MyCinnamonToast® Genealogy

Finding Your Immigrant Ancestor

by Edna Katherine French

"Give me your tired your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

—Emma Lazarus (1849-1887)

Often your most frustrating experience in tracing your ancestor's home town will be trying to "get across the big pond." For the uninitiated that means that tracing your immigrant origins across the ocean can be one of the hardest parts of your family history research. But your instinct is correct. Finding your immigrant ancestor's home town will lead you to earlier generations of your family and to much more family history information in that area.

Many people become so eager that they leap right over the "big pond" and then hit a huge genealogical wall. They say something like, "I know my great-great grandfather was an emigrant from Germany because we have a family story about him being a stowaway and hiding in the steerage all the way across the Atlantic and how his friend, Hans, used to steal food for him to keep him from starving." Let me add my caution to that of many experienced genealogists. It is almost always best to curb your eagerness and begin your search in the country where your ancestor finally settled. Do not switch to records from the country-of-origin too soon in your search.1

As always, your search strategies will include such basics as obtaining the immigrant's name and a date, such as birth, confirmation, military release, or marriage. Learn about other family members, friends, neighbors and how their names were spelled, because you may identify them first. Clues can be found in family stories and traditions. For example, frequent mention of river crossings to take farm goods to a nearby town could narrow your search to a particular region or province. Your ancestor's religion could also help place him or her in a particular part of a country.

Now it's time to head for the library. Some of the records you'll want to search will be:

  1. Compiled genealogical records for printed family histories and genealogies;
  2. Biographies;
  3. Family information published in newsletters;
  4. Large, indexed or alphabetical collections; and
  5. Research, catalogs, and indexes collected by other libraries.

And then you'll want to leave the library and search the original records of each place where your ancestor lived, because each jurisdiction may have some record about him or her. In looking at all of these records, you'll want to see if anyone else has identified your ancestor's home town. Of course, you'll keep your eyes open for those familiar names of other family members and neighbors because you might uncover important clues.

All of these things may seem pretty much like the same old search strategies you've been using in the same old places you've always been. And they are. But this time you aren't just looking for a single person. You have been keeping an eye out for friends and relatives because often immigrants traveled as groups and settled together in the new country.

Whew! Now, this is what you have been waiting for. If you haven't located your ancestor's home town by now, there are so many more places to search that we're just going to have to make another list:

  1. Search for immigration and naturalization records. This includes the "ship's lists" that you've probably heard so much about.
  2. Immigrant aid societies often helped immigrants associated with a particular ethnic, religious, or community organization.
  3. Obituaries were the only biographies ever written about many immigrants.
  4. Newspapers listed passengers, new arrivals, immigrants treated locally in a hospital, immigrants arriving with the status of apprentices or indentured servants, announcements of marriages, estate probate announcements and other items of interest to relatives or friends who had arrived previously.
  5. An excellent opportunity to locate your ancestor's home town is to search out the record of land purchased directly from the government because most immigrants came for the purpose of acquiring land. If they purchased it right after arrival, the deed could show their place of origin.
  6. Many pension files, where proof of age was a factor, contain birth certificates or pages torn out of family Bibles.

Finally, you've found your ancestor. Well, actually it's worse than that. You've found several families where the children have the same names. The more you know about your ancestor, the better you can test to determine that you have indeed found the right person. The birth date and parents should correspond with what you know, even if the name spelling may have changed slightly from one country to another. If you still aren't certain, ask the negative questions such as, "Did the person you found die before leaving the country of origin?" Or, "Did the person suddenly appear in records in the country of arrival after you know he or she was already living there?"

"But what about me?", you say? My great-great grandfather was an illegal immigrant! None of the emigration and immigration records would list him.

Almost one-third of the emigrants did not obey the laws requiring permission to emigrate from one country to another. Your ancestor was one of them. Take heart, however. Governments sometimes tried to identify them after their departure, and various indexes exist. Two books by William P. Filby, Passenger and Immigration Lists Bibliography 1538-1900 Rev.ed. Detroit: Gale Research, 1988, and Passenger and Immigration Lists Index. Detroit: Gale Research, 1981-, are widely available in libraries. The first has over 2,600 published lists and indexes, while the second is a three-volume set with annual supplements. It now has over 2.5 million names taken from small lists in hundreds of publications. Perhaps your ancestor is one of them.

Remember that your primary goal is to locate your ancestor's home town because that will open up more of your family lines. But one clue can lead to another, so it is important to keep good records as you search and to constantly evaluate them against each other. You never know when a combination of clues will lead you to your elusive quarry. What a thrill you will have then.

Immigration Records.

A volunteer effort to make the passenger lists of ships available on the Internet. You can use the "ISTG Compass" to search for your ancestor. If your ancestor isn't found in the search, and you know an approximate date, you may want to browse ship by ship and look at the transcribed records. Many names have question marks where there were characters that were illegible, and you may recognize your ancestor's name by browsing when the search couldn't find it because it was incomplete.

This site has a number of helpful genealogy resources, including a directory and database of ships passenger lists, and a comprehensive directory of surname resources.


If your ancestors came to the United States through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1924, you can now search for their passenger records at the new Ellis Island American Family Immigration Center.

International & Passenger Records Subscription
Philadelphia, 1800-1850 Passenger and Immigration Lists
Philadelphia, 1789-1880 Naturalization Records s
Irish to America, 1846-1865 Passenger and Immigration Lists
Irish Immigrants to North America, 1803-1871

Related Books

It's easy to purchase any of the books we recommend. Clicking on the title will take you to, the leading internet book seller. You can buy from with confidence. They have good prices, excellent customer service, and a secure ordering environment. And buying books through these links helps support MyCinnamonToastTM - we receive a commission on books you purchase from this site, which helps us to continue to provide you with a good service.

by Loretto D. Szucs
Ellis Island held the hopes and dreams of people coming from England, Ireland, Germany, Finland, Russia, and many other nations--people who had ideals of freedom from oppression, who wanted land of their own, who unfortunately were indentured or servants. Like the book above, it is written by Loretto Szucs who has written many acclaimed genealogical books.

A Consolidation of Ship Passenger Lists from the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography
by Michael Tepper
Michael Tepper has written a number of books focussing on American passenger arrival records and immigration to America in various ports such as Baltimore and Philadelphia. We selected this book to illustrate the level of detail he bases his research on, as you can tell by the title itself.

by Christina K. Schaefer
Naturalization is the procedure by which an alien by birth is granted citizenship in a new country. Most U.S. citizens have ancestors who were naturalized; even Native Americans, considered a separate nation by the U.S. government, were naturalized in the early 1900s. Since naturalization records are scattered, this book will be essential for genealogists and other researchers who seek them.

Introductory matter lists types of data found in declarations of intentions, depositions, petitions, and certificates of naturalization. A brief history notes important U.S. naturalization laws and groups affected and discusses the special topics of Chinese and Japanese Americans and German and Italian Americans in World War II. Schaefer also notes alternative sources of citizenship information, including census schedules, homestead and passport applications, and military records, which can be checked if final naturalization papers cannot be found. Types of courts, records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, advice about how to obtain copies of records, and a reading list round out the introduction.

The author, Christina Schaefer states, "In writing this book, I focused on the film holdings of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. These microfilms circulate to Family History Centers worldwide, making it possible for researchers to search naturalization records without engaging in the expense of travel. Naturalization records can open doors on sources of information which had previously been closed, because of lack of vital records, being missed by the census taker, or the absence of church or denominational records. I hope that people who have given up on an ancestor and have not tried to find a naturalization record, because they thought it was too hard, will try again. There are many records just waiting to be found!"

A Genealogical Guidebook
by Marilyn Lind
Often the clues to locating the elusive hometown of your immigrant ancestor are found in tracing his or her steps backwards from the last known place of residence in the United States. Following known patterns of migration and settlement can help in your research. Marilyn Lind's other books focus on such varied topics as introduction to foreign research, printing and publishing your family history, researching your German family history, and using maps and aerial photography in your research.

by J. Neagles
Naturalization is the process whereby an immigrant is granted citizenship into the country of arrival. The records created at that time often show the immigrant's place of departure and provide clues to his or her home town. The home town may or may not have been near the port of departure, so these clues must be weighed with other evidence that you have gathered.

They Became Americans: Finding Naturalization Records and Ethnic Origins

by Loretto Dennis Szucs, Dennis L. Szucs
This book has a 5-star review and is written by a master genealogist who also wrote The Source: A Guidebook of Genealogy, which is considered one of the absolutely essential genealogical reference books.

Dozens of Cousins; Blue Genes, Horse Thieves, and Other Relative Surprises in Your Family Tree

by Lois Horowitz
And finally we give you a book just for fun--no promises about the contents. The title intrigued us and we hope that you'll find it interesting.

Related Web Pages

By the time the tiring trip approached its long-awaited end, most immigrants were in a state of shock: physically, mentally, and emotionally. Yet, even with the shores of a New World looming before their eyes, even with tears of relief streaming down their faces, their journey was not at an end. A final fear gripped thei hearts: Would their new home accept or reject them?

Immigration records, more popularly known as "ship passenger arrival records," may provide evidence of a person's arrival in the United States, as well as foreign birthplace. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has immigration records for various ports for the years 1800-1959.

An Annotated Bibliography of Resources on Danish Immigration to America: Library of Congress: by Lee V. Douglas: Research Guide No. 28

A Select Bibliography of Works on Norwegian-American Immigration and Local History: Library of Congress: Compiled by Lee V. Douglas: Research Guide No. 6

Information and Links to Passenger Lists & Immigration/Emigration Data on Other Sites.

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