by Katy Barnes
Immigration, always a hot topic in the United States, has been a common part of the historical and political discourse since the founding of the nation, largely because immigrants make up such an enormous part of our history and heritage as Americans.
I work for Legacy Tree Genealogists, a genealogy research firm with extensive expertise in researching and finding immigrant ancestors. Many of the research requests I receive involve helping a client identify his or her pre-American origins and immigration stories. Some of them are more recent, like tracing the whereabouts of an Italian man who arrived in New York, or the life of my own grandmother who came to the United States from Germany in the early 1960s. Others take some real digging through multiple generations of American citizens, like longtime Southern families hoping to explore their 18th century Ulster Scotch roots, or East Coast families seeking information on where in England their colonial ancestors lived before coming to the New World.
The Making of America’s Melting Pot
1600–1830: The earliest settlers in America were more ethnically diverse than is often discussed. Of course, the bulk of the permanent immigrants in the 17th and 18th centuries were from the British Isles—explorers, planters, soldiers, indentured servants, and religious refugees. These settled mostly on the East Coast. Additionally, however, there were the millions of Africans imported unwillingly as slaves throughout the entire western hemisphere.
The Dutch had a sizeable, thriving colony of their own in New York. The Big Apple was originally a trading post called Nieuw Amsterdam [New Amsterdam], and the Dutch influence can still be seen in the names of many geographic locations within the area (think Harlem, Rensselaer, Bleecker, Stuyvesant, and even Bronx).
The French may not have had as large of a presence in terms of permanent settlement, but there were still a number of fur trappers living in the then-frontier areas like Illinois, Ohio, and even further west into the Rockies. The Acadian French Catholic settlements in southern Louisiana and Maine began in the 1700s when a group of over 10,000 people were forcibly expelled from Canada.
Finally, the Spanish retained communities in the American Southwest (New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and California, for example), mostly in the form of missions. Later, beginning in the 1830s and 40s, this same region saw settlement by the Basques, a separate ethnic group from Spain who ranched and raised sheep and were often mistaken for being Spanish or French. There are still large populations of people of Basque descent today living in Idaho and California.
1830–1850: As time wore on in American history, immigration continued, though the different groups often fluctuated. The period of 1830–1850 was especially intense. The Chinese began arriving at the West Coast around the time of the California Gold Rush (1849–1850). The United States saw a large influx of Germans during the 1840s as well, thanks to political and military conflicts in their home country. Norwegians also began arriving, and both groups settled predominantly in the Midwest and Plains states, ranging from Indiana and Ohio to Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, and the Dakotas. The Danish were also well-represented, although the majority came as a part of conversion to the Latter-day Saint faith and joined other congregants in Utah. Finally, the devastating potato famine of the 1840s led to a huge diaspora of poverty-stricken Irish. It is estimated that as many as 25% of Ireland’s entire population left the island during that decade.
1850–Today: The latter half of the 19th century brought the Castle Garden and Ellis Island eras beginning in the 1850s, but ramping up in earnest in the 1890s. Italians, Eastern Europeans (particularly Jews escaping the pogroms of Russia), and Syrians, as well as even more Germans and Scandinavians came during this period. Today, most immigrants to the United States are of Hispanic and Asian origin, with Mexico, China, India, and the Philippines representing the largest groups.
Finding Your Immigration Origins
So how do you go about finding records of your own immigrant ancestors and their origins? Here are 4 rules of thumb to follow:
Check the simple, nonimmigration records. Documents and records like census enumerations will usually at least list a country of birth for the individual or his or her parents. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, a census taker will have been extra dedicated and included the town or province of your ancestor’s origin as well. If your ancestor was male and born after approximately 1872, be sure to also check World War I draft registration cards, as these usually list the birthplace of the registrant. And of course, you should never leave birth, marriage, and death records out of your search.
Check passenger lists and naturalization records. Where possible, check not only the immigration records at the port where the ancestor landed, but also search emigration records created by the country he or she left. These include passenger lists created in the home country, as well as documents filled out by the emigrants as applications to leave their country. A great resource for this is the Immigrant Ancestors Project, a research project from Brigham Young University which works to extract and publish emigration records exclusively. Sites like MyHeritage and Ancestry also have similar collections. Also, naturalization records were created whenever an immigrant decided to apply for American citizenship. These can contain a wealth of information, including the hometown of the ancestor.
Keep an open mind! The ports in New York (particularly Ellis Island and Castle Garden) are the most famous, but millions of immigrants came through less publicized cities. Don’t forget about Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, New Orleans, and San Francisco, as well as various cities in Florida and even Mobile, Alabama. The area of the United States in which your ancestor ultimately settled may be a clue as to the port in which he arrived.
Get creative! There are a number of other record types which may help you find your ancestor’s immigrant origins that don’t seem obvious. For example, local and county histories (many of which can be found digitized for free on Google Books) can contain fairly detailed information. Also check cemetery records, as many immigrants retained ties to their homeland through ethnic and religious organizations relating to a specific European city or region. Often, when an immigrant died, he or she was buried in a plot owned or sponsored by that organization, or buried near fellow countrymen. For example, we did research for a client this year whose Jewish immigrant ancestor was buried in a section of a cemetery owned by a fraternal organization for people from a certain area of what is today Belarus. This was an enormously helpful clue!
With dedication and diligence, in most cases it is possible to trace your family back to their country of origin and extend their lines. It’s a wonderful feeling to know more about where you (and your family) came from.