Unless you're one of those lucky few Americans whose family stories about having Native American ancestry are actually true, your ancestors all came here from somewhere across the ocean within the past few hundred years. As many have noted over time, we are a nation of immigrants, and it shows in many of the cultural holidays we enjoy celebrating: St. Patrick's Day comes from our Irish immigrants, Cinco de Mayo from our Mexican immigrants, May the Fourth from our Star Wars fans, Oktoberfest from the Germans, and so on. Our mixed heritage also shines through in the term "hyphenated American." Referring to the use of a hyphen between an ethnicity and the word "American," (such as African-American, Italian-American, etc.), this term was common circa World War I as a derogatory term for those of foreign birth who were thought to hold allegiance to their original country above allegiance to America. It has since been reclaimed by many groups as a statement of identity to demonstrate their pride both in their country of birth and in their ancestral origins. Records that document the moment of arrival in America are, thus, not only valuable genealogical documents, but precious heirlooms to many.
So let's talk about those.
What is it?
An immigration record is going to take one of three forms, generally speaking: a ship's passenger manifest, a border crossing list, or a naturalization record. Though they do document the immigration of our ancestors, naturalization records are unique enough from these other two record types that I'll discuss those separately in a later post.
A ship's passenger manifest was filled out at the origin point of the voyage; for European ancestors, this was usually a large port like Hamburg, Bremen, Liverpool, Le Havre, or Rotterdam. The information the passengers had provided about themselves would then be verified once they reached their destination.1 Ellis Island was the most famous and busiest of these destinations, but it was by no means the only port in America: before Ellis Island opened in 1892, passengers to New York landed at Castle Garden. The steady stream of immigrants to this country also came ashore at the major port cities of Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, New Orleans, Galveston, and San Francisco (and countless other smaller ports up and down the coastlines of America).
A subsection of would-be passengers found, even if the United States was their final intended destination, that taking a ship straight there was not their best option. Sometimes a person concerned about their deformity or illness would think they had a better shot of successful entry into the country approaching via a land route, rather than braving the Ellis Island inspectors;2 some simply found better fares on ships sailing for Mexico or Canada. This is where border crossing lists come in. These are the records of people crossing into the U.S. over the Canadian or Mexican borders. They are quite similar in format to the passenger manifests of a ship.
Each record, whether a passenger manifest, or a border crossing list, documents the moment that your ancestor first set foot in America.
What is its availability?
As with so many things in genealogy, the availability of the immigration record you want is somewhat dependent on when and where the landing it documented occurred. Before 1820, the government did not require that ships' captains present a passenger list to U.S. officials, so finding a pre-1820 passenger list is really a crapshoot; however, NARA does maintain a collection of 1813-1820 passenger lists for New Orleans and 1800-1819 for Philadelphia. Post-1820, passenger lists have been maintained faithfully and more-or-less completely.
The U.S. also has never maintained copies of outgoing passenger lists, so if your American ancestor traveled overseas a lot, you may have a difficult time documenting those trips, unless you are able to get hold of their passport applications. I have a great-grandmother who, for example, left her husband behind and took a trip back to Russia with her sons to visit family. Yes, you read that right. Back to Russia. There is no passenger list to document their departure from America, but thankfully there is a passenger list showing their return several years later. I've only been able to estimate a length for her overseas sojourn based upon the fact that she gave birth to her third son while in Russia, meaning that (assuming fidelity on her part) she had to have been pregnant with him during the trip back to Europe, and I know when his birthday was. For those who aren't lucky enough to have a pregnant ancestor serving as a walking timeframe, outgoing passenger lists would have been very useful. I'd expend the energy to get annoyed at the idiots who thought that there was no point in keeping these records, but - being a genealogist - I've learned that being angry at the dead is really a pointless exercise.
As for border crossing lists, those too have a start date that is later than many of us would wish and exceptions to their completeness that could potentially hamstring your research. The lists of border crossings from Canada into America start in 1895 and document the flow of traffic into America via either ship or train; people who entered America by other means -- by car, horse, or on foot -- are unfortunately not listed. In addition, in between 1915 and 1954, only records at arrival train stations in New York or Vermont were documented (as opposed to the documentation for all seaports or train arrival stations spanning the border between the U.S. and Canada that took place between 1895 and 1915). Records of immigrants crossing into the United States from Mexico overall don't start until 1906, though records from Presidio, Texas are one exception to this rule, having started in 1895.
What information does it contain?
Boy, I'll bet you're getting really sick of me using the phrase, "it depends." Much like the census, early years of immigration records contain a bare minimum of information. Take a look, for example, at these New Orleans passenger lists from 1813. They contain the name of the ship, the port of departure, the destination, the names of the passengers, and the date of arrival. There's not a whole lot there in order to help you separate your ancestor from another person of the same name.
You may also notice that these lists are, shall we say, much more legible than many records you're used to examining. On the one hand, the lack of drunken chicken scratch is nice, especially considering that we're dealing with sailors, but on the other hand, this isn't an original record, and we've talked about the importance of getting to the original records! Sometimes, however -- like now -- derivative records are all you've got, and you have to make the most of them. The vast majority of early (pre-1820) passenger lists are only accessible as derivative sources like the one above, transcripts and published in later books and indexes. This New Orleans record, for example, was transcribed as part of a WPA (Works Project Administration) contract back during the Great Depression.
More recent immigrant records, however, will be much more what you're used to seeing in your research and will contain more useful information. This next record, for example, is from an 1830 voyage of the rig Athenian out of Cartagena that landed in New York on 22 June 1830.
While not containing a huge plethora of information, this list is already more helpful than the New Orleans transcripts. It contains the names and ages of the passengers, their genders and occupations (these people, save "Rosita a servant" are all disappointingly upper-class and homogeneously uninteresting in their "occupations"; you would think that at least one of them would have the good taste to list "robber baron" as a part-time profession), their country of residence, their intended country of destination, and whether any of the passengers died during the voyage. The manifest also shares the name of the captain. Most ships' passenger manifests looked like this through the mid-1800s.
Let's move forward in time yet again. Towards the end of the 1800s, the passenger lists started to include a bit more information still:
This list is from the S.S. Buffalo out of Hull, England, which landed in New York on 27 October 1890. In addition to the usual name/age/gender, this list included several of the same categories from the previous 1830 list: occupation (here listed as "calling"), native country, country of which they were citizens, and their intended destination. It adds in number of pieces of baggage, location of accommodations aboard the ship, date and cause of death (when relevant), and and whether only visiting or intending to remain in the country permanently. You may have noticed that the first two passengers have some code filled in for the "Date and Cause of Death" column. Don't get too excited, it's not as cool as it seems: being not so commonly used, this column was often partially filled in at the end of the voyage by immigration officials to tally the number of male and female passengers by nationality on a given page. In this case, it's saying that there's one male British passenger and one female American passenger (I'm really not sure why those other seven gents on the page don't appear to be included in the tally; I think that maybe they tried to fix it, given that the "0" looks like it's been overwritten, but they didn't do a great job).3
As immigration continued to pick up -- between 1880 and 1930, around 27 million immigrants entered the United States -- the passenger manifests became even more detailed, and thus, even more helpful to the genealogist! Here's yet another example:
This page is from the S.S. La Lorraine, which departed from Havre and landed in New York on 22 July 1905. Since I had to shrink the list pretty small to fit it on this page, let me give you the full list of categories: name in full, age, gender, whether married or single, occupation, whether able to read and write, nationality, race, last residence,4 final destination, whether in possession of a ticket to that final destination, by whom passage was paid, whether the immigrant was in possession of at least $50 (and if not, how much), whether they had ever before been to the United States and where that might might have been, whether going to join a relative or friend, and if so, the full name and address of that person. Don't discount that final category, as sometimes finding the name of a previously unknown relative might be the only thing that gets you past a brick wall! The last six categories on the page may seem more alarmist than anything, but they can still sometimes be useful: whether the immigrant had ever spent time in an almshouse, institution for care/treatment of the insane, or had been supported by charity, whether a polygamist, whether an anarchist, whether coming with a promise of employment, condition of mental and physical health, and whether deformed or crippled (along with the nature, length of time, and cause). I don't know why we were so concerned about letting polygamists into the country when the vast majority of polygamists here have always been homegrown, but being deathly afraid of the wrong things has apparently always been an American hallmark.
In later years, the amount of information offered by the passenger manifest lessened again, having reached its peak about the turn of the 20th century.
And finally, lest we forget that they are important too, here is what border crossing lists tend to offer:5 name in full, age, gender, married or single, occupation, whether able to read or write, nationality, race, last permanent residence, final destination, whether having a ticket to final destination, whether the immigrant was in possession of at least $50 (and if not, how much), whether they had ever before been to the United States and where that might might have been, whether going to join a relative or friend, and if so, the full name and address of that person, whether the immigrant had ever spent time in an almshouse, institution for care/treatment of the insane, or had been supported by charity, whether a polygamist, whether an anarchist, whether coming with a promise of employment, condition of mental and physical health, and whether deformed or crippled (along with the nature, length of time, and cause), seaport and date of landing, the name of the ship, the date of examination, personal description (height, complexion, and color of hair and eyes), and last, but definitely not least, place of birth.
If you're wondering if I just copied and pasted most of the border crossing list from the La Lorraine passenger manifest above, you're quite right. Because, as I said, they're almost exactly the same, with the exception of the final five categories of the border crossing list. And who has time to type the exact same thing twice? I have a toddler, people. I'm lucky if I can type a single sentence without interruption.
How reliable is it?
Generally speaking, immigration records are fairly reliable as sources of information, though not perfect. They are original sources, made at the time of the voyage or transit in question, and filled out by government employees who had no other agenda than the efficient performance of their job and to make sure that their boss didn't find out where they hid their flask of whiskey during work hours (though, as with census enumerators, they would write down the name they heard and not worry too much about spelling). The information provided all comes from either the immigrant in question or a member of his/her family. This has its upsides and its downsides, naturally. Unlike a census record, no one was going to ask one of the family's children for any information, so the information provided came from an adult who likely would have been in a position of first-hand knowledge with regards to much of his/her life and those of his/her children. The same rules as usual apply, though: no one is ever in a position to deliver primary information about their own births or those of their spouse, and since it's not known exactly which adult was the informant, all of that information must be regarded as secondary.
Plus, people were sometimes untruthful for all sorts of reasons, ranging from the mysterious to the completely innocuous. I have not found an immigration record for one of my great-grandfathers, for example, because I believe that he traveled under a fake name due to the circumstances of his departure from Europe. Another great-grandfather listed his birthplace as Pinsk when, in reality, he was from a small shtetl about 50 km away from the city. I see that as no more of a lie than, say, a person from Waltham saying that he's from Boston: it's the nearest big city, and people might actually have a reference for it, unlike the podunk suburb he actually came from. However, people from New Jersey are never allowed to lie and say they're from New York. This is actually a prosecutable crime in Brooklyn. So the immigration record may well successfully get you across the pond in your research, but you also may find yourself headed off in the wrong direction, depending on how honest your ancestors chose to be, and how knowledgable they were in the first place.
Where immigration records really shine, though, is in their ability to give you a spelling of your ancestors' names as they pronounced them at the time, or as they would have been spelled in their country of origin. Another great-grandfather (I do seem to have an endless supply of them, don't I?) went by Morris here in America, but his name is spelled Moritz on his ship's passenger manifest. The same great-grandmother I mentioned previously was Malke (her Hebrew name) on her immigration record, but Mollie here in America. Those oh-so-similar-but-slightly-different names can be a huge boon to your research, whether by letting you know what name to prioritize in searching for your ancestor in his/her early years, or simply by filling in an important detail of your immigrant ancestor's experience in becoming American.
Where can I find it?
You have quite a few options here as you start to pursue your ancestors' immigration records. If you're quite certain that your ancestors landed in New York, the first free resources you're going to want to check are the Castle Garden and Ellis Island databases (be warned, the Ellis Island search engine is pretty touchy about spelling, so be sure to take a good look at all of your search options before you do a search with no relevant results and give up) . The former is for immigrants between 1820 and 1892, and the latter is for immigrants between 1892 and 1954. FamilySearch.org has a fairly extensive collection of books, records, and indexes related to immigration and emigration for various countries, but their general search function isn't fabulous in this case; to access these records, go to "Catalog," do a search for the subject, "immigration," and then click on the location you're looking for in order to see what they have available.
If you have an Ancestry.com account, they have a complete database and index of ships arriving in New York (and some other ports) from 1820-1957, as well as a databases of border crossings from Canada to America (1895-1960), from Mexico to America (1895-1964), and from America to Canada (1908-1935). They have some other immigration-related databases that either are more focused in their scope, so you'll have to look and see if one of them is relevant to you, or that aren't indexed, so they must be gone through manually. If you want to use the Ancestry databases, but reeeeally don't feel like paying for an account, all National Archive facilities and many, many libraries out there offer free access to the website. Check with your local library to see if they offer this service. FindMyPast and MyHeritage are other paid database sites that offer access to immigration records; I don't have as much experience with these two, so I can't really speak to the size of their collections or the ease of use.
Two very helpful websites that contain tools specifically for finding immigration records are One-Step Webpages by Stephen P. Morse (this website is mostly helpful for New York arrivals; it is very easy to use, so don't let the unwieldy name fool you!) and the FamilySearch Research Wiki for United States Immigration (a terrific and much more comprehensive list of what's available on the internet than I'm able to accomplish here).
And finally, for those of you who prefer to experience the world away from a computer screen, or haven't managed to find your ancestors in a digitized collection, there's always the National Archives. They are the holders of the most complete collection of immigrant arrival lists to the United States from 1820-1982, and if you go there, please write to me and tell me what sunshine is like. Is it beautiful? Their records are on microfilm, and are arranged by port of entry. You can order copies of immigration records online, or you can do in-person research at many NARA facilities. In order to set yourself up for success, make sure to familiarize yourself with their Immigration Records webpage; this site will tell you what NARA does and does not have, where to find the records they don't have, and where you can do this research/order records online.
I wish I could say that the subject matter of locating immigration records was exciting. I can't. It can be tedious, trying work. But remember: it was exciting for your ancestors. This was the moment they first breathed American air. It was the moment their new lives began. If nothing else, that should make working with these records into something just a little magical.
1 We've stated this before, but it's worth reiterating here: no one's name was forcibly changed at Ellis Island. Immigrants did, however, often change their own names, both officially and unofficially, at various points after arriving in the United States.
2 For a fascinating contemporary article about the full processing experience at Ellis Island in the early 1900s, please read How Immigrants are Inspected at Ellis Island from the February 1905 Issue of The Popular Science Monthly.
3 You may have noticed that passenger lists have a lot of weird markings and codes on them, even other than that tallying code. Fear not, there's a website devoted to interpreting those weird marks and codes and drawing as much meaning out of them as possible: Manifest Markings: A Guide to Interpreting Passenger List Annotations.
4 Be careful with how much trust you put in the category containing the place of last residence, especially if your ancestors were Irish. The Irish were notorious for filling out that category with the name of the port city from which they were departing, rather than with their actual hometown.
5 Please note, I'm not putting a picture of a border crossing list here for two very important and legitimate reasons: firstly, they look almost exactly like turn of the century passenger lists, so the visual would be rather redundant, and secondly, border crossing lists stretch onto a second page and it's apparently impossible to have side-by-side images on Wix in any way that looks anything better than visual diarrhea, and I care about your eyes, dear readers.