Immigration ancestor research can be very rewarding as you discover the story behind your ancestor’s journey across the pond. In this guide, we share 15 steps to discovering your ancestor’s story of their journey to the United States and help you retrace their steps to find the records and data to verify your heritage.
If you live in the United States and your ancestors aren’t Native American, then your ancestors crossed the pond at some point. Depending on the time period and proximity to a port, they might have walked, ridden on the back of a cart, traveled by train, or even taken a small river boat to get to the port city. They got word from a family member or friend telling them exactly how to travel, the best places to stop along the way, the best merchants to do business with (and some to avoid), and the best ticket agents from which to buy a ship ticket. Your immigrant probably knew exactly which shipping line to book passage with, and maybe even the exact ship they should travel on.
Your ancestor, excited for the opportunities ahead and perhaps anxious to leave behind persecution, landlessness, poverty, famine, or even military conscription, set sail for America!
Arriving in the United States
After the invention of the steam engine, the Atlantic voyage went from a 45–90-day voyage down to about two weeks in good weather. There were several ports of arrival, including New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, along with several smaller ports on the Eastern seaboard. On the other hand, some immigrants arrived in Canada and then crossed the border by train or on foot. Others arrived at southern ports such as Galveston, New Orleans, Puerto Rico, and other Gulf Coast ports.
If your immigrant arrived in New York, they had to pass rigorous questioning and a physical examination and demonstrate they would not become an immediate public burden before they were allowed to enter the United States. Likewise, if they were joining someone, they may have had to wait at the port for that person to arrive and collect them. Some were even turned away the first time and persistently came again.
Creating a New Life
Upon arriving at their final destination, they obtained employment and secured a place to live. They attended church, hopefully in the religion they had participated in in Europe, but in some cases, they chose a nearby church with service in their native language instead. Their subsequent marriage might be recorded in this parish if they were single. Their children’s baptisms and confirmations (usually around age 12-14) occurred in this parish. Their attendance was recorded in this parish, including their death and burial.
Becoming a U.S. Citizen
At some point, your ancestor may have felt a sense of patriotism or wanted to prove they were not loyal to any other country. Perhaps they wanted the opportunity to vote for their representatives in government, or in some cases, they hoped to run for public office themselves. Whatever their core motivation, in most cases, they could apply for U.S. Citizenship after having lived in the U.S. for at least two years. Then after five more years they could turn in their final papers or Petition for Naturalization, followed by a court appearance where they swore their Oath of Allegiance and officially became a United States citizen.
If they lived in the United States during or after World War II without yet having applied for citizenship, they would have been required to file an Alien Registration form with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
Your male ancestors born between 1873 and 1900 would have registered with the World War I draft board (1917-1918). Men born during these same years registered for the “Old Man’s Draft” in World War II (1942), while younger men would also have registered in the World War II draft (1940-1945).
If they were working in the United States in or after the late 1930s, they might have been required to file a Social Security Account application (SS-5 form) as part of their employment.
Each of these seemingly small details of your ancestor’s life generated records. Many of these records could include the exact date and location of your ancestor’s birth in Europe. Each of these records should be found and assessed in the search for your ancestral hometown.
And don’t forget to search for records of the immigrant’s children, extended family, and friends from the same town or area. Any of these records might be the key to locating your ancestor’s place of origin.
As you search for your immigrant ancestor’s hometown in Europe, there are many records you will find easily, and some you’ll have to work harder to locate. This is essential for continuing to research your family in Europe because the records there were kept by local authorities and are still only accessible by searching records from their town of origin.
The following 15 steps outline the most common records you’ll need to obtain to locate your ancestor’s specific place of birth in Europe.
General steps for immigration research:
1. Find each immigrant in every U.S. census in which they appear (make sure to include state censuses if easily accessible)
- Example: 1925 New York state census says exactly when and in what court the person was naturalized
- Some enumerators accidentally wrote down a town or region of origin instead of recording the country of origin; these mistakes were crossed out but are still readable on the original forms
- Don’t just read the indexed information; make sure you know every detail that is handwritten on the original record! This rule applies to all record types.
2. Create a summary timeline of events based on census data (include immigration date, naturalization date(s), marriage date and likely location)
3. Locate males in WWI and WWII draft registrations (generally applies to any men born after 1872)
- One of the WWI drafts even asked for the father’s birthplace! Read about the WWI draft here.
4. Identify and order the complete pension file for your Civil War ancestor (for men born roughly between 1815 and 1847)
5. Obtain original U.S. vital records (marriage and/or death) for all immigrants, not just indexes
6. Find church records of marriage, and burial for immigrants (for Catholics always start with FindMyPast)
7. Also, find church records of baptisms, marriages, and burials of their children
8. Identify Social Security Numbers (found in death certificates, Social Security Death Index, and occasionally in other sources)
9. Order original Social Security Account application forms for all immigrants (SS-5)
10. Locate naturalization papers (could have been filed in a county court, circuit court, or district courts)
- Declaration of Intention and Petition for Naturalization did not have to be in the same court, and both asked for birth information (after 1906)
- If they naturalized before 1906, still locate the naturalization to learn what country, kingdom or other foreign power they renounced loyalty to (sometimes these early records still included birth details)
- Before 1906 they could have naturalized in any court; after that date they were legally required to naturalize in a federal district court
- Check Ancestry, FamilySearch, and county websites for naturalizations
- As a last resort, you can order a search with NARA and USCIS, but these are more time-consuming, even more so since the COVID closures
11. Passenger lists
- Search under all known versions of their name;
- Standardized or “correct” name spellings are a modern concept; as long as the name was a phonetic match, the exact spelling was irrelevant
- When the record is found, note their last residence, names of relatives in both countries, birthplace, others arriving with them, and any notes in the same line (letters and numbers written above the entry would reference their naturalization or alien registration files)
- Make sure to check whether your ancestor’s passenger list has two pages; if there are two pages, the end of the second page typically includes a precise birthplace
12. Alien registration for those still unnaturalized in the mid-1940s
13. Obituaries, Gravestones; online memorials
14. County histories, Family histories, and Newspaper articles
15. If you know at least the region they came from, but still have not found the name of the hometown, search emigration (e.g. departure) lists and resources for that region
Pro tips for researching specific ethnicities:
- As a general rule, as long as the first letter of the given name was the same, they often changed their name after arriving in the United States; however, some names, like Chana (usually changed to Anna) were changed to a close phonetic match instead
- The Hebrew portion of your ancestor’s gravestone includes their patronymic (e.g. their father’s given name)
- The section of the cemetery where they were buried might be a clue to their place of origin
- Chain migration was widespread
- Most arrived between 1820 and 1924; another wave of immigration took place between 1933 and the early 1940s due to the atrocities of World War II
- They were almost exclusively Catholic, make sure not to skip searching parish registers in the U.S. for a record naming the immigrant ancestor’s birthplace
- Most arrived between 1880 and 1924
- A 1908 earthquake in southern Italy fueled emigration from that area
- Germans have been coming to the United States since the late 1600s, but the groups that these records types most specifically apply to are those arriving between 1840 and the 1920s.
- Religions in Germany were Catholic or Evangelical (after 1830 all Protestant religions were legally made to merge into one umbrella religious group)
- Depending on the time period, your ancestor may also appear in emigration databases from Europe
- More likely Protestant if they came from Northern Ireland
- Chain migration was widespread
- Comprised about one-third of all immigrants to the United States between 1820 and 1860
- The Irish Potato Famine was a strong motivation for emigration between 1845 and 1852
- May have been using a fixed surname or their patronymic when they arrived, so search for both names on the passenger lists;
- They were Lutheran in Europe, so search the nearest Lutheran, Evangelical, or other Protestant / non-conformist churches in the United States
- Depending on the time period, your ancestor may also appear in emigration (e.g. departing) databases from Europe
With the vast amount of information available to search, immigration ancestor research is possible but can be very time consuming. If you need assistance from an expert genealogist team, the professionals at Legacy Tree Genealogists are here to help. Learn more about how we can further your family tree by requesting a quote today.