For many people, tracing immigrant ancestors across the ocean to their old world origins feels a little like finding a needle in a haystack. Often, immigration records provide an important link, but locating those records can be a challenge of its own! Fortunately, a number of online resources can make your task easier. Here are a few to get you started. And best of all, they’re all free.
1. German Roots (germanroots.com). Before you skip over this suggestion thinking it doesn’t apply to you because your ancestors aren’t German, here’s a little secret: German Roots is a fabulous resource for anyone with European immigrant ancestors, not just those with German ancestors. Don’t let the Spartan appearance of the website fool you (no bells and whistles here!); this website is a treasure trove of information.
The homepage gives you a full menu of options, but for immigrant ancestors you’ll want to focus on the Emigration and Immigration Records page. From there, you can start by exploring the Passenger Arrival Records section. This section has links to online passenger lists arranged by port as well as descriptions of online and offline resources for both the pre- and post-1820 time periods. In the International Passenger Departure Records and Emigration Records section, you’ll find links divided by country of departure, including Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.
2. Castle Garden (castlegarden.org). Although many people think of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty when picturing immigrants arriving in New York, the Statue of Liberty didn’t join the scene until 1885, and Ellis Island didn’t open until seven years later. Prior to that, many immigrants arrived at Castle Garden. Castle Garden was originally built in 1807 but took on its most important role as the receiving station for immigrants arriving in New York in 1855. And in the mid to late 1800s, around 80 percent of immigrants arriving in the United States came through New York.
All this means that the Castle Garden website is a don’t-miss stop for those with immigrant ancestors arriving during this period. The website covers an even wider stretch of time than Castle Garden itself, including records for 11 million people who arrived in New York from 1820 to 1892. The website is free but not complete. A search leads to transcribed entries pulled from passenger arrival records.
3. Ellis Island (ellisisland.org). By the late 1880s, Castle Garden had become overwhelmed with arrivals. Also, public sentiment toward immigrants had soured, prompting authorities to open Ellis Island, which functioned more as a place of screening than as the resource center Castle Garden had been. Meanwhile, the numbers of immigrants just kept rising.
With records for 51 million people and covering the period 1892–1957, the Ellis Island database is massive! The search page will lead you to possible matches that link to digitized images of passenger lists. Because of the vast amount of materials available, finding a match can take some patience—and often takes more than one try.
4) One-Step Webpages (stevemorse.org). Steve Morse, the founder of One-Step Webpages, is a computer programmer who got frustrated trying to find his ancestors in the Ellis Island database and decided he needed a better way to search it. So he set out to design just that. Morse’s website doesn’t have new or additional information. Instead, it links users to existing databases, allowing them to search in different ways with more parameters and more flexibility in spellings and other information.
Although Morse’s website is best known for the Ellis Island search, he has also designed searches for many other databases, including the Castle Garden records, other United States arrival records, Hamburg departure lists, United States census records, some vital records, and others.
5) FamilySearch Wiki (FamilySearch.org/wiki). FamilySearch’s wiki is packed full of useful information to help you trace your immigrant ancestors. A great starting point is the Tracing Immigrant Origins guide (FamilySearch.org/wiki/en/Tracing_Immigrant_Origins). You can also search the wiki for information specific to your ancestors’ port of arrival or for their country of origin by searching for the wiki of that state or country. Just about every country’s wiki page has an Emigration and Immigration section.
If you’re ready to make the journey across the ocean, try diving in to some of these resources!
Leaving Europe: More Websites to Explore
If you’re still looking for more, here are some websites that might help (some charge fees):
Ancestry’s Immigration and Travel section (search.ancestry.com/search/category.aspx?cat=40) houses many collections useful for tracing immigrant ancestors. Among other things, you can access the Hamburg Passenger Lists, covering the years 1850–1934, as well as Emigranten Populär, 1783–1951, a Swedish database with records of 1.3 million emigrants who left from Swedish ports.
The Danish Emigration Archives (emiarch.dk/info.php?l=en) has made available 400,000 police records about people leaving Copenhagen during the period 1869–1908.
findmypast’s U.K. Passenger Departure Records (findmypast.co.uk/passengerListPersonSearchStart.action) includes over 30 million records of people leaving the United Kingdom during the period 1890–1960.
Staats Archiv Bremen (passengerlists.de) has put online 3,000 records of passengers leaving from Bremen during the period 1920–1939, the only records that survived from this important port.
Norway Heritage (norwayheritage.com) has collected thousands of names of Norwegian emigrants from passenger lists and other sources.
The Scottish Emigration Database (abdn.ac.uk/emigration) includes the names of 21,000 people who left Scotland between 1890 and 1960.
BYU’s Immigrant Ancestors Project (immigrants.byu.edu) is a growing database that will eventually contain emigration information about millions of emigrants.
Institute of Migration (migrationinstitute.fi/en/genealogy/emigrantregister) allows you to search passenger lists and passport records for Finns migrating to America during the period 1890–1950.
Italian Immigrants to the United States (italianimmigrants.org) contains over 600,000 names of Italians arriving in the United States during the period 1855–1900.
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