U.S. Immigration and Emigration Class Handout

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Guide to immigration and emigration records as a genealogical source for researching ancestors.

Courtesy of Jill Shoemaker - with information from United States Emigration and Immigration.

Immigration and Emigration[edit | edit source]

Nearly fifty million people have immigrated to the United States, including one or more of your ancestors. Immigration refers to people coming into a country, such as the United States, Emigration refers to people leaving a country to go to another, and migration refers to people leaving one area of a country and going to another area of the same country (such as from the East coast to the West coast). Searching immigration and emigration records may provide the vital link to the country of origin, depending on the time period.

Emigrants left their own countries to come to the United States for several reasons. They may have felt compelled to leave due to religious persecution, economic hardship, war, and mandatory military conscription. Some people have been forced to come to the United States as slaves or convicts. Or emigrants may have chosen to leave their homes to have the chance to own land, to have regular jobs, and religious freedom. Other family members may have already immigrated to the United States and encouraged their family to join them.


  • Before searching passenger lists, learn everything you can about your immigrant ancestor from other sources, so that you will be able to:
    • Identify him in relevant passenger records.
    • Distinguish him from others of the same name.
    • Concentrate your efforts in the right time period and location.
  • 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 can all help in identifying your ancestor in passenger lists.
  • A Note about Names: It is important to understand that many immigrant names were misspelled, misunderstoodbecause of heavy accents or the lack of the ability to speak English, or Americanized. John Black in the United States may have been Johannes Schwartz in the homeland. A name may have been lengthened or shortened. For example, Wise may have once been Weisen and before that Weisenberg and earlier still Weisenberger. This makes searching a passenger list index for your ancestor a real challenge.

Helpful Immigration Information from Census Records:[edit | edit source]

  • Many census schedules required information that is helpful in determining when your ancestor immigrated.
The 1820, 1830, and 1840 censuses had a column for the number of foreigners in a household.
From the 1850 census to the present, ages and birth places of each individual are listed.
The 1870 census had a column for male citizens of 21 years of age and older.
The 1880 through 1940 censuses asked for the place of birth of the parents. The 1910 and 1920 censuses asked for the native tongue of the respondent and in 1920 the native tongue of both the respondent and the parents.
The 1900, 1910, 1920, and 1930 census each had a citizenship column showing NA (naturalized), PA (first papers or declaration of intention), AL (alien—not naturalized), and year of immigration. Census records can be found at FamilySearch.org, Ancestry.com, and many other websites.
  • While searching the census, note who the relatives, friends, and neighbors of the immigrant were. Many immigrants traveled in groups or settled among friends and relatives from their native land. Knowing the names of some relatives and friends of your ancestor will help identify him on a passenger list. And 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.

Clues from County and Family Histories:[edit | edit source]

County histories have been written since the late 1800s, and they included biographies of many citizens of the county. Look for your immigrant ancestor as well as other family members, such as siblings and children. Also, look for any family histories written about your ancestor as their immigration may have already been researched. Look at FamilySearch, Ancestry, or do a Google search.

Military Records:[edit | edit source]

Military records, such as enlistment records, pension records, draft registrations, discharge records, and personnel files may also give a clue as to where your ancestor was born. Military records can be found at FamilySearch.org, Ancestry.com, and Fold3.com.

Church Records[edit | edit source]

Church records are another source that may lead to information about your ancestor’s birth place. New immigrants generally attended the same church in the new country that they had in the old country. Church records can be found at FamilySearch.org and USGenWeb.org.

Relatives[edit | edit source]

Talk to a family member and distant relatives about your ancestor's birthplace, family stories, and traditions. Ask if there are any existing keepsakes relating to your ancestors immigration, such as tickets, newspaper clippings, letters, or naturalization papers.

Obituaries and Headstones[edit | edit source]

Obituaries are an excellent source of biographical information about immigrants. In addition to names and death dates, you can learn about surviving family members, church affiliations, spouses, parents, occupations, burial places, and hometowns in the old country. Even if a place of origin is not given, an obituary may provide additional research clues, such as the date or ship of immigration or traveling companions. Obituaries can be found at Newspaper Archives, Chronicling America, World Vital Records, USGenWeb Archives Obituary Project, Ancestry.com, and Fold3.com. Headstones might have immigration information, also. Headstones can be found at FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com.

Vital Records[edit | edit source]

Marriage and death records may list your ancestor’s birth date and birth place. A child of your immigrant ancestor may also record their parent’s birth date and birth place. Vital records can be found online at FamilySearch.org, Ancestry.com, USGenWeb.org, and many other commercial and private websites.

PORTS OF ARRIVAL[edit | edit source]

The Atlantic and Gulf Coast Ports include Boston, Massachusetts; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; New Orleans, Louisiana; Baltimore, Maryland; Detroit, Michigan; and New York City, New York. Smaller ports are found in the states of Alabama, Alaska, California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New York (not New York City), Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin.

Boston:[edit | edit source]

The port of Boston, founded about 1630, was the leading trading and passenger port in the colonial period until 1750, when the ports of Philadelphia and New York became more prominent. 2,050,000 immigrants passed through the port of Boston between 1820 and 1920.

Philadelphia:[edit | edit source]

The port of Philadelphia was founded in 1682 and rivaled the port of Boston for a short time as a leading port of immigration. However, during the Irish potato famine, they failed to establish adequate shipping lines to receive the increased quantity of immigrants and fell behind the other major ports. More immigrants arrived at Philadelphia than at New York City prior to 1800. 1,240,000 immigrants passed through the port of Philadelphia between 1820 and 1920.

New Orleans:[edit | edit source]

The port of New Orleans was founded by the French in 1718, but was controlled by Spain from 1762 to 1803. In 1803 it was sold to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase. By 1840 New Orleans had grown to be the fourth largest port in the United States. The Mississippi River travel made New Orleans the best way to access America’s western interior. From 1840 to 1869 many LDS pioneers arrived at the New Orleans to travel up the Mississippi River and debark from Wyoming City, Nebraska on the west side of the Mississippi River. The Civil War brought an abrupt end to New Orleans as a prominent port. 710,000 immigrants passed through the port of New Orleans between 1820 and 1920.

Baltimore:[edit | edit source]

The port of Baltimore was founded in 1729. It was the best protected deep water port and the closest East Coast port to the Midwest. Immigration inspectors boarded ships before they arrived in Baltimore and completed inspection of the immigrants while on board. 1,460,000 immigrants passed through the port of Baltimore between 1820 and 1920.

New York:[edit | edit source]

  • New York was not always the leading port, even though it was established by the Dutch in 1625. It was not until the Erie Canal opened in 1825 that it became the busiest port of entry. Before August 1855, the port of New York was located on the wharfs of Manhattan.
  • From 1 August 1855 through 18 April 1890, immigrants arriving in the state of New York came through Castle Garden. Castle Garden processed approximately eight million immigrants, mostly from Germany, Ireland, England, Scotland, Sweden, Italy, Russia and Denmark. During its years of operation, two out of every three immigrants passed through the port Castle Garden.
  • A free online database listing 11 million immigrants from 1820 through 1892 is at www.castlegarden.org sponsored by the New York Battery Conservancy(moved to The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, Inc.). Digital copies of many of the ship manifests can be searched in the New York Passenger Lists, 1851-1891 at Ancestry.com. FamilySearch.org has an index to New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1891. Microfilms of the manifests can also be searched at Family History Centers and the National Archives (NARA).
  • After Castle Garden was closed in 1890, immigrants were processed at an old barge office in Manhattan until December 1891. The barge office was used again as a temporary center from June 1897 until December 1900 after a fire destroyed the first Ellis Island immigration center.
  • Ellis Island first opened in January 1892 and was used until June 1897 when a fire destroyed the building. Some administrative records and New York immigration passenger lists were destroyed in the fire, but the customs passenger lists were kept elsewhere and were kept intact. Ellis Island reopened in December 1900 and was used until 1924.
  • Ellis Island was sometimes called the Great Hall of Ellis Island or the Hall of Tears. Here doctors looked for signs of sickness or infirmity. Families may have been separated, as inspectors accepted some and rejected others. About 98% of the immigrants passed all inspection, with 2% being rejected and deported. The immigrants took great care to create the impression that they could make a living in America. 5,000 new immigrants a day were processed at Ellis Island during its peak years. A total of 23,960,000 immigrants passed through the port of New York between 1820 and 1920.
  • Passenger lists for immigrants passing through Ellis Island can be found at the Ellis Island Website. It is necessary to register to search the site, but it is free.

PRE-1820 IMMIGRATION[edit | edit source]

  • Over a million individuals arrived in America before 1820. The majority (60 percent) were from England and Wales. Smaller numbers of immigrants from Germany, Ireland, Netherlands, France, Spain, Africa, and other countries also arrived.
  • Indentured Servants, Convict Servants, and Redemptioners: Historians estimate that more than 75% of the colonists who settled south of New England in this time period financed their voyages as indentured servants, convict servants, and redemptioners.
  • Under the English headright system in the late 1600s to early 1700s, an individual would pay for the passage of a person in England who could not afford the fare and would receive a grant of 50 acres for each person he brought over. In turn, the person whose passage had been paid would serve as an indentured servant for seven years. At the end of the seven years, the indentured servant would receive his freedom, 50 acres of land, and sometimes some money. This was well advertised in England to encourage the population there to take advantage of this opportunity to better their lives.
  • A convict servant was transported to the colonies from England to serve out their prison time as indentured servants. At the end of their service, they would receive an official pardon. Most of these convicts were serving time for lesser crimes rather than serious crimes. It is estimated that 50,000 to 60,000 Englishmen were transported as convicts to America. They often did hard labor in the plantations of Maryland and Virginia where there was a need for cheap labor. Those transported were as young as twelve. If a woman became pregnant while serving as an indentured servant, she had to do extra time for the child.
  • In the 1770s redemptioners (the equivalent of indentured servants) from Germany immigrated in one of two ways. One way was for an individual to make arrangements before leaving home to work for an American farmer or tradesman for a certain number of years in return for his passage fare. The other way was for an individual to agree to be sold into servitude by the ship captain in compensation for his passage to America. Most of the redemptioners settled in Pennsylvania.
  • A good website to identify indentured servants, convict servants, or redemptioners is the Immigrant Servants Database sponsored by Price and Associates.

Pre-1820 Passenger Lists:[edit | edit source]

Passenger lists before 1820 included name, departure information and arrival details. The names of wives and children were often not included. Non-British immigrants in this time period, such as German and Swiss immigrants, were required to swear an oath of allegiance to England as early as 1727, which provides proof of their immigration.

Pre-1820 Passenger Lists Online: Some passenger lists for this time period include:

  • William P. Filby’s Passenger and Immigration Lists Index is an invaluable resource created by indexing thousands of different records. The original sources that are listed in Filby’s index may be available at the Family History Library (do a catalog search) or at local public or university libraries.
  • An excellent source for early passenger lists of immigrants to New England between 1620 and 1640 is The Great Migration Project, 1620-1635 sponsored by The New England Historical and Genealogical Society (NEHGS). The database is also available at Ancestry.com.

1820-1880 IMMIGRATION[edit | edit source]

Over ten million immigrants came from the British Isles, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, China, Japan, French-speaking Canada, Germany, Italy, and Russia from 1820 to 1880.

1820-1880 Passenger Lists:=[edit | edit source]

After 1820 the state governments began to regulate immigration and ship captains were required to submit lists of passengers to the Collector of Customs, but this was not required at every port and some ports did not comply with the new rule. 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.

1820-1880 Passenger Lists Online:[edit | edit source]

Some passenger lists for this time period include:

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The usage of "Mormon" and "LDS" on this page is approved according to current policy.

  • To find an LDS pioneer immigrant, search the Mormon Immigration Index sponsored by Brigham Young University. To see pictures of the ships LDS pioneers sailed on, go to LDS Emigrant Roster and Voyage History, Crossing the Ocean, 1840-1869 in the FamilySearch catalog while in a Family History Center to view the digitized book Ships, Saints and Mariners: A Maritime Encyclopedia of Mormon Migration, 1830-1890, by Conway B. Sonne.
  • Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Website. Information on almost 35,000 slaving voyages from the years 1514 to 1866.
  • The Ships List.

IMMIGRATION - 1880 TO PRESENT[edit | edit source]

More than twenty-five million immigrants, primarily from southern and eastern Europe, were attracted to the United States in the 1880 to 1920 time period. The largest numbers (in order) came from Germany (all of Germany and large numbers from Prussia), Italy (3.8 million Italians came from 1899 to 1924), Ireland, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and England. Other immigrants were from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Romania, Greece, the Arab countries, and Japan. Immigrants from 1920 to 1945 came from Italy, Poland, Czechoslovakia, England, Ireland, Canada, Mexico, and included refugees from Nazi Germany. Immigrants in more recent times have come to America from Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean, Korea, Laos, VietNam, Cambodia, Middle Eastern Arab countries, and Russian Jews.

Immigration - 1880 to Present Passenger Lists:[edit | edit source]

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 and who this person was and 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, or 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.

  • When searching a passenger list, remember that some of the lists consist of two pages. Always check to see if there is a second page and extract all the details of your ancestor that you find in a passenger list. Not only is it exciting to learn personal details about an ancestor, but the other details, added to any other information you have about your ancestor, will help you be able to be successful in going back further on your family tree.


  • FamilySearch.org: Under United States Image Only Historical Records, scroll down to “Migration and Naturalization” and click on the specific record you want to search. This allows you to view browse images as well as indexed images.
  • Ancestry.com, “IMMIGRATION & TRAVEL” , ($). Narrow the search by clicking on a specific category, or a featured data collection. Note that there are several articles about finding an immigrant ancestor.
  • MyHeritage.com has over 164 million names in their more than 50 immigration databases.


BORDER CROSSINGS[edit | edit source]

  • Canadian Border Crossings: For some years it was cheaper for immigrants to travel from Europe to Canada, especially the ports of Quebec City and Halifax, and then cross the border into America. Official border crossing records from Canada to the United States began in 1895. From 1895 to 1914 the records include all Canadian seaports and train arrival stations from Washington State to Maine. From 1915-1954, the records include train arrival stations along the northern borders of New York and Vermont. Individuals who crossed the border by horse, car, or on foot, rather than by train, are not in these records.
  • Mexican Border Crossings: Numerous immigrants from Mexico crossed the border to Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas in the late 19th and early 20th century. Official immigration lists for border crossings began in 1906 for Mexico.


In the 1800s, emigrants left from the major European ports of Liverpool, Le Havre, Bremen, Hamburg, and Antwerp. After 1880 immigrants came through Liverpool, Le Havre, Bremen, Hamburg, Naples, Rotterdam, and Trieste. Although the emigrants may have left through one of these ports, it does not necessarily mean they were from that city as they would travel from their hometown to the port. Some of the ports kept records of those who were leaving the country. Search emigration in the catalog at FamilySearch.org for Baden and Wuerttemberg, Germany, and Sweden for records on microfilm.

Online Emigration or Departure Records:[edit | edit source]

  • Hamburg Passenger Lists, 1850-1934 (in German) at Ancestry.com includes records of nearly one-third of the people who emigrated from central and Eastern Europe from 1850 to 1934.
  • Bremen Passenger Lists 1920-1939 and Bremen Ship lists from 1907/1908 and 1913/1914 are at the Bremen State Archives at Website.
  • For lists of passengers leaving from UK and Irish ports and travelling to the USA, Canada, India, New Zealand and Australia see the Outward Passenger Lists (1890-1960) at Findmypast.com
  • Danish Emigration Archives has a list of 394,000 emigrants who left Denmark from 1869 to 1908 at Website.
  • The Immigrant Ancestors Project at immigrants.byu.edu/search/simple is building a database to identify nineteenth-century European emigration records from mostly English, French, German, and Spanish archives.
  • The Scottish Emigration Database at Website currently contains the records of over 21,000 passengers who embarked at Glasgow and Greenock for non-European ports between 1 January and 30 April 1923 and at other Scottish ports between 1890 and 1960.
  • Emigrants from Kreis Meschede and Kreis Olpe (Westphalia) to the United States at Website list German Roman Catholics emigrating from Westfalen through Bremen or Antwerp.

EMIGRATION STORY[edit | edit source]

When writing the story of your ancestors, do not forget to add the experience of life on board a ship for the era they immigrated. Search the collections of Passenger Ships and Images and New York Port, Ship Images, 1851-1891 at Ancestry.com. Try doing a Google search for a drawing, picture, and information about the ship on which your ancestor immigrated. Search for accounts of the voyage of that particular ship or the era your ancestor immigrated.

SUMMARY[edit | edit source]

Learning the origins of your immigrant ancestor and the story of their voyage from the old land to the new land may take some work and many sources may need to be searched, but if your ancestor’s origins and story of immigration can be found, it will be well worth the effort. Be sure to add this life changing event to your ancestor’s history.