When it comes to family history, it’s important to remember that everyone came from a different place at one point. Some came on airplanes, while others came on ships. That history makes many people want to find out where their ancestors originated.

To begin with, most people research their roots in Europe, but sometimes that’s just the start of the search. Ancestors may be traced back to multiple continents and, as people do more research, they may find themselves wanting to do even more.

Many of them can’t seem to resist the urge to keep peeling back the layers and finding new pieces of the puzzle. When you are researching your family history, immigration records can be fascinating, but they can also be difficult to find.

No matter what, questions about Americans and their ancestry will always lead to questions about immigration. That’s why it’s important to understand three key parts of immigration research.

  1. You need to understand the basic components of immigration research.
  2. You need to understand how many United States immigration resources are available to you and where they can be found.
  3. You need to be aware of overseas emigration record sources that may be useful in your research.

Tips for General Immigration Records

Everyone has a different reason for researching their family history. However, historians believe that there has been a general break down of family ties in today’s modern society. The theory is that researching family history is a way to somehow reclaim those roots and improve the bond of the family. That theory is further explained in Trafford R. Cole “In Italian Genealogical Records: How to Use Italian Civil, Ecclesiastical, and Other Records in Family History Research.”

The federal government has kept citizenship records since March 26, 1790, when the First Naturalization Act was passed. Unfortunately, those records were incomplete for another 30 years because ship passengers were not recorded at the federal level until 1820. Both the ship records and the naturalization and immigration records are some of the most genealogically useful records, which means that they are utilized quite often by researchers.

Everyone in the United States had ancestors that came from other place. Some of us had early prehistoric ancestors that crossed the Bering Strait, while others had ancestors that came to the United States in more modern times. Either way, the desire to know where we came from drives many of us to do research into how our ancestors came to settle in this area. That’s why it’s important to know how to track the origins of your family through the generations.

How to Find Immigrant Origins

If you want to understand more about your ancestor and their native land, it’s important to learn either where they were born or where they last lived before coming to the United States. If you happen to know both pieces of information, that will make you even more likely to succeed. Unfortunately, not everyone can easily find that information. Some of it may be lost or forgotten. Nevertheless, it’s important to have a parish, town, or country name because records were kept by each foreign town. You can’t conduct research based on a persons country of origin alone.

Identify the Immigrant – Trying to find the proper foreign records to search through is going to be nearly impossible unless you know the person’s name and the country where they originally lived. It’s also important to pinpoint the person’s date of birth as closely as possible. Finding out that information may not be easy, but you can start by examining any documents your family has hidden away, such as birth certificates, Bibles, and letters. You may also be able to ask older family members to tell you stories about their parents or grandparents and get information that way.

Another important immigration research tip is that you shouldn’t get overly focused on a specific person. Remember that people often immigrated to the United States in groups. If you can find records about different family members, or about friends of the family, you may be able to get information about the person of interest through those records.

One good resource for records about immigrants and their original countries is church records. If you know what religion your ancestor practiced and where they lived within the United States, you may be able to track down those records fairly easily. Just check with the current local chapter for that religion. Genealogical and historical societies, as well as libraries, may also be able to point you towards relevant church records.

Ethnicity – Throughout history, people of the same ethnicity have had a tendency to settle in one area together. Entire communities often centered around one ethnic group. Immigrants who didn’t know the English language were particularly likely to stick together when they came to the New World. Many immigrant groups even moved across the United States together when they left their original settlements. They often started their own religious congregations, boarding houses, banks, and schools.

Some communities that consisted of members of a specific ethnic group also published their own historical documents and newspapers. So, if you are looking into the history of a certain ethnic group, you may be able to find copies of those publications that still exist today. The Internet has websites for various groups. Public libraries and local historical societies can also provide you with a lot of information about where such publications may be found.

Tips for General Naturalization Records

When an alien (immigrant) wants to become a citizen of a country or state, that process is known as naturalization. Naturalization records can sometimes be difficult to track down. However, they are easier to find when you understand how they were recorded.

Generally, immigrants to the United States applied to become U.S. citizens a few years after arriving in the country. So, records from the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization, which later turned into the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), can be full of valuable information. Records from before 1906 may only list the country of origin. Some of them also list the province within that country. After 1906, the bureau began creating a uniform system for recording immigration information. Immigrants applying for citizenship after that point had to fill out Immigration and Naturalization Service Form 2022. That form asked each applicant to list the following information:

  • Birthplace
  • Date of Birth
  • Last Place of Residence
  • Port of Arrival
  • Name of Ship
  • Name of Spouse
  • Birthplace of Spouse
  • Spouse’s Date of Birth
  • Names of Children
  • Each Child’s Date and Place of Birth

More About Naturalization Records and How to Find Them

When you first start your search for naturalization records, you need to make sure that you have a good base of information from which to work. Therefore, you need to know the name and birth date of the person in question, as well as where the person settled in America and approximately where and when they arrived. Your search will also be easier if you already know the person’s native country.

One thing that you need to know about naturalization records is that they have been required by federal law since 1790. However, they weren’t always recorded in the same way or by the same groups. For example, any local, state, or federal court could perform and record naturalizations prior to 1906.

One good place to start your search for naturalization records is in the United States county where your ancestor settled. You can also search through WPA and other local and federal naturalization indexes. Many of them can be found in major libraries and historical societies, as well as online. The Family History Library (FHL) holds copies of many of those records.

You should also be aware that many immigrants who filed for naturalization first filed something called a declaration of intention. Those documents declared their intention to renounce their allegiance to their country of origin. After filing the document, immigrants intending to be naturalized also had to provide proof of residence and petition for citizenship. Although, both of those documents may not have been filed until a couple years after the declaration of intention. A declaration of intention typically did not have to be filed if the person was a U.S. military member who had been honorably discharged or if the person was under the age of 21 when they entered the United States.

Another important thing to keep in mind is that petitions for naturalization typically couldn’t be filed until a person had lived in the United States for five years. In a lot of cases, immigrants waited even longer to file their petitions. Many immigrants never even filed, even though they did file their declarations of intention years before.

If a petition for naturalization was filed, there should also be a naturalization deposition with it. The deposition is a document signed by witnesses chosen by the applicant saying that those witnesses support the applicant’s decision. If you can find that record for your ancestor, it may contain the names of more friends or family members that you didn’t know about. So, that may give you more clues about your family history.

Completing the Naturalization Process

When a person was finally naturalized, they had to appear before a court. The court heard witness testimonials to see if a person met the qualities required regarding character and residence. If a person’s petition was granted, they had to take an oath swearing their allegiance to the United States. The court would then grant them a final certificate of naturalization, which was sometimes known as an order of naturalization.

Final orders of naturalization were typically recorded in an order or minute book. Also, naturalization forms or records prior to that year varied greatly in different courts, counties, states, and years.

There are also specific rules you should understand about women and their citizenship before you do research into your family’s immigration to the United States. For example, women who married American citizens between 1855 and 1922 became U.S. citizens automatically. Also, women could gain citizenship if their husbands or fathers gained citizenship. That process was known as derivative citizenship. It was discontinued in 1922 and women who were at least 21 years old were able to become naturalized citizens on their own.

Before 1922, married women were also not allowed to be naturalized unless their husbands were naturalized. However, they could become naturalized after getting divorced or becoming widows. Single women generally didn’t become naturalized prior to 1922. Although, some did.

Here are some other notable facts about he naturalization process for different groups of people:

Minors were automatically made citizens when their parents gained U.S. citizenship.

Former slaves became citizens thanks to the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S Constitution, which was passed in 1868.

Laws passed in 1887 and 1924 made American Indians citizens of the United States.

Those from Eastern and Southern Asia, such as the Japanese and Chinese, were not allowed to become U.S. citizens from 1882 to 1943.

Aliens who served in the military could get expedited naturalization services. For the army, that process began in 1862. Navy veterans had access to expedited service as of 1894. Enlisted people didn’t get access to expedited service until 1918.

There are duplicate records for naturalized citizens available at the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). However, only records from after 1906 are available there.

Ship Passenger Lists

From the 1500s to the 1900s millions of people came to America from other countries via ships. Each of those ships had a passenger list. Although some of those passenger lists have been lost throughout the years, you should examine any existing lists from near the time and place that your ancestor was thought to have arrived in the New World. Some passenger lists are almost as useful as actual naturalization records, which may be missing or hard to find.

Most ships that docked at U.S. ports from 1565 to 1954 had passenger lists. The content of those lists varied a bit, but they usually included:

  • Passenger Names
  • Ship Names
  • Captain Names
  • Port Names
  • Departure Dates
  • Arrival Dates

Some lists also included extra identifying characteristics about passengers.

If you want to find official passenger lists from 1820 to 1945, you should check the official U.S. customs records. Copies of those records can be found in Immigration and Passenger Arrivals: A Select Catalog of National Archives Microfilms, which is located at the National Archives. There are both customs lists and State Department immigration lists available in that collection, along with indexes. The Family History Library (FHL) also has copies on file. Large collections of passenger lists can also be found at libraries across the United States, including in Fort Wayne, Indiana at the Allen County Public Library.

Ship cargo lists from before 1820 can also be valuable for genealogists. However, they can be difficult to find. Many have been lost or destroyed. Others have been spread out at various museums and archives across the country. P. William Filby’s Passenger and Immigration Lists Index can provide information about their locations.

It’s important to note that many passenger lists have not been indexed. Also, their original purpose was to monitor immigration, not to track genealogy. Some ships had more than one passenger list created for different agencies. Those agencies included:

  • The Port of Embarkation
  • Ports of Call Along the Route
  • The Port of Arrival
  • Newspapers at the Port of Departure
  • Newspapers at the Arrival City
  • A Copy Kept with or as Part of the Ship’s Manifest
  • Notations in the Ship’s Log

Therefore, even if one list for a particular ship has been lost, other lists may still be available for that ship.

Federal laws created several different types of records relating to passengers that arrived in the United States on ships. Michael Tepper’s American Passenger Arrival Records provides an excellent description of the history of Passenger lists in the United States. John P. Colletta’s They Came in Ships: A Guide to Finding Your Immigrant Ancestor’s Arrival Record provides a useful guide to passenger lists for genealogists.

Just in the last 15 years or so, many more passenger and immigration lists have been indexed and published. Several of them have even been put into online databases. One of the largest collections, which contains over 2 million entries for immigrants from Europe and the British Isles, is Filby’s Passenger and Immigration Lists Index. So, if you are interested in passenger lists from that time for people who came from those regions, it might be a valuable tool.