Beginning Research in United States Immigration and Emigration Records

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What are United States immigration and emigration records?

Immigration refers to people coming into a country. Emigration refers to people leaving a country to go to another. The records usually take the form of ship's passenger lists collected at the port of entry.

What time periods and locations do they cover?

  • The port of Boston,was the leading trading and passenger port 1630 to 1750.
  • The port of Philadelphia was founded in 1682 and rivaled the port of Boston for a short time.
  • The port of New Orleans was founded by the French in 1718, controlled by Spain from 1762 to 1803, then sold to the United States.
  • The port of Baltimore, founded in 1729, was the best protected deep water port and the closest East Coast port to the Midwest.
  • The port of New York was not the leading port until the Erie Canal opened in 1825. From 1855 through 1890, immigrants arriving in New York came through Castle Garden. Castle Garden processed approximately eight million immigrants.
  • Smaller ports are found in several other states.

What can I find in them?

  • Passenger lists before 1820 included name, departure information and arrival details. The names of wives and children were often not included.
  • Customs Passenger Lists between 1820 and 1891 asked for each immigrant’s name, their age, their sex, their occupation, and their country of origin, but not the city or town of origin.
  • Information given on passenger lists from 1891 to 1954 included:
    • name, age, sex,
    • nationality, occupation, marital status,
    • last residence, final destination in the U.S.,
    • whether they had been to the U.S. before (and if so, when, where and how long),
    • if joining a relative, who this person was, where they lived, and their relationship,
    • whether able to read and write,
    • whether in possession of a train ticket to their final destination, who paid for the passage,
    • amount of money the immigrant had in their possession,
    • whether the passenger had ever been in prison, a poorhouse, or in an institution for the insane,
    • whether the passenger was a polygamist,
    • and immigrant's state of health.
  • In 1906, the physical description and place of birth were included, and a year later, the name and address of the passenger’s closest living relative in the country of origin was included.

How do I access them?

The records have been collected, digitized, indexed, and published by several organizations. A list of online links is available at U.S. Immigration Online Genealogy Records.

  • Ancestry.com has a vey thorough collection of emigration and immigration records. ($)

Search strategies

  • You will usually find several possible entries for immigrants with similar names and ages. Learn everything you can so you can distinguish your ancestor from others of the same name. Knowing your ancestor’s full name, approximate date of arrival in the United States, approximate age on arrival to the United States, the likely port of arrival, the name of their spouse, their religion, and their occupation will all help in identifying your ancestor in passenger lists.
  • Many immigrants traveled in groups or settled among friends and relatives from their native land. Knowing the names of some relatives, neighbors and friends of your ancestor will help identify him on a passenger list.
  • Remember it wasn’t uncommon for one member of the family to come to the United States first and send for the rest of the family after getting established.
  • It is important to understand that many immigrant names were misspelled, misunderstood because of heavy accents or the lack of the ability to speak English, or Americanized. A name may have been lengthened or shortened. Search each index creatively for name variations