Ancestry® Family History
The history of immigration is filled with some of the most hopeful stories of humanity—and some of the most tragic. Millions of immigrants ventured to North America over the centuries in search of economic opportunity, land ownership, religious freedom, and a better quality of life.
Although many people in the United States have ancestors who chose to immigrate, almost 400,000 enslaved people were forcibly brought to what is now the U.S. Others were involuntarily deported to Britain’s American colonies as part of their criminal sentence. All who arrived on the continent entered a land inhabited by Native Americans for thousands of years—long before the establishment of any European colonies or the United States.
For those who chose to immigrate, from the earliest colonizers of the 1600s to more recent arrivals, historical records may document your ancestors’ arrival or provide clues around their immigration backstory. For example, historical immigration documents might suggest why someone left their country of origin and whether they came alone, with family, or as part of a faith community.
How Did Immigrants Get to the U.S.
Most early immigrants traveled by ship, which could mean weeks or longer at sea. Other immigrants from (or passing through) Canada or Mexico, chose to cross into the U.S. over land borders. Not until the mid-1950s did air travel replace ocean sailing as a means of mass transportation to the United States.
U.S. Immigration Timeline
While a steady stream of immigrants have come to (what is now) the United States throughout its history, these periods saw significantly higher levels of arrivals from certain communities and countries:
European Colonial Era Immigration to North America
Immigrants began arriving in North America in large numbers from the early 1600s until the American Revolutionary War. While the Mayflower landing in Massachusetts is perhaps the best-known group of immigrants, widespread European settlement of Indigenous territories took place throughout many regions of the continent, as different colonial powers claimed areas of North America:
- French settlers, as part of New France, lived in areas from Canada through the Great Lakes, the Midwest, and down into the South.
- Dutch colonists established the New Netherlands, which encompassed what is now New York as well as some of the surrounding areas.
- Spain held territory across the South, including what is now Florida, as well as locations west of the Mississippi River.
- Ships full of immigrants from England, Scotland, and Ireland settled in the British colonies, which included most of North America’s east coast.
- Germans settled into areas claimed by the British, Dutch, and French.
The New United States of America: Naturalization and Citizenship
After the American Revolutionary War, the new U.S. government had no restrictions on immigration. In fact, foreign soldiers who served during the war—even on the British side, like Hessians from Germany—often chose to be part of the new country.
The federal government’s first approach to the concept of citizenship was the Naturalization Act of 1790. The Act stated that U.S. citizenship could be granted to free white persons of good character who lived in the country for at least two years. Everyone else was denied citizenship, which included the right to own property, vote, or testify in court. Subsequent naturalization laws during the 1790s increased residency requirements and allowed "dangerous" foreigners to be deported. Naturalization records are some of the earliest immigration-related documents for the U.S.
U.S. Immigration: 1820s-1860s
Millions of immigrants, primarily from Ireland, Germany, and Scandinavia, arrived in the U.S. during this period. Passenger ships filled with people embarked from seaports like Hamburg, Germany; Amsterdam in the Netherlands; Le Havre, France; Gothenburg, Sweden; Cork, Ireland; Liverpool, England; and Glasgow, Scotland.
People who immigrated to the U.S. during this time could be fleeing their home countries because of significant social and political unrest as well as crop failures, like the one that caused the Irish Potato Famine.
Milestones that impacted immigration and citizenship during this time—and that could have generated a paper trail—included:
- The Steerage Act of 1819 that required ship captains to keep arrival records of all passengers. Especially for genealogy researchers, this marks the first time of regular recordkeeping of immigrants to the United States.
- The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War, saw the states now known as California, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Texas, and Colorado annexed by the U.S. The U.S. then granted citizenship to most Mexicans—but not Native Americans—who lived in those areas. This Act also established a new border along the southern part of the country.
- The California Gold Rush sparked fortune seekers from all over the world. People traveled from Canada, from Central and South America, Europe, Australia, and for the first time, China.
- The railroad building boom that began in the 1860s also brought immigrants to the U.S. Railroad companies actively recruited laborers from China, for example.
- Federal regulation of immigration was formalized in 1875, based on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Earlier, some states set their own regulations.
U.S. Immigration: 1880s-1910s
Beginning in late October 1886, immigrants who arrived in the Port of New York were greeted by the Statue of Liberty, which is symbolic of the promise of America. Most of the 12 million immigrants who arrived between 1870 and 1900 arrived at Ellis Island in New York Harbor.
The largest numbers of immigrants during this time came from Central and Eastern Europe as well as Italy. Jewish people sought to escape severe religious persecution, such as pogroms in Russia, Poland, Ukraine, and Lithuania. Those from rural areas of Southern Italy and Sicily fled extreme poverty and limited economic possibilities. More than 800,000 Canadian immigrants also came in search of work opportunities.
Immigration laws enacted during the turn of the century were primarily exclusionary ones. For example:
- The highly restrictive Chinese Exclusion Act, enacted in 1882, banned Chinese laborers from entering America. It was expanded and renewed multiple times over the next 60 years. These exclusions weren’t repealed until 1943.
- The 1917 Immigration Act expanded on the Chinese exclusion laws to include India, most of Southeast Asia, and the entire Middle East.
U.S. Immigration: 1920s-1960s
This period in U.S. history did not see mass immigration like earlier times, in part due to restrictive laws. But other factors such as these still motivated people to immigrate:
- During the Mexican Revolution, war refugees and political exiles sought a safe haven in the U.S.
- Refugees and people displaced by World War II were allowed into the United States, bypassing regular immigration procedures.
- American veterans returning after World War II brought over their war brides and families.
- Labor shortages after World War II prompted the federal government to support the recruitment of temporary laborers from Mexico (the Bracero Program) and the Caribbean (the British West Indies Labor Program.)
Additional legislation was passed during this time related to immigration, naturalization, and citizenship. Some new laws were exclusionary, while others stated preferences for certain populations. Here’s a sampling:
- The 1924 Immigration Act (Johnson-Reed Act) implemented a highly restrictive quota based on national origins. For example, limited numbers of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe were allowed; immigrants from Asia were completely excluded.
- The 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act established preferences for skilled workers as well as relatives of citizens and permanent residents.
- The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act (Hart-Celler Act) abolished the 1924 Act’s quota system. Unprecedented immigration from non-European countries was now allowed, but caps were placed for the first time on those from countries in the Western Hemisphere, such as Mexico.
Major Historical Points of Entry
In general, U.S. immigrants from Europe arrived through eastern seaports while immigrants from Asia entered via seaports on the West Coast or Hawaii. Those from Canada or Mexico typically crossed the border on land. Before 1900 many also traveled through Canada to the U.S., as fewer regulations made it easier to enter through a land border.
While Ellis Island is probably the most well-known historical port of entry, others were popular during different periods of U.S. history:
- Castle Garden, New York
- Angel Island, San Francisco Bay
- New Orleans
- El Paso
- St. Albans, Vermont
Tips Before You Dive into Immigration Records
If you’re not sure when your ancestors first arrived in the United States—vital records don’t usually include those facts—then you may find clues elsewhere.
- Starting with the 1850 U.S. Census, the birthplace of each household member is noted. A location shift within a family group could suggest an arrival time in the U.S.
- The 1900 U.S. Census is the first time immigration-related information is recorded: the year someone immigrated, how long they’ve been in the U.S., and whether or not they’ve naturalized.
- 19th-century military records like enlistments for the War of 1812 may also note a foreign birthplace.
- Colonial-era records are scarce, but you might determine a potential arrival timeframe by when they first appear in tax records or church records.
- Keep in mind that historical borders have changed over time, based on wars or political maneuverings. For instance, a person described as German today may have called themselves Prussian, Hessian, Palatine, Bavarian, or Swabian in the 1800s.
- It wasn’t uncommon for people to travel back and forth to the U.S. several times, so it’s worth checking for multiple arrival dates.
Pro tip: A different foreign birthplace noted for the same person in separate records can be an important clue. For example, if Anna Maria George’s birthplace is "France" in the 1870 federal census, but "Germany" in the 1880 census, she could actually have been born in the Alsace-Lorraine region, which shifted from France to Germany in 1871.
Types of U.S. Immigration Records
The vast collection of immigration records on Ancestry® includes more than 500 separate data collections. Within the different types of documents you may find:
- A record of someone’s arrival in the U.S.
- When they applied to become a U.S. citizen
- When they renounced allegiance to their country of origin
- When they were granted U.S. citizenship
- Whether they were traveling alone or with family members
- An ancestor’s signature
Passenger lists can record a wide range of details, like birth location, literacy, profession, and physical characteristics. You may discover the name of a relative in the U.S. or back in the country of origin. For example, you could find that in September of 1913, Giovanni Lira, an Italian, sailed from Le Havre on the La Provence. He was heading to Colorado and he had $45 in his pocket. His father, Arturo, was still in Italy.
Tip: Once you learn the name of the ship your ancestor traveled on, check the Ancestry® collection of ship pictures to see if you can find what that vessel looked like.
Citizenship and naturalization records can also contain a lot of facts. In addition to noting the person’s arrival date in the U.S., you may also discover their parents’ names, their spouse’s name, and whether or not they have children, for example. A Declaration of Intention could note that Gustav Svensson is renouncing allegiance to the King of Sweden, and include Gustav’s signature.
Border crossings and passports can show travel movements that suggest family connections. An immigrant ancestor may have applied for a passport if they intended to travel back to their country of origin to visit family members. Likewise, border crossing records from Canada might show that John Fitzgerald traveled regularly from Vermont to Quebec, suggesting that some family remained north of the border.
Immigration and emigration books were created by family history enthusiasts to preserve immigration records. While many of those records are now online, some of the original records featured in these books may longer exist, so it’s worth browsing through these collections.
What’s Your Family’s Immigration Story?
Whether your first discovery of an immigrant ancestor is a foreign birthplace noted in a U.S. census record, or if you’ve taken a DNA test to learn about your ethnic roots and you’re ready to find a paper trail, Ancestry® can help you trace your family’s journey to the United States through a variety of immigration record collections.
You might discover new connections between your forebears and their communities. And based on arrival dates, you might consider what social, economic, or political situations may have motivated them to leave their country of origin. For most immigrants, coming to the U.S. meant sacrifices, travails, and risks to endure in hope of a better future.
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