Return to:  Original Format  |  Index of Guides

RootsWeb's Guide to Tracing Family Trees
Guide No. 15:  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.

Ellis Island

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
* Name of its master
* Port of embarkation
* Date and port of its arrival
* Each passenger's name, age, sex, occupation and nationality.

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.

U.S. Ports of Entry

Major indexes exist for:

Cyndi's List

Explore the Naturalization and Immigration Information, and some Ship Passenger Lists at Immigrant Ships Transcribers Guild.


Suggested Reading & References


Additional Resources


Links in this Guide
(in order they appeared)

counter