All Americans, except those descended entirely from Native Americans, descended from people who migrated to this continent within the past 500 years. This means that, at sometime, all serious genealogists will need to use immigration and naturalization records. It is important for you to have worked on your genealogy enough to get back to the immigrant ancestor.
In order to properly search immigration records, you will need a name (the fuller the better), a list of possible alternative spellings, an idea of the time period the person arrived in this country, and an idea of where they lived in the country of origin. It is especially helpful to know through which port or coast they entered the U.S.
If relatives or family records do not provide enough information to allow you to use the immigration records, the following sources may help. Obituaries and county histories often list a person's country, region or town of origin, and an arrival date. Birth and marriage records often give the birthplaces of a child's parents or of the couple being married.
Census records may be of help. From the 1850 census on, each individual's state or country of birth is listed, as well as whether the person's mother or father was of foreign birth. From the 1880 census on, the birthplaces of a person's parents are listed as well. If the immigrant can be located in a census between 1900 through 1930, data was collected on the year of immigration and whether the individual was naturalized.
Even the surname of the person can give clues to ethnic origin. However, because of the changes many surnames have gone through over time, do not depend on them.
They Came in Ships: A Guide to Finding Your Immigrant Ancestor's Arrival Record, by Colletta, John, 3rd edition, 2002. R GEN 929.1072 COLLETT.
Passenger and Immigration Lists Index: A Guide to Published Records of 500,000 Passengers Who Came to the United States and Canada in the 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries, Filby, P. William, 1981. R GEN 016.9293 FILBY.
Migration, Emigration, Immigration: Principally to the United States and in the United States, by Olga Katzin Miller, 1974. 2 vols. R GEN 929.373 MILLER. This two-volume set is a useful list of books and other sources for information about immigration to each state, for various ethnic (e.g., English), religious (e.g., Quaker) and occupational groups (e.g., clergy).
In 1820, the U.S.Government began requiring that lists of all passengers entering the United States (primarily by ship) be recorded. Be aware that not all passenger lists have survived. Once you suspect a person to be an immigrant, you can search for his/her name in these lists.
Information contained in these passenger lists varies by time and location. There were two major time periods for immigration records after 1820; 1820-1890 and 1891-1954. Before 1891 immigrants came through multiple ports including New York, Boston, Baltimore and Galveston. There is a free database online for immigrants who arrived in New York. They came through Castle Garden. Keep in mind that some immigrants also arrived in Canada and crossed into America by land. There are no American records for these immigrants. After 1891, immigrants to America arrived through Ellis Island. The National Park Service now has Ellis Island immigration records on a searchable Internet database. Some immigrants in the 1940s and 1950s also arrived by air. Those records are available for a fee from the National Archives or on Ancestry.com.
For the first time, the National Archives and Records Administration has made available online more than 5.2 million records of some passengers who arrived during the last half of the 19th century at the ports of Baltimore, Boston, New Orleans, New York, and Philadelphia. The records were transcribed from original ship manifests into electronic databases by Temple University’s Center for Immigration Research at The Balch Institute. The Center donated the digital records to the National Archives. The records are known as Data Files Relating to the Immigration of Germans to the United States, 1850-1897; Data Files Relating to the Immigration of Italians to the United States, 1855-1900; and Data Files Relating to the Immigration of Russians to the United States, 1834-1897.
In general, you will be able to get a name, age, marital status, and place of last residence. Place of birth was not required until 1906. Some lists included the names of all people traveling with that person, whether they planned to become a citizen, and whether they were going on to stay with relatives or friends in the U.S.
Listed below are the two most important sources for published passenger lists. They are both located in the Genealogy Area.
Passenger and Immigration Lists Index: A Guide to Published Arrival Records of 500,000 Passengers Who Came to the United States and Canada in the 17th, 18th and 19thCenturies. Gale, 1981. 3 vol. plus supplements. R GEN 929.373 PASSENG. Kept on the Index Shelf in the Genealogy Area, this is an index to hundreds of passenger lists. It is arranged by name, and lists age, place of arrival, year of arrival, source book and page number, and any accompanying passengers (either by name, or how they relate to the person, e.g."wife," "servant," etc.). Be sure to look in all supplements as well as the first three volumes. Also, be sure to try all spelling variations, since the names were recorded as heard, and many immigrants could not spell their own names.
To find out what else is available on immigration in the Genealogy Area, look in the Computer Catalog under "Ships - Passenger Lists," and in the Genealogy Holdings List in Section II, under "Passenger Lists/Immigration."
The National Archives is the main U.S. repository of passenger records. Their emphasis is on East Coast records, but some records are becoming available for West Coast ports like San Francisco and Seattle. You may visit one of the twelve regional branches of the National Archives, including the one in Seattle, as well as the headquarters office in Washington D.C. to use their records.
Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives, by the National Archives and Records Service, 2001. R GEN OVERSIZE 016.9291 UNITED. This book will explain more about the immigration records available at the National Archives.
Immigrant and Passenger Arrivals, a select catalog of National Archive Microfilm, 1983. Kept on the Reference Shelf in the Genealogy Area, in the box marked "Federal Archives."
Obtaining Records From the National Archives
The National Archives will do limited research in passenger arrival indexes and lists by mail for a fee. Request NATF Form 81 from the address below or online here. It will tell you the information required for the search.
Reference Services Branch
National Archives and Records Administration
8th and Pennsylvania Avenue N.W.
Washington D.C., 20408
When requesting a search by the National Archives you must supply the following information on NATF Form 81:
Another source of National Archives material is the Family History Library of the Latter Day Saints. They have microfilm copies of most of the Archive's files. The film may be borrowed through the Family History Centers. You may also inter-library loan National Archives microfilm through Spokane Public Library.
Naturalization records are often more helpful in locating foreign origins than the passenger lists as many immigrants left Europe through countries other than their own. Finding naturalization records for a new citizen is a more difficult prospect than finding their passenger arrival record. Records of naturalization were not required to be reported to the U.S. Government until 1906. Prior to that, federal, state and local courts could naturalize citizens. The records are kept by each court, or, in some cases, sent to be stored elsewhere. Immigrants often filed their first application for naturalization as soon as they came off the boat or other places on their journey to their final destination.
Spokane Public Library also has the following microfilm copies of Naturalization Records for Eastern Washington, Montana, and Oregon, as well as passenger manifests from Canada:
To find out what else is available on Naturalization Records, look in the computer catalog under "Naturalization Records."
Once you know the country and community of origin of an individual, you can pursue your genealogical research there. Your search may be complicated by the involvement of a foreign language, or by the lack of records available in your region, or even in the United States.
Spokane Public Library has guidebooks to help with genealogy for a number of ethnic groups and countries. There are too many books to list here. Instead, follow this example. If you are looking for a book about doing genealogy for an ancestor from Germany, look in the computer catalog under these headings:
Here is an example of a book you would find:
In Search of your German Roots: A Complete Guide to Tracing your Ancestors in the Germanic Areas of Europe, by Angus Baxter, 2001. R GEN 929.1072 BAXTER.
Also, be sure to look in the Genealogy Holdings List in Section II, under the category "Foreign."