Overview of Immigration Research

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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

This article originally appeared in "Immigration Records" by Loretto Dennis Szucs, FUGA, Kory L. Meyerink, MLS, AG. FUGA, and Marian L. Smith in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy

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.1


Principles of Immigration


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.

Biographical Information

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.2

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 chapter 6, “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, are typical of those found in ethnic publications.3 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.

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.

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.

Historical Background

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:

1607–1790: 900,000
1790–1819: 250,000
1820–1860: 5,000,000
1861–1880: 5,100,000
1881–1920: 23,400,000
1921–1960: 8,200,000
1961–1990: 14,000,000

Additional immigration statistics can be found at http://factfinder.census.gov.

In 1907, immigration peaked at 1,285,349.4

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:5

Africa 360,000
England 230,000
Ulster 135,000
Germany 103,000
Scotland 48,500
Ireland 8,000
Netherlands 6,000
Wales 4,000
France 3,000
Jews 2,000
Sweden/Finland 500

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 (see the attached chart). 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.6

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.7

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.8

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. Table 9-1 identifies each ancestry group with more than 1 million claimants in 2000.

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.9 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.10 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.11

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.12

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.13 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 chapter 6, “Church Records,” and Jewish records are discussed in chapter 18, “Jewish American Research.”

Research Approaches

Using U.S. Sources First

To find an immigrant’s origins, it may be necessary to comb through every piece of information and every record an immigrant and his or her contemporary relatives left in America. Clues may come from compiled genealogies and pedigrees; census records; land records; court documents; employment records; fraternal organizations; insurance companies; religious records; vital records; military records; federal and state sources; or immigration files. The most common mistake is to begin a search in foreign sources before exhausting American records. You are most likely to find the immigrant’s birthplace or last foreign residence in American records: search them thoroughly before getting into sources created in the country of origin.

Family and Home Sources

In some cases, the only evidence of a family’s origins will be found in personal possessions. For more information, see chapter 1, “The Foundations of Family History Research.”

Organizing and Evaluating Material for Clues

A particularly useful way to organize information and clues is to keep a summary of the people the immigrant came in contact with—potential relatives (father-in-law, spouses of children, brothers-in-law) and traveling companions. After you have tracked the individual through life, make a summary of contact points: sponsors and godparents for children, witnesses for deeds and wills, fellow soldiers or officers in military units, neighbors who settled near each other, business partners, surnames of those marrying into the family, and those who worshipped in the same religion, or were buried in the same cemetery lot.

Previous Research

After reviewing home and family sources, look for research that has been completed by others. Begin with large collections of compiled records before original records, because they are usually easy to search and often provide important clues. Electronic family trees and databases often include helpful information about immigrants. See chapter 3, “General References and Guides.” You may find that someone else has already identified the immigrant’s place of origin. Even if you do not find the place of origin, you will probably uncover important clues that will lead to this information. As you work through these records, seek information for both the immigrant ancestor and other members of the family.

Local Resources

Libraries, archives, and societies in the area where an immigrant settled may have collected previous research about local people. For example, local genealogies, biographies, town or county histories, and genealogical and historical periodicals may furnish place-of-origin information. Seek compiled works done at the town, county, state, or provincial level. Also look for local genealogical or historical societies that may publish periodicals or have research registration programs that could provide valuable information.

Among local records, first seek records related to the immigrant’s death. These include church records, vital records, obituaries, cemetery records, and probate records. These may give the immigrant’s date and place of birth, or the names of parents and other relatives or friends. They can also provide important clues about 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 births of children. Vital record entries for marriages and births were kept by both church and civil authorities. Other local original records include a wide variety of record types. Use census records, city directories, court records, and land and property records to establish where an immigrant settled, his or her occupation, neighbors, and other information. Voter registrations are not available for every city or county in the United States, but when they are, they can be valuable sources of immigration information. Typically the registrations (usually in list form) are kept at the county level and provide the full name, address, birth date, birthplace, and, for naturalized citizens, the naturalization court and date. Many lists will note the number of years the voter was a resident of the state and county.

Immigration Sources

After the previously-mentioned sources have been investigated, a search of immigration records is in order. Citizenship (naturalization) papers, oaths of allegiance, alien registrations, passenger lists, passport applications, and immigrant aid society records fall into this category. Some records, though created for other purposes, will provide evidence of citizenship status. If the immigrant served in the U.S. military, there may be special naturalization papers connected with that service. Local and federal courts usually record military naturalizations in separate ledgers, and these may be indexed with other naturalizations in that jurisdiction. Some religious denominations kept separate lists of immigrant families as they arrived, reporting on their arrival, place of origin, and where they settled.

Passenger arrival lists for most available ports and time periods are indexed and are available in card files, books, or on CDs. More recently images of passenger lists have been linked to indexes and posted online, so approximate dates may be sufficient to begin a search. Lists of ship arrivals may be useful in determining possible arrival dates if an approximate arrival date or a ship name is known. Note, however, that a ship may have arrived in North America several times in a year. Details of immigration records are further discussed later in this chapter.

While none of the records mentioned should be overlooked, most American immigration and naturalization records before 1906 fail to name the town where the immigrant was born or lived in the old country. A passenger list for the ship Rhine is typical of passenger lists created before the late 1880s in that it includes only the country of origin for each passenger, rather than naming a city or town.

The Immigration Process

In their eagerness to find the town or city that was home to their ancestors, researchers frequently spend too much time and energy looking in the wrong places—or in the right places but in the wrong sequence. For example, as novices, many are tempted to begin immigrant research with a search of passenger lists. This is a natural instinct since most researchers have a strong desire to find detailed documentation of the ship on which their ancestors came to America. Such a passage, after all, is a seminal event in the history of any family. From a passenger list, we hope to learn exactly where an immigrant ancestor came from, how old he or she was at the time, what occupation he or she claimed, the ports of departure and arrival, and anything possible about the journey. But getting answers to these questions depends on when and where an ancestor arrived in the United States. Until the 1880s, a typical passenger list gave only the name, age, sex, occupation, country of origin, and destination of the passenger. The native town was seldom named.

Is the port of the ancestor’s arrival known with certainty? Are passenger arrival lists indexed for the port of entry and for the right time period? If there is an index for the port, will the person of interest appear in the index, or can he or she be identified in the long list of frequently misspelled names? If the surname is a common one, how will the person be distinguished from others? While many individuals traveled in groups, making them easier to find, a larger number came to the United States on their own. Unless you are fairly certain of the date and port of arrival, or unless you can quickly and surely identify the immigrant by name, age, occupation, or traveling companions, it may be better to postpone a passenger list search until other sources have been investigated.

Immigration Patterns

Success in finding an immigrant’s origins is often dependent on understanding group immigration patterns. Some immigrants came directly to the United States from their places of birth. Many, however, came via other countries where they may have stayed for months, years, or even generations. Some French Huguenots stayed for extended periods in Germany, Switzerland, Holland, England, or some other place before coming to America. The Palatines who immigrated in 1709 to New York came via England and Ireland. English, Irish, French, and several other nationalities may have made Canada their home before coming to the United States. Some Germans went to Russia, Lithuania, or Brazil before establishing residency in America. Australia, the Carribean, and South America were stopping places for many groups before they came here. The researcher who is unaware of these possibilities may miss births, marriages, or records of deaths of parents or spouses in the temporary residences.

Another overlooked fact is that immigrants did not always stay in the United States. Many came as adventurers or looking for temporary jobs that would enable them to return to their homelands with their savings. Some immigrant groups traveled back and forth across the ocean as work opportunities presented themselves. Some researchers have documented two or more generations settling in this country, and then have been puzzled by the sudden disappearance of one or more of the family members. In some cases the fathers or both parents, and in other cases the children, became disenchanted with the American lifestyle and returned to the home country permanently. When a family or individual being tracked in American records suddenly disappears, it is easy to assume that there was a death or a move within the U.S. In these less-than-common circumstances, it sometimes pays to look back into the records of the country of origin.


The purchase of tickets and travel accommodations was usually done through an emigration agent. Early agents were appointed by church or emigrant groups to secure the best price and to insure that fellow travelers were not cheated. These agents, some of whom were pastors or church clerks, traveled with the group to their destination. Later agents worked for shipping lines to fill steerage compartments so the trip was profitable for the company. They were licensed by local authorities and paid on commission or percentage, some by the length of the journey and some by the total cost of the ticket and provisions. For a more detailed description of how these agents operated, see R. J. Dickson’s Ulster Emigration to Colonial America, 1718–1775, Norman McDonald’s Canada: Immigration and Colonization, 1841–1903; and Clifford Neal Smith’s and Anna P. Smith’s American Genealogical Resources in German Archives.14


During the Colonial Era, emigrants too poor to pay their own way could agree to sell themselves into service for the cost of their passage. Those who contracted through an emigrant agent before they left their country of origin were referred to as indentured servants. They carried a copy of the contract with them, knowing in advance how much time they owed. These contracts would be sold to employers in the New World. Those who did not negotiate contracts before they left redeemed the cost of their passage and provisions by selling themselves to the highest bidder once they arrived in America. They were called redemptioners. English emigrants were most often indentured with articles signed before a magistrate; Germans usually redeemed their passages at auction. Richard B. Morris’s Government and Labor in Early America is the classic work on the subject.15 Other studies examine servitude in individual colonies—for example, Warren B. Smith’s White Servitude in Colonial South Carolina.16 A list of these local studies is included in Barbara Bigham’s “Colonists in Bondage: Indentured Servants in America,” Early American Life.17 Finding indentures can be difficult, but a few are beginning to appear in print. An excellent example is Farley Grubb’s German Immigrant Servant Contracts, Registered at the Port of Philadelphia, 1817–1831.18

The Journey

Conditions on the immigrants’ voyage changed and improved over time, especially with the advent of steamships in the mid-1800s which considerably shortened the journey. Also, as early as the 1810s, some foreign governments established rules and regulations regarding the number of immigrants a ship could carry, based on its size. Because much of the interest in the nature of the voyage pertains to colonial immigrants, the following descriptions will provide a general picture.

Emigrants traveling from German principalities to Pennsylvania faced a long, three-part journey. The first stage was the trip down the Rhine to Rotterdam or Amsterdam. Wrote one 1750 voyager:

This journey lasts from the beginning of May to the end of October, fully half a year, amid such hardships as no one is able to describe adequately with their misery. The cause is because the Rhine boats from Heilbronn to Holland have to pass by twenty-six custom houses, at all of which the ships are examined, which is done when it suits the convenience of the custom-house officials. In the meantime the ships with the people are detained long, so that the passengers have to spend much money. The trip down the Rhine lasts therefore four, five, and even six weeks. When the ships come to Holland, they are detained there likewise five to six weeks. Because things are very dear there, the poor people have to spend nearly all they have during that time.19

The second stage was from Rotterdam to the English port of Cowes on the Isle of Wight, then the principal port for immigrant traffic, although ships also stopped at Dover, Plymouth, London, and other ports. Here was another delay while ships awaited customs clearance, provisioning, and favorable winds. This phase took fourteen to twenty-one days.

The final stage of the journey was the seven-to-twelve week ocean crossing, later shortened by steam to fewer than fourteen days. The passengers were densely packed into the steerage decks below the ship’s waterline. Shipping companies, to increase profits and cut expenses, often filled the cargo spaces with people too, rather than carry adequate food and water. By the mid-nineteenth century, government authorities required minimum rations of food and water from the ships’ provisions; but earlier travelers risked disease, storm, and a high mortality rate. For a detailed description of the ocean voyage, see Philip Taylor’s The Distant Magnet: European Emigration to the U.S.A.20

The process of arrival in the new country generated another series of records. The Reverend Henry M. Muehlenberg described the arrival process in a report to his superiors in Halle, Germany, in 1769:

After much delay one ship after another arrives in the harbor of Philadelphia, when the rough and severe winter is before the door. One or more merchants receive the lists of the freights and the agreement which the emigrants have signed with their own hand in Holland, together with the bills for their travel down the Rhine and the advances of the “newlanders” for provisions, which they received on the ships on account. Formerly the freight for a single person was six to ten louis d’ors, but now it amounts to fourteen to seventeen louis d’ors [one louis d’ors equalled about $4.50]. Before the ship is allowed to cast anchor at the harbor front, the passengers are all examined, according to the law in force, by a physician, as to whether any contagious disease exists among them. Then the arrivals are led in procession to the City Hall and there they must render the oath of allegiance to the king of Great Britain. After that they are brought back to the ship. Then announcements are printed in the newspapers, stating how many of the new arrivals are to be sold. Those who have money are released. Whoever has well-to-do friends seeks a loan from them to pay the passage, but there are only a few who succeed. The ship becomes the market-place. The buyers make their choice among the arrivals and bargain with them for a certain number of years and days. They then take them to the merchant, pay their passage and their other debts and receive from the government authorities a written document, which makes the newcomers their property for a definite period.21

Many aspects of the immigrant experience were traumatic—selling all earthly possessions, traveling for weeks to reach a new land, watching loved ones sicken and die far from the rest of the family. Many immigrants cushioned the shock by living, at least temporarily, with family and friends who had already immigrated. When searching census records, it is sometimes helpful to record the names of all boarders listed in a multiple-family dwelling, because they are often related to the head of house even if the surname is different. As the family head of house acquired work and earned some income, the family moved into its own residence, often rented, sometimes owned.


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