The history of many countries—including the United States and Canada—is filled with stories of immigrants, which, for many of us, means that our individual family histories are also filled with them. Your immigrant ancestors might have come from Italy a couple of generations ago or from England a few centuries ago—or you might even have both of those varieties of immigrants on your family tree. While the specifics of our immigrant ancestors may look different, the existence of immigrant branches on our family trees is something most of us have in common.
The other thing many of us have in common is that we find tracing these immigrant ancestors tricky or even frustrating. There’s just something about crossing the big, wide ocean that makes their trail grow a little fainter, a little harder to follow. But the good news is FamilySearch.org is packed full of records and resources that make locating those elusive immigrant ancestors much more manageable. Here’s a look at a few of these resources.
Laying the Foundation: Guides and Resources
Before you dive into immigration research, it’s useful to take some time to get oriented. Understanding a little about the immigration process, the records it created, and how to access these records can make your journey easier. Here are some resources at FamilySearch.org that can help you do just that:
Learning Center. To access FamilySearch’s Learning Center, click Get Help in the upper right corner of the home page. Then in the drop-down menu, click Learning Center. In the search field, you can type Immigration Research or any other topic of interest to you. A list of lessons related to that subject will appear. These presentations, often 10 to 60 minutes long, cover such topics as “Norwegian Emigration: The Experience” and “Ireland Beginning Research: Immigration Strategies.” You can also search for articles in the Learning Center. The presentations and articles often walk you through the research process, direct you to relevant resources, and get you on the fast track to success in tracking your immigrant ancestors.
Wiki. Another important resource to get acquainted with when tracing your immigrant ancestors is the FamilySearch Wiki. The wiki offers guides and lists to help focus your research. Many of these resources include explanations of where to look, along with links to the most important online resources. A few wiki articles particularly useful for immigration research are the following:
- United States Emigration and Immigration
- Tracing Immigrant Origins
- United States Naturalization and Citizenship
Another great way to jumpstart your search for your immigrant ancestor is to visit the wiki for their home country by typing the country’s name in the search box on the main wiki page, and then clicking Go. In the new page that opens, click Emigration and Immigration in the research topics box. Here you can learn about major reasons people left their home country, what ports they used, and how to access records about these emigrants. The wiki articles often include links to connect you to the records about emigrants and immigrants.
Diving into Research: Immigration Records at FamilySearch.org
Once you have spent some time becoming acquainted with immigration research, it’s time to start searching for records.
Many types of records are available at FamilySearch.org that can help researchers discover new information about their immigrant ancestors. We’ve chosen just a few to highlight here. As always, you can find ancestors in records by using the main search fields for historical records or by selecting individual record collections to search.
Passenger Lists. One of the most important kinds of records in tracing immigrant ancestors are passenger lists. Lists were often created both when people left a port and when they arrived at a new port. FamilySearch has a strong collection of arrival lists for the United States, including lists from New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New Orleans, and more. Most of these records are searchable. FamilySearch has some departure lists from other countries as well, and many others can be accessed through partner sites such as Ancestry.com or findmypast.com. (Free subscriptions to these partner sites are available for Church members who have FamilySearch accounts). Hover your mouse pointer over Search, and then click Records. On the new page, you can type in your ancestor’s name to search all records or type the name of a specific collection in the Find a Collection box.
To search a specific group of records, hover your mouse over Search, and then click Records.
Then type the name of the collection in the Find a Collection box.
LDS Immigration Records. FamilySearch also has resources that are specific to the immigration of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For example, you can search the Mormon Migration Database from FamilySearch.org. While you can see search results on FamilySearch.org, to view the actual information you will have to leave FamilySearch.org and head to the official Saints by Sea site, which is hosted by Brigham Young University. Here, you can view passenger lists, see photo of ships, and scan lists of passengers aboard the ship. You can also see any accounts that were written of the voyage by your ancestor or by others on board the ship.
Other Immigration Records. Other records besides passenger lists were often created when our ancestors immigrated, and FamilySearch has some excellent collections of some of these records. Among FamilySearch’s collections are border crossing records from Canada (starting in 1895) and Mexico (starting in 1903) to the United States, nearly 1.5 billion United States passport applications dating from the period 1795–1925, and the Belgium Antwerp Police Immigration Index (1840–1930) among others. You can browse a list of collections here.
Other Records. Keep in mind that other types of records can help you trace your immigrant ancestors. For example, naturalization records can be important. Check FamilySearch’s list here to see what naturalizations are available online. FamilySearch also has naturalization records that might not be microfilmed yet but that can still be accessed at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City or by ordering microfilm from your local family history center. FamilySearch also has a large collection of other records that might have information about your ancestors and can help you target your immigration search more effectively. The guides in the Learning Center and the wiki can help direct you to the most useful of these records.
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