Tracing Family Trees
Guide No. 15
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Tracing Your Immigrant Ancestors
Locating the exact origins of your immigrant ancestor in in the "old country" is one the greatest research challenges facing most North American and Australian family historians. Before you can continue your genealogical research you must know where your ancestors came from because records in the "old countries" for the most part were kept on a local basis. If your ancestors immigrated in the past 100 years or so, you may be able to find information in records that are still in the possession of family members. These might include:
Ask your older family members and cousins if they have any of these. Track down cousins via mailing lists. Exhaust sources in the adopted country before you try to cross the salt-water barriers armed only with the notation your ancestor came from Scotland, Germany, Italy, Norway, or Poland. Keep in mind that wars and political events in recent centuries have caused many changes in the boundaries of European counties so that your ancestor's place of origin may now be in a country other than what has been recorded.
Ship Passenger Lists
Probably more time is spent hunting for ancestors on ship passenger lists than any other type of research. In our naiveté we assume these records will reveal exactly where in the "old country" our ancestors came from. It is not always that simple. Depending on when your immigrant ancestors arrived, ship passenger lists may or may not provide this information. In some instances your research problem can be solved by tracking down naturalization papers, rather than ship passenger lists.
1891-1954 U.S.A. Arrivals
If your ancestors arrived between 1891 and 1954, Immigration Passenger Lists are valuable. Immigrants were asked to provide information such as:
In 1906 and 1907 more questions were added to the above list:
1820-1890 U.S. Arrivals
However, if your ancestors landed in the U.S. between 1820 and 1890, you need to search what's known as Customs Passenger Lists. These contain only the following data:
* Name of ship
Contrary to popular belief, the National Archives does not have copies of all ship passenger lists. It does have a microfilm copy of passenger lists that were turned over to it by the Customs Service and the Immigration and Naturalization Service when this federal repository was established in 1935. Inbound federal ship passenger arrival records at the National Archives date back to 1820 for most East Coast and Gulf Coast ports and a few lists dating back to 1800 for Philadelphia.
Anuta, Michael J. Ships of Our Ancestors. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1983.
Boyer, Carl, 3rd (editor). Ship Passenger Lists: Pennsylvania and Delaware (1641-1825). Westminster, Maryland: Family Line Publications, 1992. (Originally published by the compiler 1980).
_____. Ship Passenger Lists: New York and New Jersey (1600-1825). Westminster, Maryland: Family Line Publications, 1992. (Originally published by the compiler 1978).
_____. Ship Passenger Lists: The South (1538-1825). Westminster, Maryland: Family Line Publications, 1992. (Originally published by the compiler 1979).
Brandow, James C. (editor). Omitted Chapters from Hotten's Original Lists of Persons of Quality . . . and Others Who Went from Great Britain to the American Plantations, 1600-1700. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1982.
Colletta, John P. Colletta. They Came in Ships (revised edition). Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry Incorporated, 1993.
Dollarhide, William. British Origins of America Colonists, 1629-1775. Bountiful, Utah: Heritage Quest, 1997.
_____. Map Guide to American Migration Routes. Bountiful, Utah: Heritage Quest, 1997.
Filby, P. William (editor). Passenger and Immigration Lists Bibliography, 1538-1900 (second edition). Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research Company, 1988.
Fischer, David Hackett. Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America, New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Hall, Nick Vine. Tracing Your Family History in Australia: A Guide to Sources. Adelaide, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, New York, London, Auckland: Rigby Publishers, 1985.
Hotten, John Camden (editor). The Original Lists of Persons of Quality; Emigrants; Religious Exiles; Political Rebels; Serving Men Sold for a Term of Years; Apprentices; Children Stolen; maidens Pressed; and Others Who Went from Great Britain to the American Plantations, 1600-1700. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., reprinted 1986. (Originally published: London, 1874).
Roberts, Jayare. "Ellis Island and the Making of America," Genealogical Journal, 51-116, Volume 23, Nos. 2 and 3 (1995).
_____. "Ellis Island: Update," Genealogical Journal, 176-185, Volume 23, No. 4 (1995).
Szucs, Loretto Dennis. They Became Americans: Finding Naturalization Records and Ethnic Origins. Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry Incorporated, 1998.
Tepper, Michael. American Passenger Arrival Records: A Guide to the Records of Immigrants Arriving at American Ports by Sail and Steam. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1993.