Many new genealogists make the mistake of starting their research with their immigrant ancestors. That almost never gets them anywhere!

In order to be successful finding your immigrants, you will need to cover the basics of American research first. It doesn’t sound as exciting, but in the long run, you will be much more likely to find your immigrant if you have tracked down every single American record on him/her that you can find.

   What exactly does that mean?

If your ancestor had a fairly common name, you are going to have to pick him/her out of hundreds of others who came here. You will need to determine which Ellen Sullivan, age 21, from Ireland, is yours, or you will be spending endless hours of frustration going through lists.

   Here Are some Reasons Why

In the earliest years of our country’s history, especially prior to 1820, there was no requirement to record immigrants. Lists do exist, but usually they contain only a name and age; sometimes only the male head of household was recorded.

Between 1820 and 1891, captains of vessels arriving at U.S. ports from foreign countries had to submit a list of passengers to the Collector of Customs at the port of entry. The lists contained the names of the ships and their masters and limited information on passengers.

Between 1892 and 1905, manifests gradually began to contain more identifying information on passengers. But, it was not until 27 September 1906, when the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) was begun, that passenger ship manifests contained multiple columns filled with important genealogical information.

   What Do I Need to Know to Get Started?

At the very least, you will need to know the following three things about your immigrant:

1. His/her full original name: first, middle, last, and possible nicknames
2. His/her approximate date of arrival
3. His/her approximate age at arrival

It is also helpful to know the same information for other people who may be traveling with your ancestor. Remember, you will need to pick your person out of thousands of others, many of whom may be the same age, from the same location, and with similar names. Understand a bit of history, so that you don’t look for someone from “Germany” in 1855. (Germany did not exist as a country until 1871.)


    I Can’t Find Him/Her in the Index

Your ancestor probably did NOT come here with an Anglicized name (unless he/she was from the British Isles or Canada). You are not looking for Frank, Jack, Joe, or Fanny; you are more likely seeking Francis, Johann, Guiseppe, or Feige.

Learn a little about the language in your country of origin. Recognize sound-alike letters, such as “J” and “Y,” “V” and “W,” or “P” and “F.”

Repeat your ancestor’s name to yourself, over and over out loud. Say it with an accent and think of all the ways it could be misspelled. Spelling in genealogy does NOT count, so be prepared for variations of your family names. Also, be aware that many online indexes have been outsourced and indexers may not have been familiar with names from your country of origin.

Look everywhere for your immigrant. Do NOT assume that he/she came into one particular port. In the early days of immigration, there were more than 100 ports in use. Not everyone arrived in New York.

    My Family’s Names Were Changed

Name changes are common. Often our immigrant ancestors wanted to blend in with other Americans and their foreign names made them conspicuous.

You do need to realize that:

  • Name changes were NOT done by immigration officials at Ellis Island (or anywhere else). Passengers’ names were written on manifests in the countries where they got on the boat. Before they embarked, they had to produce papers (like our passports) and the names on their travel papers were the names that went on the manifests. When they reached the U.S., their names were called orally by immigration officials. Spelling mistakes were most often NOT corrected.
  • Name changes in the U.S. were often NOT formalized in court. Schmidt became Smith; Fuchs became Fox; Schneider became Taylor often in very informal circumstances. Sometimes only some members of a family would change spelling, leaving the very same family with multiple surnames in the same generation: e.g. Krinsky, Krinski, and Kaye. Similarly, European given names easily adapted to “modern” American names, so that Elisabeta turned into Liz and Wilhelmina became Minnie.

    My People Came Prior to 1891

From 1820 to 1891, passenger manifests were called Customs Passenger Lists because they were under the jurisdiction of the Collector of Customs at each port of entry. These lists contain just five columns of information and many times it is very difficult to make positive identification of immigrants based solely on what is on the lists.

Many of the early lists have been published in books. They are also available at many libraries on microfilm.

    My People Came After 1891

Beginning in 1892, the manifests are known as Immigration Passenger Lists. Standard forms came into use and by 1907, the forms contained twenty-nine columns. Immigration Passenger Lists were used through the 1950s and then, because visas were required for entry into the U.S., manifests were discontinued.

These later manifests have been microfilmed and are, for the most part, indexed. Many libraries have copies, as does the National Archives, and those from New York are also available online.

    What About Immigration through Canada?

Prior to 1891, there are no Canadian immigration records. From 1895–1954, records were kept, and those of the many Canadian immigrants who entered the U.S. via St. Albans, Vermont are widely available.

    To Learn More

Anderson, Robert C. The Great Migration Begins: Immigrants to new England, 1620–1633. Boston: NEHGS, 1996. (Subsequent volumes cover 1634–35: Volume 1, A–B, 1999; Volume II, C–F, 2001; Volume III, G–H, 2003; and Volume IV, I–L, 2005)

Colletta, John P., Ph.D. They Came in Ships, Third Edition. Salt Lake City: Ancestry Publishing, 2002. (This little volume is a MUST for anyone doing immigration research!)

Szucs, Loretto Dennis & Sandra Hargreaves Luebking. The Source A Guidebook of American Genealogy, Third Edition. Salt Lake City: Ancestry Publishing, 2006. (Chapter on immigration contains much valuable information.)


Ellis Island; and the NJ side:
• Alternative and more specific Ellis Island search engine: Steve Morse One-Step Web Page

Immigrant Ships Transcribers Guild: (Volunteers have so far transcribed more than 14,000 ships’ passenger lists, citing almost a million passenger arrivals.)

The Olive Tree Genealogy – Ships’ Passenger Lists:(Almost 1,500 ship listings, listed chronologically by year and by numerous other categories. Extensive list of links. However, the site is overflowing with ads, so be careful where you click.)

The Ships’ List: (1,300 free pages of databases and links)

On the Trail of our Ancestors – Ships’ Passenger Lists: (Links to many early ships by Donna Speer Ristenbatt)

Cyndi’s Immigration and Ships’ Lists: (Links to passenger lists of over 400 ships from the 1600s to 1900s listed alphabetically by subject.)
(For more general information on immigration.) (Undertook a massive project to index all passenger arrivals, starting with the unindexed years of the port of New York. Also indexing naturalizations. This is a fee service.)

Ships’ Passenger Lists and Indexes: (Emphasis on Canadian passenger information.)

Directory of Passenger Ship Arrivals: (Links to ship information and passenger lists for a large number of ships arriving from the 1600s to 1800s. You can browse or search by the name of a ship, or you can search by the U. S. port and the year of arrival.)

The Great Migration Study Project (Attempting to provide information on every person who lived in New England between 1620 and 1643, about 20,000 English settlers)

    Some Books of Indexes

Filby, P. William. Passenger and Immigration Lists Index: A Guide to Published Arrival Records of Passengers who Came to the New World from the 16th to the Early 20th Centuries, 18 volumes. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research Co., 1980–. (Ongoing series of books and now CDs indexing as many immigrants to America as can be found)

Glazier, Ira A. and Filby, P. William, editors. Germans to America: Lists of Passengers Arriving at US. Ports, (1850 to 1887). Multiple volumes. Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, Inc., 1988. (For 1850–1855, entire lists of ships with a minimum of 80% Germans, are included. Later, only German immigrants from all ships are indexed.)

__________, and Tepper, Michael, editors. The Famine Immigrants: Lists of Irish Immigrants Arriving at the Port of New York, 1846–1851. 7 volumes. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1983. (List of Irish immigrants arriving at the Port of New York)

__________, Italians to America: Lists of Passengers Arriving at US Ports, 1880–1899. 2 volumes. (Additional years are being added when completed). Wilmington, Del: Scholarly Resources, Inc., 1992. (Indexed lists of Italian passengers)

__________, Migration from the Russian Empire: Lists of Passengers Arriving at the Port of New York, Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1995+. (A published index for Russian Empire immigrants has been in progress, covering Russian [and Polish and Finnish] arrivals at U.S. ports. The first four volumes contain arrivals for Jan 1875–May 1889. This ongoing series will continue to 1910. Newest information is being published on CD-ROM only.)

Mitchell, Brian, comp. Irish Passenger Lists, 1847–1871. Baltimore: Genealogical Pub. Co., 1988.

National Archives:
This is the genealogy portal on the NARA site.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (formerly the Immigration & Naturalization Service).

Last modified: 23-Nov-2019 13:21