Tracing Your Immigrant Ancestor’s Record Trail

July 1, 2017  - by 
Use these tips to follow the trail of records left behind by immigrant ancestors.

Although stories of ancestors stowing away on ships are dramatic and exciting, they are almost never true. In reality, immigration came with a lot of red tape—just as it does now. And for a genealogist, that red tape is useful because it often left behind a trail of records as our ancestors went through the immigration process.

While each immigration story is unique, many of our ancestors passed through similar checkpoints and created similar records. The immigration path of my ancestors Georg and Mina Albrecht highlights a few of the records that might also help you uncover the path of your immigrant ancestors.

In Germany


Follow a trail of records to find your ancestors.

The church in Goldebee where Georg and Mina were married.

Mina Haker and Georg Albrecht married in 1864 in the parish church of Goldebee in Mecklenburg-Schwerin, a state in northern Germany. Over the next 15 years, the family appears in local parish records having nine children, one of whom died as a baby. A one-page family history tells that Georg encountered missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints while on his way home from work one day. He and his family made the decision to be baptized and then to follow the Church’s encouragement to immigrate to the United States and make their way to Utah.

How to follow a trail of records left by immigrants.
Leaving one’s country was not as easy as just packing a bag and buying passage on the next ship. Often our ancestors had to get permission of some kind from their home country. Georg and his oldest son, Johann, sent in papers showing they had completed the required military service. Unfortunately, these papers are available only in the local German archive. Other areas have easier access to records of people emigrating that can be of use to genealogists. For example, the website German Roots links to many emigration databases for the German states. In Copenhagen, the police kept records of people intending to emigrate, which are now largely indexed and available online. The Antwerp police did something similar, and the index is now available on FamilySearch. To see what exists for your country, visit the FamilySearch Wiki home page, and do a search for your ancestor’s country of origin. Then click in the menu on the right to read that country’s Emigration and Immigration section.

Crossing the Ocean

The next record in the Albrecht family’s immigration process is a Hamburg passenger departure list dated October 1880. Here, Georg and Mina are listed with eight children. Theoretically, information for our ancestors should be included in two sets of passenger lists: departure lists showing when they left their home country and arrival lists showing when they arrived in their new country. In reality though, it’s not always possible to find both lists. In the United States, the magic date is 1820—most immigrants who arrived after 1820 are included in arrival lists that are indexed and searchable through FamilySearch and elsewhere. The availability of departure lists can be inconsistent. Check the FamilySearch Wiki for your departure country to learn more.


These useful tips will help you find your immigrant ancestors.

This depature list from the port of Hamburg shows Mina and Georg’s family and provides a hometown for them, making it easier to search farther back.

Mina and Georg lived in northern Germany, which meant the port of Hamburg was the most obvious choice for port of departure. And they did use this port—as did one third of all people leaving from Central and Eastern Europe at this time. Not all of our ancestors chose the closest port though. They often took into account other factors such as cost, waiting time, and ease of traveling to that port. The Albrecht family’s choice of Hamburg is fortunate for me because these lists have survived and are indexed and searchable online. Records from the other major German port, Bremen, were destroyed. While finding the departure list may feel redundant and sometimes difficult, it’s worth the effort. The all-important name of a person’s hometown (necessary to continue tracing the family in the country of origin) is much more likely to be recorded in departure lists than in arrival lists.

Follow these simple steps to find your immigrant ancestors.

The Albrecht family’s New York arrival record incorrectly tells us the family is from Sweden, making it difficult to find them in indexes.

The Albrecht family arrived in New York on November 3, 1880. Once again, a passenger list gives a quick snapshot of the family. Interestingly, the Albrecht family is not included in the index Germans to America, nor can they be found on FamilySearch.org or Ancestry.com or in any other database indicating their departure from Germany in 1880. A closer look at their New York arrival list explains why. At the top of the page in the column for origin is the word “Sweden” with a squiggly line going down the page to indicate everyone on the page was from Sweden. This detail always reminds me of the importance of experimenting with searches—you never know when information might be recorded or indexed incorrectly.


Where to look for immigrant documentation to find your ancestors.

BYU’s Saints by Sea website includes a photo of the Wisconsin, the ship that carried the Albrechts to New York.

Because the family were members of the Church, another website can give me insights into their journey. The Saints by Sea, hosted by Brigham Young University, includes all Latter-day Saint voyages that took place during the period 1840–1890 as well as some other databases. Along with passenger arrival lists and photos of ships, this website provides links to all known accounts of the voyages. That means I can read details that others wrote about the voyage, even if my own ancestors wrote nothing.

Settling In

How to recognize one of your immigrant ancestors.

The naturalization record for Georg and Mina’s son John Albrecht (Johann in Germany), provides only very basic information. Other naturalization records are more helpful.

Once on this side of the ocean, your ancestors could be included in numerous records—including records that give insight into their immigration experience or their lives in their home countries. One of the best records to try is naturalization records. Prior to 1906—the year naturalization became a federal process—naturalization could take place in a variety of courts and involved several steps that could create different records. Keep in mind that through much of history, women did not naturalize separately but took on the citizenship status of their husbands. For more information on naturalization, read FamilySearch’s United States Naturalization and Citizenship wiki article. Georg and his son Johann both naturalized in Utah—although their records provide scanty information. Some naturalization records are much richer in detail.

Other records can also be helpful. Besides including names, ages, and relationships, beginning in 1900, census records also asked for an immigration year and citizenship status. The 1920 census asked for year of naturalization. This information can help focus your search. Other records such as church records, vital records, newspaper obituaries, and even family and county histories among others can fill in details of your ancestors’ stories and provide hints about their immigration journey.

Although each immigrant ancestor followed a unique path, your ancestor (particularly those who immigrated to the United States after 1820) almost certainly left a record trail of some sort, just as Mina and Georg did. With a little searching, you can uncover their trail and follow them along their journey.

Leslie Albrecht Huber

Leslie Albrecht Huber has written for dozens of magazines and journals on genealogy and other topics. She currently does communications consulting and contract work for nonprofit organizations. Leslie received a bachelor's degree in history from Brigham Young University and a Master of Public Affairs (MPA) from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has worked as a professional genealogist, helpingothers trace their families, and has spoken on genealogy and history topics to groups across the United States.

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