Overview of Immigration Research
| 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|
We are all descended from immigrants. Whether they came to America in prehistoric times via the Bering Strait or later on ships or airplanes, at some point in history, every person’s ancestors came from somewhere else. And almost everyone has a strong desire to know why, when, and from where their ancestors emigrated. Most of us begin with the simple goal of finding “Old Country” origins. Yet the quest usually does not end when that discovery is made. Once we begin tracking ancestors back in time and across continents, we are often drawn so deeply into the story that it’s difficult to stop searching. There are always a few more relationships to be proved and details to be learned. And when finally discovered, the ancestor’s homeland takes on a fascination of its own. We find ourselves intrigued with histories and cultures, wanting to know as much as possible about “our people.” Scarcely any phase of family history research is as fascinating as tracking immigrant origins—and scarcely any phase is as challenging.
Knowing the immigrant’s birthplace or last place of residence before emigrating is essential to finding more information in the native land. Yet, unless the ancestors arrived relatively recently in the United States, family origins may have been forgotten. Because most foreign records are kept at the town level, discovering the name of a native town, county, or parish is an important goal. Without that information, it is impossible to know where to conduct research in the country of origin.
Every American hoping to link generations and reach back in time will ultimately be faced with immigration questions. The twofold purpose of this chapter is to facilitate the search for immigrant origins by (1) identifying the principles of immigration research, and (2) describing a vast body of American sources that document immigration.
The sources described in this chapter focus on the original records most likely to provide key immigration information about ancestors and other relatives who came to North America, specifically the United States. Many such sources have been indexed, abstracted, or transcribed into books, and in recent years, onto CD-ROMs and Web pages. The growing body of published immigration sources is the subject of an extensive chapter, “Immigration Sources,” in Printed Sources: A Guide to Published Genealogical Records, edited by Kory L. Meyerink.
Principles of Immigration Research
There is no “universal” record source that can be counted upon to provide the name of an immigrant’s ancestral home. Rather, there are dozens of records that may, depending on the time period and ethnic nature of the family, provide the necessary information. For this reason, it is important to follow certain principles when researching an immigrant ancestor. These principles include
- identifying the immigrant clearly,
- learning the historical background,
- using the right research approaches,
- searching American records thoroughly first, and
- knowing the process of immigration.
Identifying the Immigrant
The ability to trace individuals and families successfully is greatly enhanced if researchers begin by making every effort to learn everything possible about the immigrant or family using U.S. record sources. An immediate concern should be to learn the full name of the immigrant and the names of as many other family members as possible. It is sometimes necessary to trace the lives of all the immigrant’s children in order to obtain the critical clues that will tell exactly where the immigrant was born.
To clearly identify an immigrant in records of the country from which the person came, you must know:
The full name. Given names and surnames (last names) are necessary. It is useful to learn all of the immigrant’s given names, such as Johann Wilhelm Karl Hummel. Some individuals went by a second name, a confirmation name, or a nickname. Not only will learning the full name help to identify a person in the records of the country of origin; sometimes the name alone, or part of the name, can be a clue to the immigrant’s original country or region.
A date. A birth date is preferable, but a date of marriage, a record of a religious event, military release, or other such information may substitute for a birth date, as long as the event took place in the native country. A complete date (day, month, and year) should be sought, but it is sometimes possible to identify an individual with only the year of an event.
A place of origin. Eventually, you must determine the specific place (town or parish) where the immigrant was born or lived before coming to the United States. This is the focus of immigrant origin research for most researchers. Sometimes it is possible to learn the specific town from records in the native country, but you should try to determine it from American records.
A relative. Family relationships—especially parentage—are important. The more you know about a family as a whole, the easier it is to correctly identify the immigrant in records of his or her native country. If it is not possible to discover the father’s name, seek the mother’s name or the name of a spouse, brother, sister, or other close relative (uncle, aunt) as a substitute. Not only will this information help identify the person in native records, but you may be able to learn more about a brother’s or son’s place of origin than about the ancestor who is the subject of your search. Many of the sources discussed in this chapter might name the native towns of some family members, yet not include your immediate ancestor.
While some records might not indicate specifically where the person came from, they might provide clues that will lead to others until you find a record that finally shows the town of origin. If at all possible, learn the following about the immigrant:
Family stories, traditions, and heirlooms. Surprising clues may survive in family traditions, letters, diaries, journals, religious records, postcards, photographs, scrapbooks, and mementos that have been saved over the years. Linked with a basic knowledge of the immigrant’s homeland—including the leading industry of the native district, common occupations, names of nearby towns, rivers, mountains, and other features of the area—a family story, a tradition, or an heirloom could provide the breakthrough that will identify the exact immigrant origins.
Friends and neighbors. Many immigrants traveled together or settled among friends from their native land. When a particular immigrant cannot be located, track neighbors and associates. When you find their places of origin, see if your ancestor is nearby. In Duke University Library in Durham, North Carolina, is an account book among the personal papers of Zachariah Johnston. It includes money loaned to family members and close associates from the time the Johnston family left Ireland, to their initial settlement near Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to their stop in Augusta County, Virginia, to their residence in Lexington, Virginia, just south of the Augusta County line. The same names appear and reappear. The whole group left Ireland in 1709 and stayed together at least until Zachariah died in 1800. They are recorded, along with their specific townland in Ireland, in that little account book. These families intermarried more than ten times during that century. For other examples of this approach, read Hank Z. Jones Jr.’s “Finding the Ancestral Home of a Palatine Forefather: The Case of Martin Zerbe,” in Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine; and “The Braun and Loesch Families: Neighbors in Germany and America,” in Quarterly of the Pennsylvania German Society.
Religion. Records created by religious organizations comprise a likely source of information in the country of origin. By learning the immigrant’s religion, you can further identify him or her, limit your searches to records most likely to include the immigrant, and gain clues to more specific geographical origins. For example, a Protestant German ancestor was more likely to have come from northern Germany than from a southern area. Often, entire religious colonies traveled together and are documented in religious literature. Knowing, for example, that an immigrant Englishman was a Quaker can significantly change your research approach. (See Overview of Church Records.)
Ethnicity. The natural security of living among people who speak the same language and have the same cultural or religious background is the bonding force that has traditionally kept ethnic communities together. Immigrants, particularly those who did not speak English, tended to settle in enclaves within cities and to cluster in specific regions of the United States. It was common for immigrants arriving in large numbers as a result of difficulties in their home countries to settle together on this side of the ocean, and then to migrate en masse within the United States. Many immigrants felt a need to transplant and preserve, as much as possible, their culture and lifestyle as it existed in their native lands. Immigrant groups frequently founded their own churches, schools, banks, boarding houses, and other institutions. They also had their own academic, athletic, charitable, fraternal, occupational, and social organizations. Volumes have been written about virtually every ethnic group. Ethnic presses generated newspapers and histories that focused on specific communities. Many ethnic publications survive that could be invaluable for those who want to learn more about the lives and times of their immigrant ancestors. Biographical sketches of Mrs. Isabella Atlanta Anderson and Jonas Anton Anderson, published in Algot E. Strand’s A History of the Norwegians of Illinois (figure 9-1), are typical of those found in ethnic publications. In most cases, birthplace, names of parents, spouse, and children, details of the family or individual’s arrival in the United States, and other interesting information will surface in these historical sources. To learn what motives your ancestor may have had in coming to the United States, which groups came in what time period, where large concentrations of national groups typically settled, and other important information about settlement patterns, consult one or more of the works that focus on the specific ethnic group.
Name changes. Sometimes immigrants chose to change their names. A surname change was the result of a conscious choice to become Americanized, but usually it simply evolved during years of life in a new culture that used a language foreign to the immigrant. Name changes are therefore most common among foreign-speaking immigrants. Many individuals went to court to register and make a name change official, while others never bothered with the formalities. If a name change is suspected, a look at court records might be well worth the effort. Some preliminary reading can be interesting and will almost always enhance the potential for success in the long run. (Several useful titles are identified in the chapter reference section.)
Where to Look for Immigration Information
There are advantages to beginning a search with at least some knowledge about the immigrant’s voyage. Certain tactics used to learn the place of origin require knowing as much as possible about when and where the immigrant arrived in America, and from where in the native country he or she came. Try to calculate the date of immigration as closely as possible. Knowing the name of the ship that brought the individual or family to the United States is desirable, but it is not entirely impossible to discover that specific information at some later point in the project. Because so many passenger lists have been digitized in recent years, searches of online immigration databases or CDs are logical starting points. It should be noted, however, that names of individuals may have been missed or deciphered incorrectly in indexes. Searching passenger lists, page by page, may be the only way to find someone if a specific time frame of arrival is known. (See American Sources for Documenting Immigrants#Immigration Records.)
Date of immigration. If the approximate date of immigration can be determined, it is usually possible to locate passenger lists and records of ethnic or religious groups. Census records are particularly useful for learning this information. The 1900, 1910, 1920, and 1930 U.S. Federal Censuses usually provide the approximate year of arrival, though census information is not entirely reliable. Children’s birthplaces in the 1850 through 1880 censuses can also help determine the year of arrival.
Once the date of immigration has been established, it is easier to determine the location of other important records, including naturalization papers. A date of immigration may also suggest when the immigrant was granted a release from military service in the native country.
Place of departure. If American records document the port or city the immigrant left, a number of records from the country of departure may indicate the name of the hometown. These include emigration lists (departure lists), indexes, newspapers, church records, and other records at the port of departure. From these, it may be possible to learn the date of immigration as well as the ship’s name, which may be necessary to locate your ancestor in U.S. arrival records.
Port or city of arrival. Immigrants often stayed in the city of arrival for months or years before moving on. If you learn where your ancestor arrived in America, it may be possible to find applications for naturalization, church records, and government vital records, including marriage, death, and birth records. Any of these are likely to provide more clues about the ancestral home.
Name of the ship. The name of an immigrant’s ship is more than an interesting biographical footnote. It may be necessary to find passenger lists, place of departure and arrival, and the names of other immigrants in the group. Sometimes the name of the ship that brought an immigrant ancestor to America will be remembered and handed down as the only clue to native origins.
Reason for immigrating. Biographical and family sources often imply why the immigrant came to America. In some cases, knowing why a person immigrated can help in locating ethnic or religious group records, the date of immigration, or the places of departure and arrival.
Immigrant’s original country or region. Sometimes knowing the country or region a person left is enough to begin a search in the records of that area, and those records may suggest the place of departure.
Since 1607, some 57 million immigrants have come to America from other lands. Approximately 10 million passed through on their way to some other place or returned to their original homelands, leaving a net gain of more than 47 million people:
Additional immigration statistics can be found at the U.S. Census Bureau.
In 1907, immigration peaked at 1,285,349.
Between 1607 and 1790, early European immigration was mostly from Britain (England, Scotland, Ulster Ireland, Southern Ireland, Wales) and Germany. However, the largest number of immigrants were the forced immigrants from Africa, who accounted for approximately 40 percent of the colonial immigrants to the future United States. Based on a careful review of current demographic studies by immigration historians, the approximate distribution of immigrants before 1790 was as follows (see figure 9-4):
Before 1790, North America’s Anglo population was confined to the area east of the Appalachian Mountains, with only a scattering of Americans over the line along the frontiers. However, as the numbers of immigrants continued to climb, the frontiers had to be constantly pushed back, eventually bringing the immigrants to the Rocky Mountains and northern plains states. During the last two hundred years of immigration to the United States, the numbers of immigrants have risen and fallen in response to conditions in America as well as abroad.
The ethnicity of immigrants also changed considerably over time (table 9-1). Between 1820 and 1855, Ireland contributed the largest single group of immigrants. Germany, especially Prussia, contributed 20 percent of the immigrants during those years. A smattering from other parts of Europe and an introduction of people from China and Mexico rounded out the population.
Before 1885, most European immigrants originated north of the Alps and west of the Elbe River. After 1885, the so-called New Immigration came from southern and eastern Europe, with the largest number of immigrants from Italy and Russia (mostly Jews). These immigrants concentrated in urban centers where jobs were available and where synagogues, churches, neighbors, and immigrant aid societies cushioned the immigrant experience. Most of these families were too poor to buy land when they arrived in America, and many heads of family had skilled and semi-skilled occupations.
In 1910, Russian immigrants comprised 20 percent of the foreign population of New York State and 25 percent of New York City; immigrants from Austria and Hungary comprised 12 percent and 14 percent, respectively; and Italians comprised 17 percent of the foreign population in New York, 18 percent in the city. By 1910, one-fourth of the foreign-born population of New York City had arrived within the previous five years; they spoke a variety of languages, practiced a variety of religious customs, and demanded a wide range of food.
By the time of the 2000 census, immigrants had come to the United States from virtually every country on the earth. That census revealed that English ancestry no longer prevailed. German was the leading ancestry, followed by African American; Irish was third, followed by English. The others comprising the top ten were Hispanic, Italian, French, Polish, American Indian, and Dutch. The following tables identify each ancestry group with more than 1 million claimants in 2000.
|1790 U.S. Ancestry (Based on Evaluated 1790 Census Figures)|
|Ancestry Group Number||(1790 Estimate)||Percentage of Total|
|Swedish and other||20,000||0.5|
|Total U.S. population||4,000,000||100|
Meyerink based this table largely on the analysis of 1790 census data by Thomas L. Purvis in “The European Ancestry of the United States Population, 1790,” William & Mary Quarterly, 3rd series, 41 (1): 85–. There has been much discussion about the ethnic stock of colonial America as various scholars have tried to use the 1790 census to arrive at precise figures. This cannot be done precisely, as the method depends on assigning every 1790 head of household to one, and only one, ancestry based on the presumed origin of the surname. American ancestry, even in 1790, was not always from only one race or nation. At that time many Americans already had five to seven generations in America, including ancestors from different countries.
Purvis and others have been criticized for their methodology in determining these figures (e.g., Akenson, same issue, p. 102–), but this is the best estimate available and is defended by Purvis (in the same issue). While not specifically accurate, the numbers are surely close. However, Purvis and earlier studies focused only on the white population in 1790. Meyerink has rounded Purvis’s figures to the nearest percent (to account for the lack of precision), then adjusted them (to the nearest half-percent) to include the non-white (i.e., African and limited [eastern] Native American) population. The actual census count (including African Americans) for the area enumerated was 3,929,625, but did not include the Northwest Territory and areas under French or Spanish control (upwards of 50,000 people), nor most Indian tribes. Hence the rounded figure of 4 million.
Earlier studies attempting to discern America’s colonial “ethnic stock” include: American Council of Learned Societies, “Report of the Committee on Linguistic and National Stocks in the Population of the United States,” Annual Report of the American Historical Association, 1931, vol. 1 (Washington, D.C.: 1932), as well as A Century of Population Growth, 1790–1900 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1909).
|2000 U.S. Ancestry (groups with more than two million)||Ancestry||2000 count||Percent|
|TOTAL U.S. POP||281,421,906||N/A|
The Value of History
Millions of immigrants from all over the world have brought unique customs and great diversity to the United States. And while certain principles of research may be applied to almost any country, there comes a time in every investigation when something of the specific history and the customs of the place from which our ancestors emigrated must be understood. Immigrants’ experiences were not isolated. Groups were forced to leave by religious oppression, famine, agricultural and industrial revolution, the threat of conscription, and war. Other groups were lured by the American dream—the idea of commoners being able to own their own land.
From the documented and well-studied experiences and patterns of a national group, we can begin to understand the motives and individual histories of our own ancestors as they molded their destinies by leaving behind all that they had known. With an understanding of the customs and regulations of the time in which our ancestors traveled, we can know what kinds of records may have been created. Some of these record sources are unique to particular groups and might be the sole means of discovering the specific origins of ancestors.
America’s immigration history is two-sided. To search records successfully, it is most helpful to study the newcomer both as emigrant (leaving the old country) and immigrant (coming to America). A brief outline of almost any nation’s history can be gleaned from a standard encyclopedia, but the deeper the understanding you have of a specific group of people, the more likely you are to find clues to continue a search and to understand the personalities of individuals. For example, how might an ancestor’s life have been radically changed by the pogroms in Russia? Nicholas V. Riasanovsky addresses that and a number of other issues that a diligent researcher should know about the country in A History of Russia. Riasanovsky describes and illustrates the cultural, economic, geographical, and social aspects of “Russia before the Russians,” “Appanage Russia,” “Muscovite Russia,” “Imperial Russia,” and “Soviet Russia.”
If you want to know more about living conditions and concerns of your British grandparents from 1830 to 1902, for example, a book like G. M. Young’s Victorian England: Portrait of an Age will provide an unusual degree of detail. Histories of this sort abound, and they provide not only the necessary background information for the researcher, but they also enhance appreciation of the lives of ancestors who lived in times very different from our own.
Besides learning something of the history of an ancestor’s national group, it is beneficial for the family historian to understand what occurred after an immigrant arrived in the United States. Were entrance records kept on this side of the ocean? Where might an immigrant have chosen to live immediately after his or her arrival? Where did others of the same nationality settle, and what kinds of documents survive from ethnic communities? Was the immigrant likely to have been naturalized? If so, where and when?
Researchers will find a rich storehouse of printed material to expedite their immigration research. Consider such important immigration sources as Roger Daniels’s Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life, Philip Taylor’s The Distant Magnet: European Emigration to the U.S.A., and Oscar Handlin’s Immigration as a Factor in American History, which cover the emigration experience and its broadest implications; or the histories of particular groups, such as James G. Leyburn’s The Scotch-Irish: A Social History, Rowland Tappan Berthoff’s British Immigrants in Industrial America, 1790–1950, Andrzej Brozek’s Polonia Amerykaska: The American Polonia, Albert Camarillo’s Chicanos in a Changing Society: From Mexican Pueblo to American Barrios in Santa Barbara and Southern California, 1848–1930, and Jay P. Dolan’s The Immigrant Church: New York’s Irish and German Catholics.
History journals and dissertations often provide even more detailed discussions of why people emigrated, when and how they traveled, what they did when they got to the United States, and what kinds of records will divulge their individual names and personal facts. Not only do writings such as Oliver MacDonagh’s “The Irish Famine Emigration to the United States,” in Perspectives in American History, Robert Swierenga’s “Dutch Immigrant Demography, 1820–1880,” in Journal of Family History, or Paula Kaye Benkart’s “Religion, Family, and Community Among Hungarians Migrating to American Cities, 1880–1930,” provide critical insights in themselves, but they will usually point to original and often obscure records used by the authors to prove their theses.
Ethnic and Religious Groups
It would be impossible to cite all of the sources valuable for immigration research, but the determined researcher will find an abundance of published material on specific ethnic and religious groups available in or through public, university, and private libraries. Because every national and religious group of people can be considered an ethnic group, “ethnic” is an important subject heading to consider when searching any library catalog.
Probably one of the most definitive and useful background sources for all ethnic groups is Stephen Thernstrom’s Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups. This reference work, found in most large libraries, includes the basic information about the multitude of people who make up the population of the United States. It is a succinct, authoritative treatment of the origins and histories of 106 ethnic groups; it includes twenty-nine thematic essays, eighty-seven maps, and a critical bibliography for each section. Among the many important points made by the Encyclopedia is the fact that few ethnic groups are evenly distributed throughout all regions of the United States. There is a definite tendency for ethnic groups to concentrate in some areas and to avoid others. Though somewhat dated, the depth and scope of the work and the many specialized bibliographies make the Encyclopedia a very useful source for ethnic research.
If religion was a catalyst that sent many an immigrant from his or her homeland, it was also the glue that bound ethnic communities together in the new country. The immigrant church and synagogue were extensions of Old World traditions and provided forms of assistance that were often an integral part of immigrants’ lives. Records kept by religious institutions can be among the most useful in tracing immigrant origins. It is not uncommon for immigrant church registers to note the foreign birthplaces of those baptized, married, confirmed, transferring in or out of a church, or buried. Native towns or parishes are sometimes listed for sponsors or witnesses of religious events as well. The records of religious organizations, such as schools, orders, newspapers, orphanages, hospitals, old people’s homes, and fraternal organizations are other potential sources for biographical information that may be otherwise hard to find for an immigrant. Methods and sources for finding immigrant church records are discussed in the church series and Jewish records are discussed in Jewish American Research.
- Kory L. Meyerink, ed., Printed Sources: A Guide to Published Genealogical Records (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1998).
- Henry (Hank) Z Jones Jr., “Finding the Ancestral Home of a Palatine Forefather: The Case of Martin Zerbe,” Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine 29 (1975): 129–32; “The Braun and Loesch Families: Neighbors in Germany and America,” Quarterly of the Pennsylvania German Society 10 (April 1976).
- Algot E. Strand, A History of the Norwegians of Illinois (Chicago: J. Anderson Publishing, 1905).
- An Immigrant Nation: United States Regulation of Immigration, 1798–1991 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, 1991), 34.
- These numbers are based on a careful reading of the works of major American immigration historians, including Bernard Bailyn, Voyagers to the West (New York, Knopf, 1986); David Cressy, Coming Over: Migration and Communication between England and New England in the Seventeenth Century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987); Roger Daniels, Coming to America (New York: Harper Collins, 1990); Marcus Lee Hansen, The Atlantic Migration, 1607–1860 (New York: Harper and Row, 1940); and Maldwyn Allen Jones, American Immigration (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960).
- John F. Vallentine, “Tracing the Immigrant Ancestor,” Genealogical Journal 3 (1974): 5.
- Peter Roberts, The New Immigration: A Study of the Industrial and Social Life of East Europeans in America (Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1970).
- Philip Taylor, The Distant Magnet: European Emigration to the U.S.A. (New York: Harper and Row, 1971).
- From: U.S. Census Bureau, Census 2000, table DP-1 and DP-2
- Franco-American comprises French (except Basque), French Canadian, and Acadian/Cajun. Hispanic does not include those specifically claiming Mexican, Puerto Rican, or other country specific ancestry.
- Franco-American comprises French (except Basque), French Canadian, and Acadian/Cajun. Hispanic does not include those specifically claiming Mexican, Puerto Rican, or other country specific ancestry.
- Nicholas V. Riasanovsky, A History of Russia, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969).
- G. M. Young, Victorian England: Portrait of an Age (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964).
- Roger Daniels, Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life (New York: Harper Collins, 1990); Taylor, Distant Magnet; Oscar Handlin, Immigration as a Factor in American History (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1959); James G. Leyburn, The Scotch-Irish: A Social History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1962); Rowland Tappan Berthoff, British Immigrants in Industrial America, 1790–1950 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1953; reprint, New York: Russell and Russell, 1968); Andrzej Brozek, Polonia Amerykaska: The American Polonia (Warsaw, Poland: Interpress Publications, 1980); Albert Camarillo, Chicanos in a Changing Society: From Mexican Pueblo to American Barrios in Santa Barbara and Southern California, 1848–1930 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979); Jay P. Dolan, The Immigrant Church: New York’s Irish and German Catholics (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975).
- Oliver MacDonagh, “The Irish Famine Emigration to the United States,” Perspectives in American History 10 (1976): 357–446; Robert Swierenga, “Dutch Immigrant Demography, 1820–1880,” Journal of Family History 5 (Winter 1980): 390–405; Paula Kaye Benkart, “Religion, Family, and Community Among Hungarians Migrating to American Cities, 1880–1930” (Ph.D. dissertation, Johns Hopkins University, 1975).
- Stephen Thernstrom, Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1980).