right one if there are several others of the same name and similar description? Very often, one or more of the family would travel to America, get a feel for the new land, establish residency, and then send for other family members. Sometimes parents left their children with relatives at home until they were able to bring them over. Sometimes the father was the solitary pioneer, sending for the family after establishing himself in America. Often, young, unmarried adults set out alone to find a new life in a new world.
As with other government documents, passenger lists were not intended to be genealogical documents, but rather were a means of monitoring immigrant arrivals. There were, historically, up to seven different ways in which lists of passengers may have been created. These include lists made and filed with (1) the port of embarkation, (2) ports of call along the route, (3) the port of arrival, (4) newspapers at the port of departure, (5) newspapers at cities of arrival, (6) a copy kept with or as part of the ship’s manifest, and (7) notations of passengers in the ship’s log. In addition, some travelers recorded the names of their fellow passengers in diaries, journals, and letters home. If the group was chartered by a government agency, a specific church, or an emigrant aid society, a list may have been kept with the official archives of the project. If the ship was quarantined for disease, a copy of the list was attached to medical reports. Germans arriving in Pennsylvania from 1727 to 1808 were required to take an oath of allegiance and an oath of abjuration when they landed in Philadelphia. All able-bodied males age sixteen or older were taken immediately before a magistrate when they arrived.
Some of these passenger lists are official lists that were required by law; others were private recordings. For family historians, the fact that multiple copies were sometimes made improves the chances that at least one survived for most immigrants. The main problem is in finding the lists.
Official U.S. government passenger lists are available from 1820 through the 1950s for most of the ports in the United States with customs houses. Those available in the National Archives on microfilm are tabulated in Immigration and Passenger Arrivals: A Select Catalog of National Archives Microfilms. They are divided into customs passenger lists (original lists, copies, or State Department abstracts) and immigration passenger lists (original lists) with pertinent indexes. Microfilm publication numbers are given where appropriate. A list of Immigration and Passenger Lists 1800 to 1859 that have been filmed is available online. Copies are also available for searching at the Family History Library and its Family History Centers located throughout the United States. Selected passenger lists are available at some public libraries. The Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana, for example, has a large collection of passenger list microfilms. Online access to digitized passenger lists is detailed later in this chapter, under the heading of #Improved Access to Passenger Lists.
Passenger records are not always available for all ports during all time periods. For example, no official records exist until those of the late nineteenth century for persons entering the United States through Canada or Mexico (see “Border Crossings” later in this chapter). There are a few passenger lists for San Francisco, but the official lists for that port were destroyed by fire in 1851 and 1940. Reconstructed lists are among the many lists indexed in P. William Filby’s with Mary K. Meyer’s Passenger and Immigration Lists Index.
In addition to the passenger lists kept by the state and federal governments, there are some city lists. The Baltimore City Passenger Lists, 1833 to 1866, have a Soundex index. The originals are in the Baltimore City archive, and the Family History Library has microfilm copies that can be used at LDS Family History Centers.
For pre-1820 official lists, researchers must rely on surviving ship cargo manifests. Many colonial and U.S. ports kept copies of manifests filed as a requirement of clearance. Extant manifests have been scattered among archives, museums, and other historical agencies, but most surviving lists have been published and are indexed in Passenger and Immigration Lists Index.
The amount of information included for each passenger varies from one list to another. Some lists give the names of ship and passengers, country of origin, and port of arrival only. Others also include sex, age, occupation, and place of residence when ticket was purchased. On some lists, the passengers are grouped into family units, on some they are listed by tickets, on some they are arranged in alphabetical order, and on others they are arranged in the order which the passengers boarded the ship. The name of the ship’s master and dates of departure and arrival will be found on some.
Passenger lists created after 1820 are usually separate documents if the ship was a passenger liner. If the ship was a cargo vessel that also carried passengers, the names were listed on the ship’s manifest with the master, crew, and cargo. Before 1820, most immigrants were not declared as passengers, and many were landed in harbors where customs houses had not been established.
Masters who landed passengers without permission, however, could be forced to return them or give security to customs officials by bond to cover costs of removal for illegal entry. Some ports required the payment of a head tax and issued certificates or permits to land. When the federal government began to regulate immigration in 1820, each ship was required by law to submit an official list of passengers carried. Masters who failed to comply could be fined and denied port clearance.
Federal control brought about the creation of two types of passenger arrival records: customs passenger lists (1820 to 1891); and immigration passenger lists (1891 to 1957). A thorough discussion of the nature and history of U.S. passenger lists is Michael Tepper’s American Passenger Arrival Records. A succinct guide to using those lists and the available indexes is John P. Colletta’s They Came in Ships: A Guide to Finding Your Immigrant Ancestor’s Arrival Record.
Published Lists and Indexes
One of the most significant developments in genealogy was the compilation of indexes to some of the previously published immigration lists. An early project was the Passenger and Immigration Lists Index (cited previously), which contains more than 4.2 million entries for immigrants from the British Isles and Europe. In this source, all names in each list are indexed: where maiden names are found, the women are indexed under both their married and maiden names; if a man has two or more given names, he is listed under each of his given names in the source. By contrast, Ralph B. Strassburger and William John Hinke’s Pennsylvania German Pioneers: A Publication of Original Lists of Arrivals in the Port of Philadelphia from 1727 to 1808, include Johannes Andreas Hoffman from three different lists. All three lists, however, are indexed under Johannes Andreas only. Thus, if you were looking for Andreas Hoffman, you would find only two entries in the index, when there are actually three. In Filby’s Passenger and Immigration Lists Index, however, he is indexed under both Johannes and Andreas, thus making him retrievable from the Strassburger and Hinke compilation as well.
In Filby’s index, each immigrant is identified by name (spelled as it appeared in the source), age (if given), place of arrival, year of arrival, source code, and page number. All persons traveling together are listed with the head of the household as a group and cross-referenced to all family members who immigrated together. Passenger and Immigration Lists Index covers only lists that have been printed. It does not include entries from the original passenger arrival records. The index is also available on CD-ROM and in the immigration collection subscription at Ancestry.com.
An important aid to the series is Passenger and Immigration Lists Bibliography, 1538–1900, compiled by P. William Filby. Each source listed is cited in full with a descriptive annotation of contents, coverage, and related immigration lists. For the sources that have been reprinted, the facts of publication for the reprint are given. All the sources identified in the 1988 bibliography have now been indexed.
Of the original 262 lists described in Lancour’s bibliography, 30 percent are emigrant lists recorded at the port of embarkation, 8 percent are passenger lists recorded at the port of arrival, 4 percent are ships’ lists, and approximately 15 percent are compiled works on settlers in specific localities drawn from church records, convict and pauper lists, naturalizations, customs lists, legal papers and petitions, county histories, oaths of allegiance, and other records.
Before 1820, the American colonies made virtually no effort to require lists of immigrants arriving in what is now the United States. Indeed, prior to the Revolutionary War (1775 to 1783) there was no federal government to make such a request. Therefore, control of immigration was left to the original colonies. Inasmuch as they were British colonies, and nearly 80 percent of the white immigrants before 1790 came from British countries, there was no need to record these arrivals. According to Michael Tepper, “Even for ships carrying the original colonists—the so-called first comers, first purchasers, first planters, etc.—there are few actual lists of passengers, certainly few that are undisputed.”
In light of this situation, it is fortunate that any colonial immigrants were recorded at all. In fact, a large majority of immigrant families have been documented, but, as Tepper points out when discussing the original settlers, they “are largely recorded—where they are recorded at all—in ancillary records and documents.”. Use of such “ancillary records,” including lists of departure from British countries, is a great boon to colonial immigration studies. They allow identification of at least some members of an immigrant’s family (usually the head) for upwards of 70 to 80 percent of the colonial white immigrants. The vast majority of these records have been published over the past few decades, with the happy result that virtually all of them are indexed in Filby’s Passenger and Immigration Lists Index.
Because of the great interest in, and availability of, the colonial Pennsylvania lists, some discussion is warranted here. Beginning in 1727, Pennsylvania required that non-British immigrants (essentially Germans) be identified. Three lists were compiled for these Pennsylvania German immigrants: (1) the captain’s lists made on board the ship by the ship’s mate from the manifest; (2) lists of oaths of allegiance to the king of Great Britain that were signed by all male immigrants over age sixteen who were well enough to march in procession to a magistrate (these two lists were submitted to the Pennsylvania government on large, loose sheets of paper and not all of them have survived); and (3) lists of signers of the oath of fidelity and abjuration. The oath was a renunciation of claims to the throne of England by “pretenders” and a denial of the right of the pope to outlaw a Protestant monarch. Those males of age sixteen and upwards who were well enough to walk to the courthouse also signed these renunciations in a series of bound ledger volumes that have survived intact. The editors of Pennsylvania German Pioneers, Strassburger and Hinke, calculated that only two out of five passengers are recorded on the signed lists.
The original order of the names on the lists is important. The first signatures are often those of the leaders, for the Palatines (immigrants from the Rhine River Valley of Germany—the Palatinate) came in groups. The names themselves are significant, for they may represent a whole church group or a group of related families. For these reasons, copy the whole passenger list where the ancestor appears and study the names carefully. The lists serve as a check to identify the correct ancestor in church registers, census lists, news announcements, and other records. The spelling of names on the captains’ lists is often inaccurate and different from the way the names appear on the other two.
The signatures are significant as well. The original printed volumes of Pennsylvania German Pioneers in which these lists appear contain the printed versions of all three lists, with the second volume reproducing in facsimile the original signatures as they appear on the third list. When the Genealogical Publishing Company reprinted the set, it did not reproduce the volume of signatures. However, a 1992 reprint by Picton Press of Camden, Maine, includes the signature volume as well.
U.S. Customs Passenger Lists (1820–ca. 1891)
Custom Passenger Lists or Customs Manifests were filed by the shipmasters with the collector of customs in each port. In accordance with the law, the list provided the name of the ship and her master, port of embarkation, date and port of arrival, and the name, age, sex, occupation, and nationality of each passenger. The original lists were prepared in duplicate on board ship and signed by the master of the vessel (under oath) and the customs authority. One copy was filed with the collector of customs; the other copy was returned to the master to be kept with the ships’ papers. On the list, the master was also required to record births and deaths during the voyage. Under a British/American law of 1855, copies of the passenger lists for British ships were also given to the British consuls in the American port. Because there were no forms regulating size or appearance of the passenger lists from 1820 to about 1891, passenger list formats varied widely.
Original lists are extant for Baltimore, Boston, New Orleans, New York, and Philadelphia as well as some minor Atlantic, Gulf Coast, and Great Lakes ports. All lists surviving in U.S. customs houses at those ports were transferred and shipped in the mid-1930s to the National Archives in Washington, D.C. There, archivists filled gaps in the record using available substitutes from records of the State Department. Copies or abstracts of the original lists were made by the collectors of customs and sent quarterly to the secretary of state. In them, the information was usually abbreviated, and copying errors were undoubtedly made. Transcriptions were also made for 1819 to 1832 lists from the copies sent to the Department of State. They are arranged by name of district or port, name of vessel, and name of passenger. The transcripts are third-generation copies and, as such, contain many errors.
Customs officials were also responsible to see that each ship entering and leaving port was licensed and registered. They also recorded ships’ manifests listing crew, passengers, and cargo; ships’ logs with statements on the conditions of the passengers, and births, marriages, and deaths at sea; payroll accounts with signatures for seamen; ships’ accounts for provisions advanced to emigrants; and miscellaneous documents that related to the ship itself. These documents, sometimes called shipping records, sometimes referred to as customs records, can be found either in the possession of the shipping company, the customs house, or in local and federal archives.
New York City—Castle Garden and Ellis Island (1855–1892)
New York City was the port of entry for by far the largest number of immigrants. Of the 5,400,000 people who arrived between 1820 and 1860, more than two-thirds entered at New York. By the 1850s, New York was receiving more than three-quarters of the national total of immigrants, and by the 1890s more than four-fifths.
In 1855, Castle Garden, an old fort on the lower tip of Manhattan, was designated as an immigrant station by the State of New York. When a new federal law excluding paupers and others was passed in 1882, New York continued to operate Castle Garden under contract to the U.S. government. But by 1890 its facilities had long since proved to be inadequate for the ever-increasing number of immigrant arrivals. After a government survey of potential locations, federal authorities chose Ellis Island as the site to establish an entirely new United States immigration station. Several Manhattan sites were rejected because earlier immigrants had been ruthlessly exploited as they left Castle Garden. On the island, immigrants could be screened, protected, and filtered more slowly into the new culture. The Ellis Island Immigration Center was officially dedicated on New Year’s Day in 1892.
Information on passengers who arrived at the Port of New York is available online at Ancestry.com and from the passenger lists microfilm published by the National Archives. Microfilm indexes for the New York City port are available only for the years 1820 to 1846; 1897 to 1902; 1902 to 1943; and 1944 to 1948.
Ancestry.com has digitized and indexed passenger lists for the Port of New York, 1851 to 1891, and the Statue of Liberty–Ellis Island Foundation has made available an automated database index to New York arrivals 1892 to 1924. (See Using the Ellis Island Database. Both Ancestry.com and Ellis Island have linked pictures of some of the ships to the passenger lists so that researchers can get a better idea of the conditions under which ancestors traveled. Some images are also available from the Library of Congress.
Immigration Passenger Lists (1891–1957)
As the result of an act of 1891, immigrants arriving in the United States were to be recorded by federal immigration officials; the resulting lists date from 1891 for most ports. The National Archives has published these lists on microfilm and a great number of them have been made available online. See the NARA website for an up-to-date list of what is available. The records contain the following information: name of master, name of vessel, ports of arrival and embarkation, date of arrival, and, for each passenger, name, place of birth, last legal residence, age, occupation, sex, and remarks.
Passenger lists dating from 1883 to 1891 for the port of Philadelphia, which one would expect to find among the customs lists, are included with the immigration list records. Records concerning immigrant detentions and board of special inquiry hearings at Philadelphia from the 1870s to ca. 1909 can be found in the National Archives Mid-Atlantic Region in Philadelphia (Record Group 85).
With the introduction of standard federal forms in 1893, passenger list information was changed to include the following: name of shipmaster, name of vessel, ports of arrival and embarkation, date of arrival, and the following information for each passenger: full name; age; sex; marital status; occupation; nationality; last residence; final destination; whether in the United States before and, if so, when and where; whether going to join a relative and, if so, the relative’s name, address, and relationship to the passenger. Other revisions of the format included race (1903); personal description and birthplace (1906); and name and address of the nearest relative in the immigrant’s home country (1907). It should be noted that these lists include not only names of immigrants but also of visitors and Americans returning from abroad. At the same time, lists of first and second class cabin passengers did not always survive. Passenger lists are arranged by port and thereunder chronologically.
The National Archives of the United States has several collections of arrival indexes and manifests for persons crossing the border between the United States and Canada. Most of these are listed as records of the St. Albans District, but they are not limited to those who actually came through St. Albans. Rather, the district encompassed most of the U.S.-Canadian border. The records begin in 1895 and cover arrivals as late as 1954. The microfilmed collections, most of which are also available through the Family History Library and its centers, include:
St. Albans District Manifest Records of Aliens Arriving from Foreign Contiguous Territory. These 1,169 rolls of microfilm include Soundex cards that abstract the original manifests and give detailed information pertaining to border crossings. All crossings (from Maine to Washington) are included between 1895 and 1917. Beginning in 1917, the records are limited to border crossings east of the Montana-North Dakota state border. After 1927, the records are limited to crossings in the New York-Vermont region. However, this includes major eastern Canadian seaports where U.S. officials processed ship passengers bound for the United States.
Soundex Index to Canadian Border Entries Through the St. Albans, Vermont District, 1895–1924. These four hundred rolls of microfilm include Soundex cards that abstract the original manifests and give detailed information pertaining to border crossings. All crossings (from Maine to Washington) are included between 1895 and 1917. Beginning in 1917, the records are limited to border crossings east of the Montana-North Dakota state border. From 1895 to 1927 the Soundex cards correspond to a passenger list record. After 1927, the records are limited to crossings in the New York-Vermont region, and comprise the entire record (i.e., there is no corresponding passenger list). However, this includes major eastern Canadian seaports where U.S. officials processed ship passengers bound for the United States.
Soundex Index to Entries into the St. Albans, Vermont District Through Canadian Pacific and Atlantic Ports, 1924–1952. The ninety-eight rolls of index cards in this set pertain to border crossings mainly in the New York-Vermont area.
Manifests of Passengers Arriving in the St. Albans, Vermont District Through Canadian Pacific and Atlantic Ports, 1895–1954. These 640 rolls contain the passenger lists of ship arrivals at Canadian ports of entry and passenger lists of arrivals at U.S.-Canada land border ports of entry. Indexed by the previously-mentioned Soundex cards, the lists are arranged by year, month, then port of arrival (a different arrangement than applies to lists at U.S. seaports). Arrivals at Canadian Atlantic ports are included for all years, but ship arrivals at Canadian Pacific ports are included only for earlier years (to 1917 or 1927).
Manifests of Passengers Arriving in the St. Albans, Vermont District Through Canadian Pacific Ports, 1929–1949. These twenty-five rolls of microfilm contain the passenger lists of ship arrivals at Canadian ports of entry and passenger lists of arrivals at U.S.-Canada land border ports of entry. There is no published index.
St. Albans District Manifest Records of Aliens Arriving from Foreign Contiguous Territory, 1895–1924. These six rolls of microfilm are of card indexes of arrivals at small ports in Vermont. Each port is arranged alphabetically. This is especially useful for identifying Canadians who settled in New England.
Detroit District Manifest Records of Aliens Arriving from Foreign Contiguous Territory. This collection includes 117 rolls of microfilm of the original card manifests, arranged alphabetically, for persons entering the United States through Detroit, and some other Michigan ports from 1906 to 1954. Many of the cards refer to passenger and crew lists found on an additional twenty-three rolls of microfilmed passenger and alien crew lists of vessels arriving at Detroit, 1946 to 1957.
Recently, the National Archives has begun microfilming border crossings for later years in western Canada and for arrivals across the Mexican border. Information on these records is sketchy but will undoubtedly be described in genealogical periodicals as the records become available.
Improved Access to Passenger Lists
Over the past few years, abstracts of many customs lists naming millions of passengers have been made available. Some have been published in the traditional method, in printed volumes, while others have appeared on CD-ROM. Some have had the benefit of publication in both mediums. Now they are also on the Web, as part of a subscription site.
Since the early 1990s, major genealogical publishers have been issuing abstracts of the arrival lists for various U.S. ports. Each published list, while appearing in various formats, almost always gives the name, age, origin and destination of each passenger. Also included is the ship name as well as the dates and ports of departure and arrival.
The Genealogical Publishing Company (GPC) of Baltimore, Maryland, has primarily published information port by port from the earliest years of the available lists. Generally its lists are in one alphabetical sequence for the time period covered, with the ship name, port, and arrival date as elements in the tabular presentation of the data.
Scholarly Resources (SR) in Wilmington, Delaware, has printed multiple-volume sets, covering arrivals of specific ethnic groups, usually regardless of the port of arrival. Produced in conjunction with the Balch Institute Center for Immigration Research, their format was to produce each ship’s list as a transcript of passengers, in the order of the lists, although limited to those who fit the ethnic scope of the publication. A key limitations to the Balch Institute work is that it includes only the five major ports and does not include the State Department transcripts for any port. Thus, their published transcripts are not always identical to the information on the microfilms of the passenger lists.
Book Publication. Publishers have gradually made almost all of the pre-1850 lists available in various formats, and sometimes from different compilers (transcribers). For most ports, these publications appear to have included virtually all of the counted arrivals, as documented by William J. Bromwell in History of Immigration to the United States. Thus these publications seem to document
- all passengers on all the extant lists,
- U.S. residents returning from abroad,
- that very few lists were lost, and
- more arrivals than previously shown in the statistics for some ports.
A few observations about these publications are in order. First are the passenger lists published in book form (see table). For the books published by GPC, there appear to be more names in the books than actual counted passenger arrivals (according to Bromwell). For example, the book listing New York arrivals in the 1820s includes over 85,000 names, yet Bromwell’s numbers suggest just under 83,000 persons arrived through New York in that decade. The two numbers for the 1830 to 1832 New York arrivals differ by an even greater amount (just over 5,000). The Baltimore, Maryland, and Charleston, South Carolina, lists also seem to show more arrivals than originally reported to Congress (and summarized by Bromwell). These differences likely are due to indexing techniques.
Passenger Lists Published in Book Form
|Publisher||Port/Ethnic Group||Years||Names in book(s)||Total arrivals|
|GPC (rpt)||All ports||1820||10,241||10,311|
|GPC||New York City||1820–1829||85,454||82,970|
|GPC||New York City||1830–1832||65,000||59,731|
|GPC||Providence, R.I.||1798–1808; 1820–1874||abt. 4,000||unknown|
|SR||Germans, 2 vols||1840–1845||abt. 97,000||136,406|
|SR||Germans, 9 vols||1850–1855||abt. 700,000*||744,843|
|GPC||Irish (NYC only)||1846–1851||651,931||unknown|
|* Includes many non-Germans|
However, the ethnic-oriented publications are a different case. These titles rely on the transcribing done by the Balch Institute, whose criteria were not always fully inclusive of every immigrant of a particular ethnic group.
Exact numbers of ethnic arrivals are also difficult to come by. Irish-born immigrants were not fully separated in the original lists. Those from Northern Ireland were grouped with English, Welsh, and Scots as “Great Britain and Ireland.” It is believed that about a million persons left Ireland during the famine, yet the published list of “Famine Immigrants” documents only about two-thirds of that number.
The post-1850 German coverage is discussed later in this chapter, while the 1840 to 1845 publication, with only about 71 percent of the German arrivals, requires more explanation. Since only the original lists were transferred to the Balch Institute, and only for the five major ports, the missing Germans for this time period may be in the arrival lists of smaller ports, or in missing originals from the major ports. Of the five major ports, both Baltimore and New Orleans have many gaps in their original records, and were also favored by many German arrivals.
Therefore, these artificially low numbers (in the German collections) should not suggest missing lists, but rather incomplete transcribing. Diligent researchers will turn to the various microfilmed card indexes for the ports of interest, or to the electronic publications discussed later in this chapter.
Electronic Publications. Of course, the sheer numbers of arrivals documented in these passenger lists suggests that traditional book volumes would be an expensive and cumbersome way to publish such data. Therefore, publishers have turned to electronic publication for large amounts of information. Most such publications are issued either on disc or the Internet; many are now appearing in both formats However, there are important differences between these formats for researchers seeking a specific passenger.
With a database on disc, the user can usually call up a portion of the list (usually alphabetical), and then browse for the surname(s) of interest. This can be a very useful way to locate names whose spelling the researcher cannot predict. While current immigration collections on disc do not use advanced search techniques, the ability to browse the name list is an advantage over most Web searches. Some websites offer only exact name matches. Others also offer a Soundex search, but even that approach does not bring all variants of a surname together. For example, the names Thompson and Thomson are coded differently under the Soundex indexing system.
Unfortunately, the issues are not as clear for the more recent databases of ethnic group arrivals. First, exact numbers of arrivals are not readily available for post-1855 arrival. Further, different definitions of ethnic groups are used between the original lists and the published abstracts. The Customs Passenger Lists generally used the column showing the country of birth. However, many Germans were born in France and Hungarians in Austria, to name just two examples. Database developers often used a different definition for selecting names to include in a database. The problems relating to the Irish “Famine Immigrants” lists have been noted previously.
CD-ROM Port of Arrival Collections (As published by Genealogy.com)
|CD#||Port||Years||Names on CD||Total arrivals*|
|273||New York City||1820–1850||1.6 million||1,650,675|
|N/A||Total 5 ports||1820–1850||2,263,000||2,411,832|
|* For the 1820–1850 time period|
Another key example is the series of Germans to America, whose first five years (1850 to 1855) included only the passenger lists for ships on which at least 80 percent of the passengers were shown to have German surnames. Interestingly, all of the passengers (including non-Germans) were transcribed into those volumes. Later volumes changed the criteria, ostensibly including all persons who described themselves as Germans, regardless of the percentage on the ship’s list, but no others. This then raises the question about Germans who claimed to have been born in France, or some other country.
CD-ROM Ethnic Group Collections (As published by Genealogy.com)
|CD#||Ethnic Group||Years||Names on CD|
|357||Irish (Boston, NYC)||1846–1865||1.5 million|
|264||Irish||1846–1851 (Boston) 1866–1886 (NYC)||1.5 million|
|362||Irish/British (& others)||1866–1873||200,000|
Despite the lack of information about the total number of immigrants within these time periods for any particular ethnic group, it is still clear that millions of immigrants are now easier to find through these CD-ROM and Internet collections than they have been in the past. Indeed, all of these electronic “ethnic” collections include passengers arriving in New York during the previously unindexed years of 1846–1897, along with other years and other ports. Of course, not all of the customs lists have been abstracted. However, of the “nearly twenty million persons” on these early passenger lists, slightly over half are now in electronic form.
Finding an immigrant in the electronic (abstracted) customs lists can still be a challenge since spelling of names was not consistent, and the search engines (on the Web or the CD-ROMs) are not always as useful as they could be. However, at least for the early years, there appears to be very little loss of the actual lists. Therefore, if your immigrant ancestor falls into any of the following groups, it would be wise to check these electronic collections, even if earlier research has failed to identify the immigrant:
- Arrived by 1850 (especially at the five major ports)
- Arrived at Baltimore by 1872
- Was a “German” arriving between 1850 and 1888
- Was an Irish arrival between 1846 and 1886
- Was an Italian arriving between 1880 and 1893
- Came from the Russian Empire (especially Jews) between 1850 and 1896
In order to maximize your chance of finding an immigrant, try searching both the appropriate discs and the Internet. Also use a wide variety of spellings, and watch for a broad time period. Further, if you are aware of several immigrants in the same family, search for all of them. A recent search for a child with the given name of Bernhard almost missed the family, because the child was transcribed as Reinhard. It was only because of several other identification factors that he was recognized. His Civil War pension had identified his age, port of arrival, approximate year of arrival, and his mother’s given name. Add to that his uncommon surname and his residence in the same rural county with two older men who also fit this immigration family (older half-brothers), and the identification was complete. The fact that some immigrants traveled back to their homeland and will be found on passenger lists more than once and with different traveling companions can further confuse a search.
CDs. Genealogy.com, now part of MyFamily.com, Inc., has produced many lists on CD-ROM which are now also available through its Internet site, <www.genealogy.com> and at Ancestry.com <www.ancestry.com>. Genealogy.com publications include transcripts created for all of the five major ports, through at least 1850, as well as electronic editions of the multi-volume ethnic publications created by the Balch Institute.
Passenger Lists Online. Because of its scope and functionality, the American Family Immigration History Center Ellis Island database naturally attracts a lot of attention (see “The Ellis Island Database: Maximizing Your Results” on page 394), but it is not the only immigration-oriented database on the Internet. The following are a few of the more notable ones that may facilitate your research. Thanks to Megan Smolenyak who provided text for this section
The Ancestry.com Immigration Collection—Additions to the Ancestry.com Immigration Collection are ongoing. However, at this writing, there are a number of significant databases within the collection that are worthy of mention. Complete database descriptions are available at Ancestry.com, but the following list provides some basic information about each. Because they are rather unique, some titles in the collection might otherwise be overlooked. They include:
—American Emigrant Ministers, 1690–1811. This volume contains a list of ministers and other clergy who applied for and received funds from the English crown to compensate for passage to the Americas. Included in the geography are the areas of the West Indies, the entire United States, and Canada. This record includes the emigrant’s name, date of departure, destination, and other interesting facts.
—New York Emigrant Savings Bank, 1850–1883. The Emigrant Savings Bank was established in 1850 by members of the Irish Emigrant Society. The bank ended up serving thousands of Irish immigrants who fled to America following the infamous Potato Famine. The bank kept many volumes of records including an Index Book; a Test Book; a Transfer, Signature, and Test Book; and a Deposit-Account Ledger. This database is an index to these records providing the given name and surname of the depositor, their account number, account date, and year and place of birth, if given. In addition, each indexed individual is linked to the image on which they appear where more information may be available. While the majority of the emigrants found in this collection will be Irish, you may occasionally find emigrants of other nationalities as well.
—The Great Migration Begins includes more than one thousand sketches, each dedicated to a single immigrant or an immigrant family, arriving in New England between 1620 and 1633. Each sketch contains information on the immigrant’s migration dates and patterns, on various biographical matters (including occupation, church membership, education, offices, and land holding), and on genealogical details (birth, death, marriages, children, and other associations by blood or marriage), along with detailed comments and discussion, and bibliographic information on the family.
—Sons of the Utah Pioneers Card Index, 1847–50. This database is an index of people who came to Utah between 1847 and 1850. Information found within this database includes the pioneer’s name, birth date, birthplace, death date, death place, and name of the company he or she traveled with.
In most cases, the passenger list indexes on Ancestry.com are linked to the actual passenger list images.
—Atlantic and Gulf Coasts and Ports on the Great Lakes, 1820–63. This database, contains names on passenger lists from Alexandria, Virginia (1820–65); Annapolis, Maryland (1849); Bangor, Maine (1848); Barnstable, Massachusetts (1820–26); Bath, Maine (1825–67); Beaufort, North Carolina (1865); Belfast, Maine (1820–51); Bridgeport, Connecticut (1870); Bridgeton, New Jersey (1825–28); Bristol and Warren, Rhode Island (1820–71); and Cape May, New Jersey (1828).
—Baltimore Passenger Lists, 1820–1948. This database is an index to the passenger lists of ships arriving from foreign ports at the port of Baltimore, Maryland from 1820–1948.
—Boston Passenger Lists, 1820–1948. This database is an index to the passenger lists of ships arriving from foreign ports at the port of Boston, Massachusetts from 1820–1943.
—Florida Passenger Lists. This database is an index to passenger lists of ships arriving from foreign ports at various Florida ports. The index includes Pensacola (citizens: Jun. 1924 – Aug. 1948, aliens: Mar. 1946 – Nov. 1948) (also includes passenger lists of ships departing from Pensacola for Aug. 1926 – Mar. 1948); Panama City (citizens: 1933–1936, aliens: 1927–1939).
—Galveston Passenger Lists, 1896–1948. This database is an index to the passenger lists of ships arriving from foreign ports at the port of Galveston, Texas and the sub-ports of Houston, Brownsville, Port Arthur, Sabine, and Texas City.
—New Orleans Passenger Lists. This data set contains alphabetical listings of approximately 273,000 individuals who arrived at New Orleans from foreign ports between 1820 and 1850.
—New York Passenger Lists. This database is an index to the passenger lists of ships arriving from foreign ports at the port of New York from 1851–1891 and 1935–1938.
—Philadelphia Passenger Lists, 1800–1945. This database is an index to the passenger lists of ships arriving from foreign ports at the port of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania from 1800–1945.
—Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at San Francisco, 1893–1953. This database is an index to the passenger lists of ships arriving from foreign ports at the port of San Francisco. When completed this index will cover the years 1893–1953.
Lists of Specific Ethnic Groups
—Dutch Immigrants to America, 1820–1880. This database contains information on over 56,000 Dutch immigrants who came to America between 1820 and 1880. The information was extracted from the National Archives passenger lists of ships arriving at various Atlantic and Gulf ports. The list includes vessels disembarking at Baltimore, Boston, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia and other smaller ports. The passenger lists used in this compilation includes approximately 100,000 separate ship manifests.
—Chinese Exclusion Case Files. These indexes include “Chinese Exclusion” case files among the immigration investigation files created in Hawaii, San Francisco, under the Chinese Exclusion Acts passed by Congress between 1882 and 1930, and repealed in 1943.
—Immigrants in Pennsylvania from 1727 to 1776. This is a collection of upwards of thirty thousand names of German, Swiss, Dutch, French and other immigrants in Pennsylvania.
—Immigration of Irish Quakers to Pennsylvania, 1682–1750.
—The German immigration into Pennsylvania through the port of Philadelphia, 1700 to 1775.
—Scandinavian Immigrants in New York 1630–1674: With Appendices on Scandinavians in Mexico and South America, 1532–1640 Scandinavians in Canada, 1619–1620 Some Scandinavians in New York in the Eighteenth Century German Immigrants in New York, 1630–1674.
—Baden, Germany Emigration Lists 1866–1911. This index, compiled by the Badischen Generallandesarchive Karlsruhe and microfilmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah, contains the names of over 28,000 persons who left Baden between 1866 and 1911.
—Brandenburg Emigration Lists. This database is a collection of government records regarding persons emigrating from the province in the 19th century. Each record provides the emigrant’s name, age, occupation, residence, destination, and year of emigration. Part of an ongoing project, the database now contains the names of more than 36,800 persons.
—Pennsylvania German Pioneers. This database contains the original lists of German pioneers who arrived at the port of Philadelphia from the years 1727 to 1808.
—Lists of Swiss Emigrants in the Eighteenth Century to the American Colonies. This database represents the history of Swiss emigration to the Americas in the eighteenth century. Originally located in the State Archives of Zurich, it contains the ship lists of emigrants to the American colonies from Switzerland, in particular to the Carolinas and Pennsylvania. Each list contains, where possible, the names of family members who departed, their birth date, baptism date, the town or province of departure, the date of departure, the name of the ship, and their destination. This is an invaluable research tool for anyone with Swiss ancestors who emigrated to America between 1700 and 1800.
—The Wuerttemberg Emigration Index. This database includes thousands of German and Prussian immigrants to the United States that made application to emigrate at Wuerttemberg, Germany. This collection, filmed at Ludwigsburg, contains the names of approximately 60,000 persons who made application to leave Germany from the late eighteenth century to 1900. The information supplied on each person includes: name, date and place of birth, residence at time of application and application date, and microfilm number.
—Names Of Foreigners Who Took The Oath Of Allegiance To The Province And State Of Pennsylvania, 1727–1775, With The Foreign Arrivals, 1786–1808.
—New York Count Index to Declaration of Intent for Naturalization, 1907–1924.
—New York Petitions for Naturalization from National Archives and Records Administration, Northeast Region. Soundex Index to Petitions for Naturalization filed in Federal, State, and Local Courts located in New York City, 1792–1906.
—Pennsylvania Naturalizations, 1740–1773.
—Philadelphia, 1789–1880 Naturalization Records.
—Utah Declarations of Intentions, 1878–1895
Hamburg Emigration Records—An index of emigration records for Hamburg, a point of departure for millions of our European ancestors, can be searched online. These records, which are also available on microfilm through the Family History Library (see page 418), cover the period 1850 to 1934. When the Hamburg State Archive made the decision to index the records, they opted to start with 1890 and work forward in time. As of this writing, the 1890 to 1910 time frame has been completed. If your ancestors came a little later or earlier, check the site periodically to see if the years that interest you have been incorporated.
While searching the database is free, you will be charged to access all the details pertaining to a specific record—and that data will appear in text format, not as a digitized image. Fortunately, you will usually be provided enough information (such as year of departure, country of origin, year of birth, and so forth.) to determine whether it’s the person you’re seeking, and batch pricing is available (check the site for current prices) if you have multiple searches to do.
Canadian Immigration Records—When the United States tightened its immigration policies after WWI, many Ellis Island-era immigrants were unable to bring their family members to America. Consequently, many of their relatives immigrated to Canada. So pronounced was this pattern, in fact, that current day Americans of Southern and Eastern European origin almost certainly have some Canadian cousins, whether they know of them or not.
For this reason, the National Archives of Canada’s database of 1925 to 1935 arrivals is a valuable resource, not only for Canadians seeking their immigrant ancestors, but for many of us from other countries. This database conveniently picks up just about where the Ellis Island database trails off, so if you can’t find the place of origin for your grandfather who came to Ohio, perhaps his brother’s Canadian record will have the information you seek.
While digitized images of the records are not available online, basic details are and you can place an order by mail or fax to obtain a copy for a nominal fee. Processing usually takes six to eight weeks, so you might want to consider hiring a local researcher if you’re in a hurry.
Immigrant Ships Transcribers Guild—This tremendous, all-volunteer effort to upload searchable transcriptions of passenger lists to the Internet now includes more than 5,000 ships listed by ship’s name, port of departure, port of arrival, captain’s name and surnames. To date, more than half a million immigrants are included. Sources for Keeping up With Online Passenger Lists—Joe Beine provides an excellent of links to online transcriptions of passenger records and indexes. Entries toward the top of the page are organized by port of arrival. Scroll toward the end of the page to find links listed by foreign origin, such as Portuguese, Norwegian, Dutch, Italian, Irish, Icelandic, German, Finnish, English, and Danish.
Cyndi’s List has links and references to information on most nationalities, including Armenian, French, Jamaican, Estonian, Australian, Chinese, and Welsh. There are also sections titled “Ships and Passenger Lists” and “Immigration and Naturalization.”
When Passenger Lists Are Not Indexed
As noted in the very detailed description of passenger lists in Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives, the lists were “written by many different hands over many years and conditions of their preservation before they were placed in the National Archives were not ideal.” Many lists are difficult to read; some brittle pages have broken away, and smeared ink has blurred words beyond recognition. Unless an immigrant’s name can be found in an index, or unless the exact date and port of arrival are known, searching through voluminous and hard-to-read passenger lists can be exhausting and futile work.
For the Port of New York, there are some potentially helpful finding aids. On twenty-seven rolls of National Archives microfilm is Registers of Vessels Arriving at the Port of New York from Foreign Ports, 1789–1919. The volumes, most of which identify ships by name, country of origin, type of rig, date of entry, master’s name, and last port of embarkation, are arranged in chronological order of arrival. If a researcher can eliminate some vessels because of port of embarkation or date, the search may be more manageable. More readily available to most is Bradley W. Steuart’s Passenger Ships Arriving in New York Harbor (1820–1850). The latter covers unindexed peak immigration years. A volume that has been in use for years is The Morton Allan Directory of European Passenger Steamship Arrivals. The Morton Allan Directory includes information on vessels arriving at New York (1890 to 1930) and at Baltimore, Boston, and Philadelphia (1904 to 1926).
Naturalization is the legal procedure by which an alien becomes a citizen of a state or country. Every nation has different sets of rules that determine citizenship. While citizenship documents are sought by family historians, both for their sentimental and for their informational value, probably no other records are more difficult to fully understand or locate. Complex and ever-changing naturalization laws and interpretations of laws have resulted in the dissemination of a great deal of incorrect information in this area of research. Unfortunately, many inaccuracies have found their way into genealogical publications. Sometimes, naturalization documentation cannot be found simply because an immigrant was not naturalized. Historically, the number of non-naturalized aliens in the United States has been significant. Tabulations of the 1890 through 1930 censuses indicate that 25.7 percent of the foreign-born population was not naturalized or had filed only declarations of intention. As John Newman points out in American Naturalization Processes and Procedures, 1790–1985, “Many aliens lived their lives as positive contributors to their community and new nation without formally acquiring citizenship.” He further notes that the constitutions of some states allowed aliens who had filed only declarations of intention to vote, and, except for certain periods when full citizenship was required, to own land. Another important point made by Newman is the fact that many individuals believed themselves to be citizens by derivation from parent or spouse.
Naturalization during the American Colonial Period
The naturalization process in what is now the United States has been an important issue since the seventeenth century. American colonists, subject to the British Crown, considered themselves only “inhabitants” of the colonies, and therefore assumed protection of the laws of Great Britain. According to the practice in England, aliens could acquire citizenship either by letters of denization or by naturalization through an act of Parliament. Denization, though not requiring an oath of loyalty, allowed the transfer of properties and real estate to heirs. Aliens wishing to qualify for public office, to vote, to own a ship, and, in most cases, to own land, had to become naturalized British citizens. Only through parliamentary action could an alien obtain full citizenship status. Finding it necessary to attract immigrants, the American colonies made citizenship and land available. Most of the citizenship records surviving from the American colonial period consist only of lists of oaths of allegiance signed by individuals as they disembarked from the immigrant ships.
In 1740, Parliament enacted new laws that allowed the colonies to naturalize aliens without having to obtain a special act in London. These laws failed to end disputes over the jurisdiction and authority of colonial governments that overrode English law with their own acts. In 1773, the crown disallowed naturalization acts from Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and through an order-in-council instructed colonial governors to cease assenting to such statutes. The strict policy prompted the charge in the Declaration of Independence that George III had endeavored to limit the population growth of the United States by “obstructing the laws for the naturalization of foreigners.”
The Continental Congress had resolved on 6 June 1776 “that all persons abiding within any of the United Colonies and deriving protection from the laws of the same owe allegiance to the said laws, and are members of such colony.” No oath was required from members of the Continental Congress or from soldiers enlisting in the American army. Those enlisting during the revolution were sworn to be true to the United States of America and to serve them honestly and faithfully. Congress later required an oath for all officers in Continental service and for all holding civil office from Congress. For a detailed discussion of the naturalization process during the Revolutionary Period, see Frank George Franklin’s The Legislative History of Naturalization in the United States.
Passed by Congress on 26 March 1790, the first naturalization act (1 Stat. 103) provided that any free white persons who had resided for at least two years in the United States might be admitted to citizenship on application to any common law court in any state where they had resided for at least one year. Citizenship was granted to those who satisfied the court that they were of good character and who took an oath of allegiance to the Constitution. Their children under age twenty-one also became citizens.
On 29 January 1795, Congress repealed the 1790 act and passed a more stringent law (1 Stat. 414) which provided that free white aliens might be admitted to citizenship under certain conditions. It required applicants to declare in court their intention to become citizens of the United States and to renounce any allegiance to a foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty three years before admission as citizens. It increased the period of residence required for citizenship from two to five years. The act also required one year’s residence in the state in which the court was held and to which application was made. Aliens who had “borne any hereditary title, or been of any of the orders of nobility” were required to renounce that status. These actions could be taken before the supreme, superior, district, or circuit court of any state or of the territories, or before a circuit or district court of the United States. As with the 1790 act, citizenship was automatically granted to the minor children of those naturalized.
From 1798 to 1800, during the undeclared war with France, Federalist leaders pushed through Congress four alien and sedition acts curbing freedom of speech and of the press, and curtailing the rights of foreigners in the United States. One of the statutes, approved 18 June 1798 (1 Stat. 566), required the filing of a declaration of intention at least five years before admission to citizenship, and residence of fourteen years in the United States and five years in the state or territory where the court was held. Condemned for its severity, the law was replaced with a new naturalization law (2 Stat. 153) reasserting the basic provisions of the 1795 act. The act of 1802 specified that free white aliens might be admitted to citizenship provided they: (1) declared their intention to become citizens before a competent state, territorial, or federal court at least three years before admission to citizenship, (2) took an oath of allegiance to the United States, (3) had resided at least five years in the United States and at least one year within the state or territory where the court was held, (4) renounced allegiance to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, and (5) satisfied the court that they were of good moral character and attached to the principles of the Constitution. While generally poor sources for biographical detail, some naturalization documents survive as evidence of citizenship status.
The 1802 legislation was the last major act affecting the basic nature of naturalization until 1906. Revisions during this period simply altered or clarified details of evidence and certification.
With the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution on 28 July 1868, “all persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof are citizens of the United States and the state in which they reside.”
New States and Territories
As the United States acquired territory by treaty or purchase, it also acquired jurisdiction over people living on that land at the time. Acquisitions included Louisiana in 1803, Florida—including Mississippi and Alabama—in 1819, and Alaska in 1867. By joint resolution of Congress, Texas residents were granted citizenship in 1845. By acts of Congress, citizenship was conferred upon residents of Hawaii in 1900, of Puerto Rico in 1917, and of the Virgin Islands in 1927. The names of individuals given citizenship by legislative act were often omitted, and the group may be referred to as a whole.
The United States has always agreed to validate property titles of persons who become citizens because they lived on newly acquired territories. To validate the title, however, a private land claim had to be filed, and these claims can be very valuable. The current land owner must document claim to the title, and if the grant was originally given to a father or grandfather, the claimant had also to prove descent. Some such files contain four to seven generations of genealogical proof through family Bible pages, original land transactions, genealogy charts, and affidavits and testimony of neighbors and relatives. See the Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives (cited earlier).
Significant Changes in 1906
By the beginning of the twentieth century, investigations into the naturalization process revealed a troubling lack of uniformity among the courts and a scandalous degree of naturalization fraud. Progressive reformers and the public became concerned, and as a result a new Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization was created under the act of 29 June 1906 (32 Stat. 596 sec. 3). The 1906 Act provided the first uniform rule for the naturalization of aliens throughout the United States. After September 1906, naturalization forms could be obtained exclusively from the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization. The new forms were expanded to include each applicant’s age, occupation, personal description, date and place of birth, citizenship, present and last foreign addresses, ports of embarkation and entry, name of vessel or other means of conveyance, and date of arrival in the United States; also included were spouse’s and children’s full names with their respective dates and places of birth, and residence at the date of the document. The declaration of intention of actor Errol Flynn was filed in the Common Pleas Court of Bergen County, New Jersey, on a standard federal form in 1939. Typical of many would-be U.S. citizens, Fermi began the naturalization process in a court near the place where he arrived in the United States and finalized the procedure in another county and state where he took up permanent residency. In this case, the final papers were taken out in Chicago. Fermi’s declaration of intention is filed together with his petition at the National Archives—Great Lakes Region in Chicago, where citizenship documentation is also available for his wife, Laura.
Women and Children
An act of 10 February 1855 granted citizenship to alien wives of citizens if they “might lawfully be naturalized under the existing laws” (10 Stat. 604). Prior to 1922, women and children automatically became derivative U.S. citizens when the husband or father naturalized, or upon the woman’s marriage to the citizen husband. Conversely, between 1907 and 1922 U.S. law dictated that American citizen women who married alien husbands lost their U.S. citizenship, and could not regain citizenship until the husband naturalized. While it was definitely the exception rather than the rule, some women, especially single adults, found it necessary or desirable to become naturalized citizens themselves.
An act of 22 September 1922 (42 Stat. 1021) had significant effects on the status of women. By this act a woman could no longer become a citizen by virtue of her marriage to a citizen, but, if eligible, might be naturalized by compliance with the naturalization laws; no declaration of intention was required if she was already married to a citizen husband. A woman could still lose citizenship by marriage after 1922, specifically if her husband was racially barred from naturalization (section 3), nor could the woman be naturalized while married to a racially ineligible husband (section 5). An act of 3 March 1931 repealed the provisions regarding the husband’s race, and thereafter women no longer lost citizenship by any marriage, and all wives of aliens could restore their citizenship through naturalization (46 Stat. 1511). After an act of June 25, 1936 (49 Stat. 1917), women who lost citizenship by marriage prior to 1922 no longer had to naturalize to regain their U.S. citizenship. Rather, they could take an oath of allegiance before a court in the United States and, upon taking the oath, be repatriated. Courts usually filed the women’s applications and oaths separately, but they may occasionally be found among the court’s naturalization records. The attached image is an example of the thousands of oath of allegiance documents created in the courts after 1936 to document the repatriation of women who lost citizenship by marriage prior to 1922. Under the 1936 act, women living abroad who previously lost citizenship could repatriate by taking the oath of allegiance before a consular officer at a U.S. embassy. Documentation of oaths taken abroad, as well as duplicates of those taken in any court within the U.S., are duplicated in the records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Requests for the federal copies must be made under the Freedom of Information Act and sent to Washington, D.C.
Aliens who served in the U.S. military and received honorable discharge were given special consideration. An act of 17 July 1862 (12 Stat. 597) stated that:
- Any alien, of the age of twenty-one years and upwards, who has enlisted, or may enlist in the armies of the United States, either the regular or the volunteer forces, and has been, or may be hereafter, honorably discharged, shall be admitted to become a citizen of the United States, upon his petition, without any previous declaration of intention to become such; and he shall not be required to prove more than one year’s residence.
Designed to encourage aliens to enlist for the Civil War, similar legislation applied to later wars as well. Many individuals have misunderstood this law and reported it to mean that those serving in the military gained automatic citizenship. It should be emphasized that this was not the case. With the length of residency shortened and the declaration of intention waived, the process was expedited. Instead of naturalization “first papers,” some courts may have filed military discharges for some individuals. Frequently, military naturalization papers (or “soldier naturalization” papers) were filed independently, making it necessary to consult a separate military index. Military naturalization records were, however, included in the WPA-created indexes described later in this section. It should be noted that, when the WPA indexes were microfilmed, the reverse sides of normally blank cards were sometimes missed. An index card for William C. Wilson illustrates the importance of a thorough search.
An act of 26 July 1894 (28 Stat. 124) extended naturalization privileges to those who had “served five consecutive years in the United States Navy or one enlistment in the United States Marine Corps” so long as they had received an “honorable discharge.”
Another modification regarding the naturalization of soldiers, sailors, and veterans came about because of World War I. An act of 9 May 1918 (40 Stat. 542) consolidated military naturalization laws and stated that: “Any alien serving in the military or naval service of the United States during the time this country is engaged in the present war may file his petition for naturalization without making the preliminary declaration of intention and without proof of the required five years residence within the United States.” The act provided for immediate naturalization of alien soldiers, waiving the required declaration of intention or first paper, certificate of arrival, and proof of residence. Members of the armed forces were naturalized at military posts and nearby courts instead of at their legal residences. A comprehensive index to World War I soldier naturalizations (except those at Camp Devins, Massachusetts) can be found at the National Archives, Washington, D.C., in Record Group 85, entry 29.
African Americans, Native Americans, and Asians
A law approved on 14 July 1870 opened the naturalization process to persons of African nativity or descent (16 Stat. 256). In the early years, members of some American Indian tribes were admitted to citizenship through treaty provisions and under special statutes. Prior to 1924, the most important law relating to Indian citizenship was the Allotment Act of 8 February 1887 (24 Stat. 387). This statute conferred citizenship on (1) every Indian born in the United States to whom allotments were made by this act or any law or treaty and (2) every Indian born in the United States who had voluntarily taken up within its limits a residence that was “separate and apart from any tribe of Indians” and had “adopted the habits of civilized life.” By an act of 9 August 1888, every Native American woman who was a member of a tribe and married to a U.S. citizen was declared to be a citizen (25 Stat. 392). The act of 2 June 1924 provided that all Indians born in the United States were to be citizens (43 Stat. 253).
At the same time, Native Americans born outside the United States, in Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, or other Americas, remained barred from naturalization on racial grounds until 1940. Asians were also barred from citizenship due to race. Chinese gained the right to naturalization in 1943, East Indians and Filipinos in 1946, and all others in 1952 when the racial requirement disappeared from U.S. immigration law.
Recent Government Changes
The Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization later became the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and operated under that name, controlling and managing the process and records of naturalization, until March 1, 2003. With the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, and mounting concerns regarding the efficiency of the INS in identifying aliens, Congress mandated radical changes. The INS was dismantled and many of their functions became the responsibility of the new U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) division of the Department of Homeland Security. These changes have little effect on researchers seeking historical documentation of a relative’s naturalization. Such records as were created by the INS are now under the jurisdiction of the USCIS.
Genealogical Information in Naturalization Documents
A great number of alien residents never became naturalized, for various reasons; therefore, citizenship documentation for these individuals is nonexistent. Also, some individuals did not decide to become naturalized citizens until they had been residents of this country for many years. Extreme examples have been found—some men and women did not become citizens for seventy or eighty years after immigration—but most people began naturalization proceedings within five years of their arrival in the United States.
A most important fact to remember is that the format and content of naturalization records varied dramatically from county to county, from state to state, and from year to year prior to 1906 when the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization was established. After September 1906, when the new law went into effect, uniform naturalization forms were required by all courts involved in naturalization.
Before 1906, state, county, and other courts printed various naturalization forms and certificate formats. Some courts, following directions of the 14 April 1802 Act (2 Stat. 153), were careful to record the name, birthplace, age, nation and allegiance, country from which emigrated, and the intended place of settlement of each registering alien. For example, the declaration of intention for Homer Hayes provides the kind of detail sought by all family historians but rarely found in naturalization documents created before 1906. Unfortunately, the great majority of the pre-1906 records do not reflect the directions of the 1802 Act. A typical naturalization record for this time period will provide only the name and location of the naturalizing court, the name of the person seeking naturalization, a statement renouncing allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty (naming country of origin), and the date of the event (declaration of intention, petition, or final certificate). If the individual being naturalized could write, a signature on citizenship documents may be worth all the effort of the search. An examination of a large number of these records suggests that many immigrants could not write; thus, their marks may be the only confirmation of their desire to become American citizens. Another disappointing fact is that many naturalization documents were copied onto forms in ledger books by county clerks. Often, the clerk’s handwriting is mistakenly accepted as the petitioner’s signature. Scanning other naturalization entries in a particular volume will usually make it possible to determine whether or not the signature is that of the clerk or the petitioner. Many of the earlier records contain little information that is of genealogical value, but significant exceptions in some states and counties make it advisable to conduct a thorough search of all potential naturalization documentation for the person or persons of interest. The attached image, from a court in Carroll County, Maryland, is representative of the variety of forms used by local courts before 1906. Usually, very little biographical information is offered in these early records.
Becoming a Citizen: The Process and the Records
The first Naturalization Act provided that an alien who wished to become a citizen could apply to “any common law court of record, in any of the states wherein he shall have resided for the term of one year at least.”
Aliens interested in becoming citizens of the United States generally took the following steps:
Declaration of Intention (First Papers). Usually, the declaration of intention was the first step in the naturalization process. First papers were normally completed soon after arrival in the United States, depending on the laws in effect at the time. (See the “Major Settlements, Immigration, and Naturalization: A Chronology” section.) Certain groups, such as women and children, were exempt in early years. After 1862, those who were honorably discharged from U.S. military service were excused from this initial procedure. Until 1906, the content of forms for declarations of intention varied dramatically from county to county and court to court. A large percentage of the first papers created before 1906 contain very little biographical information. Declarations of intention produced after 26 September 1906 generally contain the following information: name, address, occupation, birthplace, nationality, country from which emigrated, birth date or age, personal description, date of intention, marital status, last foreign residence, port of entry, name of ship, date of entry, and date of document. Declarations of intention, affidavits, petitions, and oaths of allegiance were generally filed together in the court in which the final steps to citizenship were taken. Affidavits and final oaths were not always recorded on separate forms, depending on the court and the year. When they do exist as individual papers, they are usually filed with the final papers, as in the case of Patrick McNamara, who was naturalized in the United States Court in Cuyahoga County (Cleveland), Ohio.
Petition (Second or Final Papers). Naturalization petitions were formal applications submitted to the court by individuals who had met the residency requirements and who had declared their intention to become citizens. As with the declarations of intention, informational content varied dramatically from court to court. Most petitions created before 1906 offer very little in terms of personal information. After 1906, the following information might be found: name, address, occupation, date emigrated, birthplace, country from which emigrated, birth date or age, time in the United States, date of intention, name and age of spouse, names of children, ages of children, last foreign residence, port and mode of entry, name of ship, date of entry, names of witnesses, date of document, address of spouse, and photograph (after 1929).
Certificate of Naturalization. Most pre-1906 certificates contain only the name of the individual and the name of the court and the date of issue. Certificates were issued to the naturalized citizens upon completion of all citizenship requirements. As in the cases of the declarations of intention and the petitions, the amount of information provided on the certificate may vary greatly from court to court and from year to year. In some cases, the certificate will provide the name; address; birthplace or nationality; country from which emigrated; birth date or age; personal description; marital status; name of spouse; names, ages, and addresses of children; date of document, and photograph (after 1929).
Naturalization Certificate Stubs. Generally, the court did not retain copies of certificates issued to new citizens, but certificates were usually issued from bound volumes. Typical volumes were designed in a check book fashion, with the certificate to the right side of the page, and a stub to the left to be kept as a permanent record of the person to whom the certificate was issued. These “naturalization stub books,” as they are sometimes called, vary in content from court to court and from year to year, but they sometimes contain useful genealogical information. Some court officials regarded stub books as a duplication of records that occupied needed space and ordered them destroyed. If certificate stubs have survived, they may be found in the creating courts, archives, and historical agencies. See, for example, the attached image, a page from a stub book for the U.S. District Court, Northern District of Ohio, for Julius August Behnke. It shows his age, when and where he declared his intention to become a citizen, names, ages, and places of residences of his wife and children, and the date of issue of the certificate of naturalization.
Certificates of Arrival. Aliens who arrived in the United States after 29 June 1906 were subject to an additional naturalization requirement under the 1906 naturalization law. Before they could be naturalized, federal naturalization officials (INS) had to prove the applicant’s lawful admission as an immigrant by verifying their official immigration record, usually a ship passenger list. Once the immigration record was located, arrival information was certified on a form called a certificate of arrival. The title of the document has frequently led to misunderstanding, causing some to state that certificates of arrival were issued to immigrants upon their arrival in the United States. In fact, the certificates of arrival were not issued until the immigrant applied for naturalization, some five or more years after entry. The certificate of arrival was then forwarded to the court where the immigrant had applied for citizenship and served as proof of the immigrant’s eligibility to naturalize. Most clerks of court then filed the certificates among the court’s naturalization records, but certificates of arrival were not always preserved by all courts.
Where to Search for Naturalization Documents
Prior to 1906 an alien could be naturalized in any court of record, and the court record is the only record of a naturalization. In most cases it is best to begin a search for naturalization documents in courts in the county where the immigrant is known to have resided. It is not uncommon to discover that immigrants, anxious to become citizens, began the citizenship process by taking out first papers in the county in which they first arrived in this country. One may have started the process somewhere on the Eastern Seaboard, for example, and then completed the requirements in the county or state when final residency was established in the Midwest. It is also not uncommon to find an immigrant who filed multiple declarations of intention in various courts as he moved around the country.
In addition to county and federal courts, there may have been city or municipal courts, marine courts, criminal courts, police courts, or other courts having authority to naturalize in the area where the immigrant lived. Often it was a matter of the alien simply choosing to travel to the most conveniently located court—and the courthouse in an adjoining county might have been more convenient than the courthouse in the county of residence.
While all naturalization records are supposed to be permanent records and kept indefinitely by the courts, major and minor situations have caused records to be lost, destroyed, or moved from their creating agencies. Floods, fires, carelessness, politics, and other acts of humans and nature have destroyed some records and made others inaccessible. Over the years some long-forgotten naturalization records have been rediscovered in warehouses, attics, and basements. Still other collections have been carefully maintained by museums, libraries, and historical and genealogical societies. State archives and historical agencies typically strive to preserve and catalog these historical records. If a record is not immediately found at the county level, an investigation of any such records kept at the state level may be in order.
Some courts will have master naturalization indexes, but many will have separately indexed volumes of naturalization records that will need to be examined book by book. Frequently, the naturalizations of military personnel and the so-called “minor naturalizations” (a strange term, given that no one under age twenty-one could be legally naturalized by a court) are in separate volumes and may be easily overlooked. It is not unheard of to find naturalization records intermingled with other court records; some have even been found among land records. An excellent source for locating courts and naturalization records is Alice Eichholz’s Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.
Millions of naturalization records from counties all over the United States have been microfilmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah and are available at the LDS Family History Library in Salt Lake City. Copies or the microfilm may be borrowed through LDS family history centers. In some cases, it may be more convenient to access naturalization indexes and files through the Family History Library if the records have been microfilmed.
Although most courts had previously indexed their naturalization records, the 1906 naturalization law required them to do so. Most of the federal court naturalization indexes can be found at the National Archives regional facilities, and many of them are published on microfilm.
During the 1930s and 1940s, a number of states participated in projects sponsored by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and carried out by the Work Projects Administration (WPA), to locate, photograph, and/or index naturalization records predating 27 September 1906. Though proposed as a nationwide project, funding was secured only for INS districts in New England, New York, and Chicago. As a result, there are several indexes to naturalizations in all courts in these districts.
There are several enormous naturalization indexes that should be consulted initially if the alien of interest lived in one of the areas covered by these compilations. One of the largest is Index to Naturalization Petitions of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York 1865–1957, described in a pamphlet of the same title. The records which have been microfilmed consist of approximately 650,000 three-by-five-inch cards that index bound and unbound naturalization petitions. The cards are arranged in three groups covering the periods July 1865 to September 1906, October 1906 to November 1925, and November 1925 to December 1957. The cards within each group are arranged alphabetically by the name of the person naturalized.
Index cards for the first group include the name of the naturalized individual, the date of naturalization, and the volume and record number of the naturalization petition. These cards may also contain such information as the address, occupation, birth date or age, former nationality, and port and date of arrival of the person naturalized, and the name of the witness to the naturalization.
The cards for the second and third groups show the name and the petition and certificate numbers of the person naturalized and generally include the address, age, and date of admission to citizenship.
The petitions to which these microfilmed index cards relate are in the National Archives—Northeast Region. They have not yet been microfilmed.
Petitions for the period from July 1865 to September 1906 are arranged in bound volumes. The information on each petition varies. Petitions dated 1 July 1865 to 5 July 1895 indicate the city of residence, former nationality of petitioner, name of witness, dates of petition, and admission to citizenship. Petitions dated from 5 July 1895 through 26 September 1906 may also contain information on the petitioner’s occupation, date and place of birth, and port and date of arrival in the United States; the name, address, and occupation of the witness; and the signature of the alien.
Petitions filed after September 1906 are unbound and are arranged numerically by petition number. They usually indicate the occupation, place of embarkation, and date and port of arrival of the petitioner; name of the vessel or other means of conveyance into the United States; the court in which the alien’s declaration of intention was filed and filing date; marital status; name and place of residence of each of the applicant’s children; date of the beginning of the alien’s continuous U.S. residence; length of residence in the United States; names, occupations, and addresses of witnesses; and signatures of alien and witnesses.
A caveat in the descriptive pamphlet states the following:
- The index reproduced on this microfilm publication refers only to those aliens who sought naturalization in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, located in Kings County, New York. An alien, however, could become a naturalized citizen through any court of record, making it possible for those living in any of the five counties that make up the eastern district to seek naturalization through the city or county courts in the counties in this district. This index, therefore, does not contain the names of all individuals naturalized in the counties of Kings, Queens, Richmond, Suffolk, and Nassau. The clerks of these county courts will, as a rule, have custody of the naturalization records of aliens who became citizens in their courts.
The National Archives—Great Lakes Region in Chicago has in its custody the Soundex index to more than 1.5 million naturalization petitions from northern Illinois, northwestern Indiana, southern and eastern Wisconsin, and eastern Iowa. The microfilmed records are described in Soundex Index to Naturalization Petitions for the United States District and Circuit Courts, Northern District of Illinois, and Immigration and Naturalization Service District 9, 1840–1950. The index consists of 162 cubic feet of three- by five-inch cards arranged in Russell-Soundex order and thereafter alphabetically by given name. The index includes civil and military petitions.
While the Soundex index includes references to naturalizations that took place in Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Iowa, a great portion of the records cited in the index are not physically located at the National Archives. Naturalization records in the custody of the National Archives—Great Lakes Region, with one exception, consist of records for persons naturalized in certain federal (not county or state) courts. The one exception is copies (not originals) of county naturalization records for 1871 through 1906 for Chicago/Cook County, Illinois. A sampling of the Soundex index described previously illustrates the standard format used for the cards and the kind of information about the individual that may or may not be included. Besides the name of the naturalized citizen, it is especially important to note the name of the court in which the naturalization took place and the petition number (when it is included on the card) when following through with a search for the actual naturalization documents. Normally, all biographical information recorded in the original document was copied to the Soundex card. If the spaces on the card for date of birth, birthplace, date and place of arrival in the United States, and so forth, are blank, it is likely that the original naturalization documents did not include that information.
While there is no comprehensive index to other naturalizations in its custody, the National Archives—Great Lakes Region also has naturalization documents for other federal courts in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin for certain years.
The National Archives—New England Region has original copies of naturalization records of the federal courts for the six New England states. Individuals were also naturalized in state, county, and local courts. The branch has copies (dexographs—white-on-black photographs) of such court records between 1790 and 1906 for Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, and New Hampshire. For Connecticut there are originals of some state, county, and local naturalizations for the years 1790 to 1974. An index to naturalization documents filed in courts in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island is also at the National Archives—New England Region. The index contains some cards for New York and Vermont as well, but the records to which they refer are not among the photocopies at that regional archive. The New England WPA index consists of three- by five-inch cards arranged by name of petitioner and by the Soundex system. The index refers to the name and location of the court that granted citizenship and to the volume and page number of the naturalization record.
For a listing of naturalization records and indexes available for research in the regions of the National Archives, see Loretto Dennis Szucs and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking’s The Archives: A Guide to the National Archives Field Branches.
Federal Copies of Post-1906 Naturalization and Citizenship Records
An important feature of the 1906 naturalization law required that for all naturalizations performed on or after 17 September 1906, all records were to be prepared in duplicate, with one copy forwarded to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) in Washington, D.C. The INS thus compiled a master set of all naturalization papers from that date until March 31, 1956, all arranged by naturalization certificate number. INS copies naturalization records are referred to a “Certificate Files,” or “C-Files.” It is important to note that INS C-Files dated 1906 to 1929 (and in some cases dated 1929 to 1956) may contain documents not filed with court records. All C-Files contain a duplicate copy of the actual naturalization certificate. As a result researchers who locate a post-1906 naturalization among court records should consider requesting the INS copy as well.
Beginning in the 1920s, the INS also created C-Files in citizenship (as opposed to naturalization) cases. Files containing applications, correspondence, and a duplicate certificate, relate to persons who acquired U.S. citizenship in a manner other than naturalization by a court. These include children who derived citizenship through the naturalization of a parent, or by birth abroad to a U.S. citizen parent, and who applied for a certificate of citizenship after 1929 (and when 21 years old). There are also C-Files for women who derived citizenship by marriage before 1922 and applied for a certificate of citizenship after 1940. A separate series of C-Files documents women who lost citizenship by marriage before 1922 and resumed U.S. citizenship by taking an oath of allegiance after 1936. Note that women who resumed their citizenship by taking the oath could do so before a court in the United States or before a U.S. Consul abroad. If before a court, a record should be found among court naturalization records. If before a U.S. Consul, the only record is the INS C-File.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), formerly the Immigration and Naturalization Service, maintains a duplicate file of naturalizations that took place after 27 September 1906. All requests for copies of naturalization or citizenship records issued between September 27, 1906 and March 31, 1956 may be requested from the USCIS Genealogy Program.
Other Federal Records
In addition to the many records in the United States already discussed, some other federal records may identify the immigrant’s place of origin. These records are usually used later in the research process because the records already discussed are more likely to provide the name of the native town. However, on occasion, military records, Social Security records, or others may provide information about the immigrant found nowhere else.
Military records are among the most important and most extensive U.S. records of genealogical value. Because the military needed to fully identify the soldiers who fought and the veterans who received pensions, birth information is common in military records. Immigrants were often ready recruits for the military, especially when they had few relatives in America. Many were willing to fight for their adopted country, including, paradoxically, those who left their native countries to avoid military service. As with most other genealogical records, the more recent records include more information. Indeed, records of Revolutionary War service seldom identify the birthplace of the soldier, let alone his home in the native country. By the time of the Civil War, however, enlistment records usually indicated at least the country where an immigrant was born, and sometimes the town. Although immigration decreased during the Civil War, a surprisingly large number of immigrants who arrived in the early years of the war enlisted in the army. To receive a Civil War pension, veterans did not have to require proof of birth; however, the birthplace of the veteran was often included on pension application forms.
By the end of the nineteenth century, military enlistment records almost invariably indicated the town of birth. Any significant military record created during the twentieth century will aid most researchers seeking the native towns of immigrants born after 1875. World War I draft records documented virtually every adult male between the ages of eighteen and forty-five in the years 1918 to 1920. World War II draft records have recently become available for some states, and they are found in some regions of the National Archives. They would include virtually any immigrant born between 1875 and 1900, whether they had been naturalized or not. For more information on these and other military records, see the series on military records.
Social Security Records
Beginning in the 1930s, the federal government made Social Security benefits available for an increasingly large number of U.S. citizens. To apply for these benefits, the individual had to file an application for a Social Security number. This application, called an SS no. 5 form, required a specific statement about the person’s date and place (town) of birth. By the 1940s, many citizens had obtained Social Security numbers. They could include virtually any immigrant born in the last third of the nineteenth century. These records are discussed in greater detail in the series on vital records.
Homestead records can also offer valuable clues. Much of the great prairie lands of the United States and Canada were settled by immigrants. Immigrants were required to have at least filed a declaration of intent to be naturalized before applying for homestead land, and the application often called for specific birth information. Indeed, the immigrant ancestor may have had any number of dealings with the federal government, even including federal court cases. Any such records will be important in documenting the immigrant’s life and, if the records date from after the Civil War (1865), they very likely will provide significant information about the immigrant’s foreign origins. See the series on land records
The term “Alien Registration” has appeared at various times in U.S. history and may relate to a variety of different records found in federal, state, or local records. The principal sets of records referred to by the term “Alien Registration” are as follows:
Court registration 1802 to 1828. Registration of aliens with a local court of record was required from 1802 to 1828. (Customs officers in Salem and Beverly, Massachusetts, recorded passenger lists with aliens clearly marked, 1798–1800. These records are in the National Archives.) Enforcing this law during the War of 1812 has given us some valuable data for persons immigrating after 1800. Many of these are indexed in the Passenger and Immigration Lists Index (cited earlier). Adherence to the law varied from court to court. Some ignored the requirement, while others took detailed information from the alien and incorporated the data in a declaration of intention to become a U.S. citizen.
Registry Files, 1929 to 1944. The Registry Act of 2 March 1929 allowed for the registration, or legalization, of immigrants who arrived prior to 1924 but for whom no immigration record could be found. Most immigrants who applied for Registry did so because they wanted to naturalize, and were unable to do so as long as the government could not verify their arrival from an official immigration record. Researchers often find evidence of Registry activity on index cards for Canadian or Mexican Border arrivals, which in Registry cases usually have the word “Registry” stamped or appearing on the card. Researchers searching seaport arrival records may find a card bearing the notation “C.R.” followed by a number. The number refers to a Certificate of Registry or Certificate or Lawful Entry, suggesting the existence of a Registry file. Note that the CR-number is not the file number, and should not be included in any request. Registry Files remain with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (now in the Department of Homeland Security) and are available only via a Freedom of Information Act request.
Alien Registration, 1940–1944. Under the Alien Registration Act of 1940, also known as the Smith Act, all aliens in the United States aged fourteen and older were required to register with the Immigration and Naturalization Service and be fingerprinted. With registration each alien was issued a unique Alien Registration number and an Alien Registration Receipt card to be carried on his or her person. Immigrants who later naturalized gave their card back to the government, but if an immigrant remained an alien after 1941 the card could be preserved among home sources. From 1950 to 1979, registered aliens were required to report their address to INS every January in the Annual Alien Address Report Program. INS kept only the last address on file, and that survives only if the INS maintained an A-file on the immigrant.
State alien registrations. At times various states took it upon themselves to register all aliens within their jurisdiction. The most well-known state alien registration was conducted by the state of Michigan in the early 1930s.
Enemy Alien Registration
When the United States is at war, the country classifies all citizens of the country with which it is at war as “enemy aliens.” It is important to note that an enemy alien registration applied only to those aliens who were 1) living within the United States, 2) were citizens of a country against which the United States had declared war, and 3) had not become naturalized U.S. citizens.
This practice dates to at least the country’s first war with a foreign power, the War of 1812. Over 10,000 names listed by state, with dates of arrival, are published in Kenneth Scott’s British Aliens in the United States During the War of 1812. While early lists may not always provide exact towns of origin, they will help establish when an immigrant arrived in the country.
The first large-scale effort to register enemy aliens within the U.S. was conducted by the Department of Justice during World War I. Germans, Italians, and citizens of other Axis powers registered at their local post office. The multi-page form was completed in triplicate. One copy went to the Justice Department in Washington, D.C. Another copy went to the state capitol of the state where the enemy alien registered. The third copy went to the local county or municipal law enforcement officer, usually a county sheriff or city chief of police. In the 1920s, Congress granted authority to destroy the World War I enemy alien records, and a very small number survive today. The enemy alien registration documents for the State of Kansas can be found at the National Archives Central Plains Region in Kansas City, Missouri.
The Justice Department also required enemy aliens to register during World War II. Registration began in February 1942 and continued through the spring. Once registered, enemy aliens received a small pink identification card, or booklet, containing biographical information and a photograph. The identification cards are often found among family papers. If the immigrant naturalized during or after World War II, the enemy alien identification card may be found inside their INS file. Enemy aliens interned during World War II may have an additional file among Department of Justice files at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland.
Immigrant Records after 1 July 1924
The United States changed its practice for documenting the arrival and admission of immigrants beginning 1 July 1924. Immigrants admitted for permanent residence on or after that date should have a visa on file with INS. After 1928 all immigrants admitted with a visa were issued an Immigrant Identification Card which, if found among family papers, suggests the existence of a visa file. In addition to standard information also found on the passenger list, visa documents include a photo, information about the immigrant’s spouse, children, and parents, and residence for five years prior to emigration. Additionally, most visas have certified vital records attached, the documents having been submitted with their visa application. Visas remain in the custody of the Department of Homeland Security (INS) and are subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
Some immigrants returned to visit family and relatives in the native country. Often, they applied for U.S. passports. These records will usually indicate their birthplace or the destination for the visit, which is likely near the native town.
More than 2,150 microfilms of U.S. passport records from the National Archives and Department of State have been released for research. These records from the U.S. Passport Office are travel documents “attesting to the citizenship and identity of the bearer.” People of all walks of life used passports. The first extant passport given to an individual is dated July 1796. Passports generally became more popular in the late 1840s, but until the outbreak of World War I in 1914, American citizens were generally permitted to travel abroad without passports. Naturally, the requirement to carry a passport caused a significant increase in the numbers issued. By 1930, the U.S. government had issued more than 2.5 million passports.
To receive a U.S. passport, a person had to submit some proof of U.S. citizenship. This was usually in the form of a letter, affidavits of witnesses, and certificates from clerks or notaries. By 1888 there were separate application forms for native citizens, naturalized citizens, and derivative citizens. Passport applications often include information regarding an applicant’s family status, date and place of birth, residence, naturalization (if foreign-born), and other biographical information. Twentieth-century applications often include marriage and family information as well as dates, places, and names of ships used for travel.
The microfilmed passport records, registers, and indexes are available from the earliest dates to about 1925. They are arranged in several sets; each passport application series is arranged chronologically. A number is assigned to most applications. For some years there are registers but no actual applications. You must use the registers and indexes to determine an application’s date (and number, where applicable) in order to locate a particular application. Microfilm copies are available from the LDS Family History Library and through its family history centers. Applications for 1925 and later are in the custody of the Passport Office, Department of State, 1425 K St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20520.
Seamen’s Protection Certificates
Similar in purpose to passports, and equally applicable to immigrants and native citizens, were the Seamen’s Protection Certificates, available as early as 1796 due to a Congressional act. Each district collector of customs was required to keep a register of seamen who chose to apply for a protection certificate, which would testify to his U.S. citizenship. Although most seamen were not naturalized citizens, those who were should have recorded their hometown when applying for this protection. The applications and registers were acquired by the U.S. Customs Department, and are now housed in the National Archives, or their regional archives, as part of Record Group 36. Of even greater value, due to the ease of searching, is a collection of abstracts of these certificates, indexed by two card indexes (one covering New York City, and the second including most other ports). Available for about seventy ports, the abstracts cover various dates, from as early as 1812 to the 1860s. Not yet microfilmed, these abstracts and their indexes, are available only at NARA.
- Marion J. Kaminkow, ed., Genealogies in the Library of Congress: A Bibliography, 2 vols. and 2 supplements (Baltimore: Magna Carta Book Co., 1972, 1977, 1987, 2001); Genealogies Cataloged by the Library of Congress Since 1986 (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress Cataloging Distribution Services Center, 1991).
- Martin Ulvestad, Nordmændene i Amerika [Norwegians in America], 2 vols. (Minneapolis: History Book Company’s Forlag, 1907–10); Rose Rosicky, A History of Czechs (Bohemians) in Nebraska (Omaha: Czech Historical Society of Nebraska, 1929).
- Chicago und sein Deutschthum (Chicago: German Press Club, 1902).
- Henry R. Holsinger, History of the Dunkers and the Brethren Church (North Manchester, Ind.: L. W. Shultz, 1962).
- Robert C. Slocum, Biographical Dictionaries and Related Works, 2 vols., 2nd ed. (Detroit: Gale Research, 1986).
- Mirana C. Herbert and Barbara McNeil, Biography & Genealogy Master Index (Detroit: Gale Research, 1980–).
- Juliana Szucs Smith, The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book (Orem, Utah: Ancestry, 2003).
- G. A. Dobbert, “An On-Line System for Processing Loosely Structured Records,” Historical Methods 15 (Winter 1982): 16–22; John Guertler and Adele Newburger, Records of Baltimore’s Private Organizations: A Guide to Archival Resources (New York: Garland Press, 1981).
- Nicholas V. Montalto, The International Institute Movement: A Guide to Records of Immigrant Society Agencies in the United States (St. Paul: Immigration History Research Center, 1978).
- Erna Risch, “Immigrant Aid Societies Before 1820,” Pennsylvania History 3 (January 1936): 15–32.
- Bradford Luckingham, “Benevolence in Emergent San Francisco: A Note on Immigrant Life in the Urban Far West,” Southern California Quarterly 55 (1973): 431–44.
- Kevin J. Rich, Irish Immigrants of the Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank, 1850–1853 (Massapequa, N.Y.: Broadway-Manhattan Co., 2001).
- Encyclopedia of Associations: Regional, State, and Local Organizations, 29th ed., annual (Detroit: Gale Research Co., 2002).
- Lubomyr R. Wynar, Encyclopedic Directory of Ethnic Organizations in the United States (Littleton, Colo.: Libraries Unlimited, 1975).
- Periodical Source Index (PERSI) (Allen County Public Library Genealogy Department, 1987–; annual volumes published since 1986).
- Suzanna Moody and Joel Wurl, eds., The Immigration History Research Center: A Guide to Collections (New York: Greenwood Press, 1991–).
- Joseph M. Silinonte, Bishop Loughlin’s Dispensations, Diocese of Brooklyn 1859–1866 (The author, 1996).
- Anita L. Eyster, “Notices by German and Swiss Settlers Seeking Information of Members of their Families, Kindred, and Friends Inserted Between 1742–1761 in Pennsylvania Berichte and 1762–1779 in the Pennsylvania Staatsbote,” Pennsylvania German Folklore Society 3 (1938): 32–41; Edward Hocker, Genealogical Data Relating to the German Settlers of Pennsylvania and Adjacent Territory. From Advertisements in German Newspapers Published in Philadelphia and Germantown, 1743–1800 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1981).
- Ruth-Ann Harris and Donald M. Jacobs, The Search for Missing Friends: Irish Immigrant Advertisements Placed in the Boston Pilot, 18 vols. (Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1989–97), also available at http://www.newenglandancestors.org and on CD.
- William Nelson, ed., Documents Relating to Colonial History of New Jersey, 1st series, vol. 12 (Patterson, N.J.: Press Printing and Publishing Co., 1895), 401–2.
- Lubomyr R. and Anna T. Wynar, Encyclopedic Directory of Ethnic Newspapers and Periodicals in the United States, 2nd ed. (Littleton, Colo.: Libraries Unlimited, 1976), 3.
- Immigration and Passenger Arrivals: A Select Catalog of National Archives Microfilms, rev. ed. (Washington, D.C.: National Archives Trust Fund, 1991).
- P. William Filby with Mary K. Meyer, Passenger and Immigration Lists Index (Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1981–).
- Michael Tepper, American Passenger Arrival Records (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., updated and enlarged in 1993).
- John P. Colletta, They Came in Ships: A Guide to Finding Your Immigrant Ancestor’s Arrival Record, rev. 3rd ed. (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 2002).
- Ralph B. Strassburger and William John Hinke, Pennsylvania German Pioneers: A Publication of Original Lists of Arrivals in the Port of Philadelphia from 1727 to 1808 (Norristown, Pa.: Pennsylvania German Society, 1934).
- P. William Filby, comp., Passenger and Immigration Lists Bibliography, 1538–1900, 2nd ed. (Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1988). This bibliography updates Harold Lancour’s original Bibliography of Passenger Lists (New York: New York Public Library, 1937), which was revised and enlarged by Richard Wolfe (New York: New York Public Library, 1963).
- Tepper, American Passenger Arrival Records, 16.
- Maldwyn A. Jones, Destination America (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1976), 78.
- William J. Bromwell, History of Immigration to the United States (New York: Redfield, 1856).
- Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives, rev. ed. (Washington D.C.: National Archives Trust Fund board, 1991), 41.
- Registers of Vessels Arriving at the Port of New York from Foreign Ports, 1789–1919, NARA microfilm M1066.
- Bradley W. Steuart, Passenger Ships Arriving in New York Harbor (1820–1850) (Bountiful, Utah: Precision Indexing, 1991).
- The Morton Allan Directory of European Passenger Steamship Arrivals (Immigrant Information Bureau, 1931).
- John J. Newman, American Naturalization Processes and Procedures, 1790–1985 (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1985).
- Linda R. Green, “Citizenship and Naturalization in Colonial America from Pre-Revolutionary Times to the United States Constitution,” Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly 14 (Fall 1992): 152–58.
- Journals of Congress, II, 16 January 1777.
- Frank George Franklin, The Legislative History of Naturalization in the United States (New York: Arno Press and the New York Times, 1969).
- Alice Eichholz, ed., Red Book: American State, County and Town Sources, 3rd. ed. (Provo, Utah: Ancestry, 2004).
- Index to Naturalization Petitions of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York 1865–1957 (National Archives Trust Fund Board, 1991).
- Soundex Index to Naturalization Petitions for the United States District and Circuit Courts, Northern District of Illinois, and Immigration and Naturalization Service District 9, 1840–1950 (National Archives Trust Fund Board, 1991).
- Loretto Dennis Szucs and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, The Archives: A Guide to the National Archives Field Branches (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1988).
- Kenneth Scott, British Aliens in the United States During the War of 1812 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1979).