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America is a country with a long history of immigrants flocking to its shores seeking a better life. The 1800s in particular is one of the eras known for high levels of immigration. In fact a look at U.S. immigration statistics by decade shows that according to the U.S. Census, foreign-born persons were about 15% of the population by 1890.

The high immigration statistics in the 19th century were largely fueled by large numbers of Irish and German immigrants coming to the U.S. in the mid-to-late-1800s. For instance between 1800 and 1930, more than 4.5 million Irish immigrants came to the U.S., including 1.5 million in the 1840s and 1850s.

Why did all of these immigrants choose to leave their homes? Where did they go? Ancestry® can help you find the story of the immigrants in your family tree.

19th Century U.S. Immigration: Who Came?

Between 1815 and 1860, more than 5 million immigrants arrived in America, mostly from countries like Great Britain, Ireland, Norway, the German states, and Prussia. In the 1840s, crop failures sent huge numbers of immigrants from Germany and Ireland that would continue for decades. Between 1845 and 1855 alone, 1.5 million people fled Ireland for the U.S. in the wake of the Potato Famine.

Beginning in the 1850s, during the California Gold Rush, large numbers of Asians—including 175,000 Chinese immigrants and 150,000 Japanese immigrants— began arriving on American shores. But they were not welcomed with open arms. By 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act shut the door almost completely on immigration from China and prohibited Chinese immigrants from being naturalized.

In the years between 1880 and 1900, there was a large acceleration in immigration, with an influx of nearly nine million people. Most were European, and many were fleeing persecution: Russian Jews fled to escape pogroms, and Armenians looked to escape increasing oppression and violence.

In the late 1800s, large steamships made immigration easier, and many young Europeans from southeastern, central, and eastern Europe made their way to the U.S. Italians and central Europeans from countries like Italy, Hungary, Poland, and Greece sometimes traveled back and forth more than once for job opportunities not available to them at home. These so-called birds of passage sometimes would go on to send for their families, while others would eventually go home for good.

U.S. Immigration Laws in the 1800s

There were a number of laws related to the migration of people enacted in the U.S. in the 1800s. And some of these laws had an impact on which ancestors you can and cant find in records and also on what you can learn about them.

Here are a few.

In 1819 the Steerage Act was enacted in part to regulate overcrowding on ships. It required "Customs Manifests" or "Customs Passenger Lists" be submitted to the customs collector at the port of arrival. These records have interesting details for family historians, including details like passenger age and occupation.

The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was used to restrict the number of Chinese immigrants, who were seen as a threat to the American labor force. This was the first time in U.S. history where immigration law specifically targeted an ethnic group. The Geary Act of 1892 strengthened the 1882 act, which required Chinese residents to carry a resident permit and added other restrictions for Chinese residents in the U.S.

Top Ports for U.S. Immigration in the 1800s

Prior to 1855, there were no official receiving stations for immigrants, who after a long voyage to a new land were often met by grifters and thieves. But immigrants who came to the U.S. by sea in the second half of the 1800s were processed at a number of ports.

Castle Garden: In July 1855 the receiving station at Castle Garden in New York City opened, in part to help warn the new arrivals and instruct them to avoid being taken advantage of when they left the facility. It also served as a place where immigrants could be screened for contagious diseases.

Barge Office and Ellis Island: In 1890, the New York receiving station was relocated to a Barge Office in Manhattan when the federal government took charge of all immigrant processing in New York. And soon after, in January 1892, Ellis Island opened. Many may not realize, but the original receiving station on Ellis Island was destroyed by fire in 1897. So for roughly two-and-a-half years, immigrant processing reverted to the Barge Office, while the new Ellis Island facility opened in December of 1900.

Angel Island: On the West Coast, a quarantine station for those arriving in San Francisco was established on Angel Island. It would later be turned into an immigrant processing station, through which an estimated million-plus people were processed. Most of the immigrants were from Asia. But its estimated that immigrants from over 80 countries were detained by island officials, many processed and released the day of their arrival. Some however were held for weeks or even months.

Baltimore: Baltimore was another important port for 19th-century immigration, initially seeing mostly British, Irish, and German immigrants. Its location became increasingly popular when the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad partnered with the Lloyd Steamship line, allowing immigrants to purchase a ticket that would take them by boat to Baltimore, then onward by train to western destinations.

Philadelphia: Another noteworthy port for 19th century immigrants was the port of Philadelphia, although its located 100 miles away from the Atlantic, and the route to the port added 200 miles to the trip from Europe. Immigrants to Philadelphia made a stop at the Lazaretto, a quarantine station south of the city on the Delaware River throughout the 1800s.

U.S. Immigration Records on Ancestry®

For those seeking the story of their immigrant ancestors, Ancestry® holds many resources to get you started.

Passenger Lists: Ship captains were required to keep passenger lists after the Steerage Act of 1819. These records  can give you some unique insights into the lives of your 19th-century immigrant ancestors. Passenger lists from the 1820s to 1890s typically included the name of the ship and the captain, ports of departure and arrival, date of arrival, passenger name, age, gender, occupation, and nationality. A series of changes to passenger lists  in the early 1900s added new rich details such as last residence in the old country, final destination, if they were going to join a relative or friend (and who and where they were), plus the name and address of a relative in the old world.

Border Crossings: Ancestry has records of border crossings from Canada to the U.S. from 1895 to 1960”and in the other direction, from the U.S. to Canada from 1908 to 1935. You can also find records of crossings from Mexico to the U.S. from 1895 to 1964.

Citizenship & Naturalization Records: Citizenship records are the result of the process of becoming an American citizen, known as naturalization. Citizenship and naturalization records on Ancestry can reveal rich details like the immigration date and the name of the ship, birth information (when and where your ancestor was born), and details about their family members like names, ages, and addresses. You could even find your ancestors signature.

Passports: Although not required for most of U.S. history, the government has issued passports since 1789. Earlier records may be somewhat sparse on details, but post-1906, they can be a treasure trove of information.

Ship Manifests: In 1807, with the Slave Trade Act, Congress attempted to stem the forced immigration of enslaved Africans, but there is evidence in ship manifests that some Africans continued to arrive on American shores, sometimes via Texas, which did not become a U.S. state until 1845.

President Thomas Jefferson signed the Act of 1807 into law, making the international slave trade illegal. But the domestic slave trade was still legal, and because of this distinction the slave manifest records became more detailed. The information in these manifests can include the name of the ship, the ships master, the port of destination, the port of departure, the names of the enslaved on board, and the name of the shipper/slaveholder and their place of residence.

Ships Pictures & Descriptions: Part of your immigrant ancestors story is how they got to the U.S. In some cases you'll be able find images and descriptions of the ships they travelled on using the Ship Pictures and Descriptions collection on Ancestry.

Tips for Finding Family Stories in U.S. Immigration Records

Discovering your ancestors immigration story is one of the most rewarding pieces of your family history. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you research.

Get familiar with the family structure. Many immigrants traveled with their immediate family, and sometimes with extended family, or even friends from the old country. Explore your ancestors FAN club (friends, associates, and neighbors). You may find that these associations go back to the old country, and may help you identify your ancestor arriving with a group from the same location. Enslaved people may have been sold in family groupings which can be reflected on ship manifests.

Look for alternate and ethnic spellings. Many Americans' ancestors didn't really know how to spell their surnames due to decreased literacy and language barriers, so look for alternate spellings.  Also, look for ethnic spellings. Some ancestors may have Anglicized their name after their arrival in the U.S., but because passenger lists were created at the port of departure, non-English speaking ancestors likely used the ethnic version of their given name on the passenger list.

Be aware of what is known as chain migration. Many families may have traveled separately, with one or two family members coming over to get settled and raise funds”and then send for the rest of the family. So the arrival of various family members may be documented in separate immigration records.

Narrow the date of arrival. U.S. censuses from 1900 through 1930 asked for the year of immigration, as did some state censuses. Create a timeline of your immigrant ancestors life, including birth dates and places of children, to narrow the focus of your search for the arrival date. Using this date in your search will help weed out irrelevant results.

Start Your Next Journey into Your Family History

Ancestry is home to the largest collection of immigration and citizenship records online. Start your journey of discovery and search for your family's immigration story on Ancestry today.


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