Searching for records of your immigrant great-great-grandfather, you may feel as if you’re tossing a lasso at the prize bull but always coming up empty-handed. Rounding up those elusive records will be easier if you know your ancestor’s full original name, age at arrival and date of arrival. Additional facts such as country of origin, names of family members traveling with him, port of departure, port of arrival and ship name will focus your search further.
It also helps to understand the history behind the records you’re hunting. Beginning in 1820, the US government required shipmasters to complete pre-printed passenger lists. Those lists documented each passenger’s name, age, sex, occupation, country of origin and destination. Once the ships arrived on American shores, shipmasters gave the lists to customs collectors at the port and inspectors verified the arriving passengers’ names with those on the lists.
Some of the resources here index lists from various ports and years. You can find passenger lists on microfilm at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Family History Library and large public libraries. Still can’t find your ancestors arriving in America? Try checking the records of popular ports of departure.
If your kin applied for US citizenship, their naturalization papers will provide details about their immigration. Locating those documents can be a challenge, though: Until 1906, when the federal government standardized the citizenship process, immigrants could file for naturalization in any common law court in any state. Married women were tacked onto their husbands’ applications until 1922 and single women could submit applications, but rarely did.
We’ve wrangled up a list of websites, books and organizations to help you track down your on-the-move ancestors’ records. You’ll find everything from passenger lists to ship photos.
- Check the date range of records in the database or index you’re using to ensure you’re searching records from the right time period. Such compilations of passenger-arrival information may not cover all ships or years — for example, Ellis Island’s Web site doesn’t include records for 1925 to 1954.
- Despite popular lore, it’s a myth that officials at Ellis Island changed immigrants’ names. Passenger lists were filled out at the port of departure, and American clerks (fluent in many languages) only verified the names already on the lists. Those employees had strict instructions not to alter any information from the lists unless the inspection process revealed an error.
Immigration Records Resources
- Ancestry.com: A US subscription buys you access to databases of passenger lists, port-of-arrival records and naturalization records.
- Angel Island Immigration Station: Learn about Angel Island, called the “Guardian of the Western Gate.”
- Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation: Get answers to your questions about Angel Island, plus links to Web sites for finding ancestors who disembarked there.
- Azores: Source of Immigration to the Americas: This site contains information about Portuguese immigrants who came to America primarily in the 19th century.
- The Baltimore Immigration Project: Nearly 2 million immigrants came through Baltimore, believed to be the second most frequently used port of entry during the period of mass immigration to America. You’ll find history and details about the project’s plans here.
- Case Files for Early Immigrants to San Francisco and Hawaii: Search by last name, first name, birthplace, case number, port or ship for immigrants to San Francisco and Hawaii.
- Castle Clinton: From 1855 to 1890, immigrants entering America through New York stopped at Castle Garden (now called by its original name, Castle Clinton). Read about the immigration station on this site.
- Chinese Immigrant Files: Use this US Citizenship and Immigration Services site to learn about Chinese immigration to the United States and the corresponding records.
- CubaGenWeb: Research your Cuban roots using this site’s newspaper and passenger databases.
- Cyndi’s List: Check the Ports of Entry, Ships and Passenger Lists, Immigration and Naturalization, and Ports of Departure categories.
- Ellis Island: Search this well-known database for 17 million immigrants who entered the country through New York between 1892 and 1924.
- English-America: The Voyages, Vessels, People and Places: This site’s mission is “to provide some historical context and help make genealogical connections” for those researching early English immigrants.
- Ethnic and Immigrant Experience: You’ll find information about African, Arab and Latino immigrants to the Keystone State, as well as other ethnic-related research conducted by the Balch Institute of Ethnic Studies.
- Famine Irish Passenger Record Data File: To search the names of 604,596 people who came to the United States by ship between 1846 and 1851, click on the Search button, then the People link and finally on Records for Passengers Who Arrived at the Port of New York During the Irish Famine, 1977-1989. (You’ll find the same data in Ancestry.com.)
- Finding New York Passenger Arrival Records, 1820-1957: Locate microfilms, books, CDs and online databases that could contain your immigrant ancestors’ records.
- Finding Passenger Lists and Immigration Records, 1820-1940s: This site runs down passenger-list indexes for several US ports.
- Free Genealogy Databases: Passenger Lists: Link to several online passenger-list indexes.
- From the Book Planters of the Commonwealth by Charles Edward Banks and Other Sources: Find passenger lists for 17th-century ships, including the Lyon, Griffin, Planter, Angel Gabriel, Confidence, Martin and the Winthrop Fleet of 1630.
- Galveston Immigration Database: Search this database for records of 130,000 immigrants who arrived in Texas between 1846 and 1948.
- Genealogy Articles, Tips and Research Guides: Link to resources and read articles about finding naturalization records and passenger lists.
- Genealogy.com: International and Passenger Records Collection: For $79.99 a year, you can access passenger lists, international census data, land records and more.
- Genealogy.com: Tracing Immigrant Origins: Find free research tips.
- Great Migration Study Project: Research Members of the New England Historic Genealogical Society can search for Europeans who settled in New England prior to 1634.
- Immigrant and Passenger Arrivals:A Select Catalog of the National Archives Microfilm Publications: Read this introduction to using microfilms.
- Immigrant Arrivals:A Guide to Published Sources: Use this Library of Congress bibliography to find immigration-related reading material.
- Immigrant Ship Passengers List: This portal takes you to online passenger list transcriptions.
- Immigrant Ships Transcribers Guild: Find passenger lists for ships entering several US ports and view miscellaneous immigrant photographs.
- Immigration Arrival Records: Learn about the different types of immigration records the United States has required.
- Immigration… The Changing Face of America: This presentation provides an introduction to the study of US immigrants.
- Immigration, Naturalization, Passenger Lists and Ships: Link to numerous helpful databases and indexes.
- Indianola Immigrant Database: Dive into this database of immigrants to Indianola, Texas.
- Information Wanted: This database contains 31,711 advertisements for “missing” Irish immigrants published from 1831 to 1921 in the Boston Pilot newspaper.
- InGeneas Database: Search this database to find Canadian passenger lists and immigration documents.
- In Motion: The African-American Migration Experience: This New York Public Library site has articles, maps, photographs and historic documents about black migration into, out of and within the United States.
- KinShips: Order reproduced prints of ships and ports.
- Library and Archives Canada:Immigration Records (1925-1935): Search Canadian passenger-list indexes from the early 20th century.
- The Mayflower Passenger List: Peruse a roster of the famous ship’s passengers.
- New Orleans Ship Passenger List Online Index: This Louisiana State Archives index covers January to July 1851.
- Nova Scotia Ships and Passenger Lists: Find passenger lists for ships arriving at Nova Scotia ports during the 18th and 19th centuries.
- Olive Tree Genealogy: Use custom search forms to comb 1,000 free ship-list transcriptions and browse the directory of off-site passenger lists.
- On the Trail of Our Ancestors: Find chronologically arranged passenger lists of ships arriving in Pennsylvania.
- OneLibrary.com: Immigration and Naturalization Resources Online: Family Tree Magazine contributing editor Rick Crume has compiled this list of links.
- One-Step Web Pages by Stephen P. Morse: This site provides handy search forms for Ellis Island, Castle Garden and other ports’ online records. The forms let you search for records
- www.palam.org/ia_index.htm: This index contains more than 2,500 entries of German-speaking immigrants.
- Passenger and Immigration Lists: Irish to America, 1846-1865: Request a free lookup for Irish immigrants to Boston and New York City.
- Passport Records, 1828-1836: Say hola to immigrants who entered the United States through Santa Fe, NM.
- Peopling North America: Population Movements and Migration: This tutorial provides a historical overview of migration patterns to and within the United States, Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean.
- Ports of Entry and Their Records: Find the location of your ancestors’ port of entry records.
- Portuguese Passenger Ship Master List: This site lists Portuguese passenger ships and the dates they arrived in US ports.
- RootsWeb Passenger Lists:Search visitor-contributed data by name, year, port of departure, port of arrival or ship.
- TheShipsList: Dock here for passenger lists, immigration reports, newspaper records, shipwreck information, ship pictures and descriptions, shipping-line fleet lists and other genealogical goodies.
- US Ports of Arrival and Their Available Passenger Lists, 1820-1957: This site lists the whereabouts of various US ports’ arrival records, including records for Canadian and Mexican border crossings.
- The Winthrop Society: Here, you’ll find ship lists and other documents about Gov. John Winthrop and the Puritans who came with him to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630.
- American Immigration by Maldwyn Allen Jones (University of Chicago Press)
- American Passenger Arrival Records by Michael Tepper (Genealogical Publishing Co.)
- The Atlantic Migration, 1607-1860, reprint edition, by Marcus Lee Hansen (Simon Publications)
- Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life, 2nd edition, by Roger Daniels (HarperCollins Perennial)
- Crossings: The Great Transatlantic Migrations, 1870-1914 by Walter Nugent (Indiana University Press)
- Ellis Island and the Peopling of America: The Official Guide by Virginia Yans-McLaughlin and Marjorie Lightman (New Press)
- Ellis Island Interviews: In Their Own Words by Peter Morton Coan (Barnes & Noble Books)
- The Family Tree Guide to Finding Your Ellis Island Ancestors by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack (Family Tree Books)
- Forgotten Doors: The Other Ports of Entry to the United States edited by M. Mark Stolarik (Associated University Presses)
- Galveston: Ellis Island of the West by Bernard Marinbach (State University of New York Press)
- A Genealogist’s Guide to Discovering Your Immigrant and Ethnic Ancestors by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack (Betterway Books)
- German Immigration to America in the Nineteenth Century: A Genealogist’s Guide by Maralyn A. Wellauer (Roots International)
- Going to America by Terry Coleman (Genealogical Publishing Co.)
- The Great Migration: The Atlantic Crossing by Sailing-Ship Since 1770 by Edwin C. Guillet (Jerome S. Ozer Publishing)
- Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives, 3rd edition, edited by Anne Bruner Eales and Robert M. Kvasnicka (NARA): The Population and Immigration section contains a rundown of NARA’s immigration-related microfilm holdings.
- Immigration: From the Founding of Virginia to the Closing of Ellis Island by Dennis Wepman (Facts on File)
- La Storia: Five Centuries of the Italian American Experience by Jerre Mangione and Ben Morreale (HarperCollins)
- Passenger Ships of the World, Past and Present, 2nd edition, by Eugene W. Smith (George H. Dean Co.)
- Ships of Our Ancestors by Michael J. Anuta (Genealogical Publishing Co.)
- They Came in Ships, 3rd edition, by John Philip Colletta (Ancestry)
- They Came to America: Finding Your Immigrant Ancestors by Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak (Santa Fe Publishing)
- Family History Library
- Federation of East European Family History Societies
- Immigrant Genealogical Society
- Immigration History Research Center
- National Archives and Records Administration
- Steamship Historical Society of America
- Swenson Swedish Immigration Research Center
- US Citizenship and Immigration Services
- “Czech Immigration Passenger Lists” by Leo Baca (Old Homestead Publishing Co.)
- “The Famine Immigrants” edited by Ira A. Glazier and Michael H. Tepper (Genealogical Publishing Co.)
- “Germans to America” edited by Ira A. Glazier and P. William Filby (Scarecrow Press)
- “Italians to America” edited by Ira A. Glazier and P. William Filby (Scarecrow Press)
- “Migration from the Russian Empire: List of Passengers Arriving at the Port of New York” (Genealogical Publishing Co.)
- “Morton Allan Directory of European Passenger Steamship Arrivals” by Morton Allan (Genealogical Publishing Co.)
- “Passenger and Immigration Lists Index” (Thomson Gale)
- “Passenger Ships Arriving in New York Harbor” by Bradley W. Steuart (Precision Indexing)
- “Russians to America, 1850-1896 Passenger and Immigration Lists” (Genealogical Publishing Co.)
Emigration Records Resources
- The Danish Emigration Archives: Search by name, occupation, age, last known residence, parish, county, destination or date.
- The Data Banks on Italian Emigrants to the United States, Argentina and Brazil: These databases cover 200,000 Italians who made their way to New York in the decade before Ellis Island opened (1880 to 1891), as well as more than a million Italians who flocked to South America. You must register (for free) in order to use the site.
- Emigrant Tracking: Browse databases and other resources for 19th- and 20th-century Finnish emigrants.
- Emigration to U.S.A.: Learn how to access emigration information from the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.
- British Emigration, 1603-1914 by Alex Murdoch (Palgrave Macmillan)
- The Complete Book of Emigrants in Bondage, 1614-1775 by Peter Wilson Coldham (Genealogical Publishing Co.)
- The Distant Magnet: European Emigration to the U.S.A. by Philip A.M. Taylor (Eyre and Spottiswoode)
- Emigrants in Chains by Peter Wilson Coldham (Genealogical Publishing Co.)
- Emigration from Europe 1815-1930 by Dudley Baines (Cambridge University Press)
- The End of Hidden Ireland: Rebellion, Famine, and Emigration by Robert James Scally (Oxford University Press)
- Out of Ireland: The Story of Irish Emigration to America by Kerby Miller and Paul Wagner (Roberts Rinehart Publishing)
- Scottish Emigration to Colonial America, 1607-1785 by David Dobson (University of Georgia Press)
- “Lists of Swiss Emigrants in the Eighteenth Century to the American Colonies”, 2 volumes, by Albert Bernhardt Faust and Gaius Marcus Brumbaugh (Genealogical Publishing Co.)
- “Migration, Emigration, Immigration: Principally to the United States and in the United States”, 2 volumes, by Olga K. Miller (Everton Publishers)
- “The Swiss Emigration Book” by Cornelia Schrader-Muggenthaler (Closson Press)
- “Wuerttemberg Emigration Index” CD (Ancestry)
Naturalization Records Resources
- accessIndiana Naturalization Database Search: Search by name and county to locate your Indiana ancestors’ naturalization records. To obtain complete records prior to 1951, contact the Indiana State Archives.
- Canadian Naturalization: These databases reference about 200,000 people who were naturalized in Canada between 1915 and 1932. Search by name, and then read the instructions for ordering copies of the records.
- Centre County Naturalization Records, 1802-1929: This searchable index links to images of naturalization petitions filed in this central Pennsylvania county.
- Delaware Public Archives Naturalization Records Database: Find selected records from Delaware’s three counties.
- Illinois State Archives Online Databases: Scroll down to the Records in the Illinois Regional Archives Depositories (IRAD) section to find indexes to naturalizations made in East St. Louis City Court between 1874 and 1906, and Ogle County Court from 1872 to 1906.
- Index to Brooklyn Naturalization Records, 1907-1924: The Jewish Genealogical Society has compiled a searchable 253,403-name roster of naturalization filings in New York’s Kings County from 1907 to 1924.
- Iron Range Research Center Database Search: This Chisholm, Minn., archive hosts online indexes to statewide alien registrations (1918) and naturalizations (1800s to 1950s). Click Database Search and select a record type to search by name and county. You’ll learn the Minnesota Historical Society microfilm reel, volume and page numbers, which you can use to look up the films yourself — or click the convenient link to order a search for $10.
- Michigan Naturalization Record Indexes: Click on Services & Collections, then Genealogy, then Michigan Naturalization Record Indexes for listings from 22 counties.
- Missouri Naturalization Records, 1816-1955: Search by name, native country and a year range. The results provide details you can use to order a copy of the original record.
- Naturalization Records: Get historical background and instructions for finding naturalizations from the National Archives and Records Administration.
- NaturalizationRecords.com: You’ll have to drill down a bit to find the real goodies here (and get past the prevalent but clearly marked Ancestry.com-affiliate search boxes and links). Click on USA Naturalizations, then pick a state from the bottom of the page. Next, under Databases … Records, click Online Naturalization Records for links to local databases. Each one tells you the database’s host site and whether it’s free.
- North Dakota Naturalization Records Database: The 212,000-plus entries here will tell you an immigrant’s country of origin, the date of his declaration of intention and/or naturalization, and the county district court where the proceedings took place.
- Online Searchable Naturalization Indexes and Records: This site links to many county-level indexes.
- Oregon State Archives:Naturalization Records: Surf this site for county-level records, plus a detailed description of the naturalization process.
- RootsWeb’s Guide to Tracing Family Trees: Naturalization Records: Get helpful tips for finding records in the United States, Canada, Great Britain and Australia.
- St. Louis Naturalization Index Cards, 1816-1906: The St. Louis Genealogical Society has cataloged 93,000 index cards for naturalizations between 1816 and 1906.
- Sampubco: Gateway to the Indexes: Click on Naturalizations and Intentions for state- and county-level listings for Iowa, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah and Wisconsin. You can order photocopies of the records for $5 each.
- South Dakota Naturalization Records: Use this online index to find first and second papers for your South Dakota ancestors.
- Utah Naturalization and Citizenship Records: The state archives provides an explanation of naturalization records and outline of its holdings, plus online indexes for several counties covering the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
- Washington Historical Records Search: Search or browse indexes to naturalizations in 34 counties. You’ll find information about your ancestor’s birth date, country of origin and date of entry in to the United States in addition to the date your ancestor filed his citizenship papers.
- American Naturalization Processes and Procedures, 1790-1985 by John J. Newman (Indianapolis Historical Society)
- American Naturalization Records 1790 1990: What They Are and How to Use Them by John J. Newman (Heritage Quest)
- Becoming American: An Ethnic History by Thomas J. Archdeacon (Free Press)
- Guide to Naturalization Records in the United States by Christina K. Schaefer (Genealogical Publishing Co.)
- Locating Your Immigrant Ancestor: A Guide to Naturalization Records by James C. and Lila Lee Neagles (Family History Network)
- They Became Americans: Finding Naturalization Records and Ethnic Origins by Loretto Dennis Szucs (Ancestry)
- “Colonial Maryland Naturalizations” by Jeffrey A. and Florence L. Wyand (Genealogical Publishing Co.,)
- “Denizations and Naturalizations in the British Colonies in America, 1607-1775” by Lloyd deWitt Bockstruck (Genealogical Publishing Co.,)
- “Early New York Naturalizations” by Kenneth Scott (Genealogical Publishing Co.)
- “An Index to Naturalization Records in Pre-1907 Indiana County Courts” (Indiana Historical Society)
- “Naturalization Records in Sonoma County, California”, 2 volumes, by Sonoma County Genealogical Society (Heritage Books)
- “Philadelphia Naturalization Records: An Index to Records of Aliens’ Declarations of Intention and/or Oaths of Allegiance, 1789-1880” edited by P. William Filby (Gale Research Co.)
- “South Carolina Naturalizations, 1783-1850” by Brent H. Holcomb (Genealogical Publishing Co.)
A version of this article appeared in the September 2005 issue of Family Tree Sourcebook.