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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Research: Grandmothers, Mothers and Daughters-Tracing Women by Lisa Alzo, M.F.A.. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
Immigration and Naturalization Records
Locating an immigrant ancestor’s arrival and citizenship can provide valuable genealogical information, and clues that will help trace him or her back to the old country.
U.S. Immigration Records/Passenger Lists
An immigrant ancestor may have come to the New World on vessels and steamships that sailed to various North American ports: Baltimore, Boston, New York, Philadelphia and many others. Prior to mid-19th century, the United States had no immigrant inspection stations. In 1855, Castle Garden opened in New York City and served as that port’s immigrant inspection station until Ellis Island opened in 1892.
Records of your ancestors’ journey from old world to the new are commonly referred to as Passenger Lists or Ship Lists—but there are actually different classifications of passenger lists and for genealogists, it’s helpful to understand the distinctions.
First, be aware that passenger records might have been generated on both ends of the trip. Records kept at the port of departure are known as emigration passenger lists. The U.S. passenger records are called Passenger Arrival Lists.
Starting in 1820, the federal government required all U.S.-bound ships to keep lists of their passengers. These early passenger lists, known as customs lists, date from 1820 to 1891. Customs lists were usually printed in the United States, completed by the ship company personnel at the port of departure, and maintained primarily for statistical purposes. The data was really “bare bones” information (name, ship, ship master, departure and arrival ports, passenger’s name, sex, age, occupation, nationality).
Arrival records created from approximately 1891 to the 1950s are called Immigration Passenger Lists. Like Customs Lists, these were printed in the United States, but completed in the ports of departure and then filed in the United States once the ship docked. The kind of information provided in immigration passenger lists varied over the decades, as did the level of information (more and more columns were added over the years), but they’re more detail-rich than customs lists, with tidbits such as last residence, final destination in the United States, and where applicable, the name and address of a relative the immigrant was going to join.
Tracking down a passenger list from Ellis Island or any other port can sometimes be a tricky or complicated process. One of the biggest obstacles is determining the name in the record. Because the passenger lists were filled out at the port of departure, you’ll need to search on the name the immigrant used back in the old country. That original name might not be the same name he used in America. Many immigrants changed their names after they got here in order to assimilate into their new culture.
But don’t buy into the popular assumption and family lore that Ellis Island immigration officials changed people’s names upon arrival. This did not happen. They simply confirmed what had already been recorded by shipping company personnel on the preprinted forms at the port of departure. For more information, consult immigration historian Marian L. Smith’s article “American Names: Declaring Independence”.
Locating Passenger Arrival Records
Passenger arrival lists are available online and on microfilm. You can search for free the Ellis Island Database. It covers arrivals at the port of New York from 1892-1924 and contains text versions of the manifests, as well as images. Search the Castle Garden database for New York arrivals prior to 1892. The Record Search at FamilySearch also allows you to search Ellis Island arrivals for free. Search the Historical Records Collections for “New York Passenger Arrival Lists (Ellis Island), 1892-1924.” You can also order (for a small fee) microfilm of the lists from the Family History Library () to view at your local FamilySearch Center (FSC).
Passenger and customs lists for additional ports can be found on subscription-based websites Ancestry.com and Genealogy.com. Also be sure to check out Stephen P. Morse’s “One-Step Search Tools” for extended search criteria to mine the Ellis Island Database.
Immigration records often contain personal and family details about your female ancestor, for example, her closest relative in the old country, who she was going to join in America, etc.
Alien Registrations (A-Files)
If you have a relative who immigrated within the past 70 years, these records may be available to you. Between 1940 and 1982, resident aliens had to register their current addresses and places of employment with the federal government. The Alien Registration Act of 1940 required aliens to report their address and employment, and to report any change of address immediately. Beginning in 1952, aliens had to report their address annually. Address reporting ended in the 1980s, and only the last or most recent address might remain on file.
Millions of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) alien case files, also called A-files, dating from 1944 and later were signed over to the National Archives. You can use the UCSIS genealogy service to request A-files. For more information, go to their website and search for Genealogy .
Canadian Immigration Records
There are no comprehensive nominal lists of immigrants arriving in Canada before 1865. Few such lists have survived. A few passenger lists and other records relating to immigrants can be found within various collections. For more information, consult the Library and Archives Canada website.
Emigration or Port of Departure Lists
While genealogists fervently scour Immigration Records (arrival, or passenger lists) for ancestors, records kept at the port of departure are often overlooked. Passenger lists for the Port of Hamburg are preserved in the German State Archives in Hamburg. These records include both “direct” and “indirect” lists and both should be searched so you don’t miss your ancestor. Check for these lists on microfilm (Auswandererlisten 1850-1934). Search the Library Catalog. These lists are also searchable online with a subscription to Ancestry.com.
Border Crossing Records
Perhaps your ancestor lived in Canada then moved to the U.S. There are some border crossing records. Ancestry.com (subscription required) has added more than 4 million names of individuals who crossed the U.S.-Canadian border between 1895 and 1956. These records are part of their Immigration and Travel collection. Also see the Olive Tree website, Canadian Border Entries page for more information.
Passports and Passport Applications
Check home and family sources for an ancestor’s passport. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) have passport applications from October 1795 through March 1925. The Department of State has them from April 1925 to the present. Don’t assume an individual never traveled overseas—middle class and naturalized citizens often traveled abroad. For information on passport applications and exceptions (such as aliens who had declared their intent to become citizens by filing “first papers” were eligible for passports from 1863-1866 and 1907-1920), check NARA’s Guide to Passport Applications.
The Family History Library also has microfilms of some passport application indexes. Do a subject search on “passports,” then choose “Passports—United States,” which takes you to the menu you want to browse. Since passports were generally valid for two years at most, search indexes covering the individual’s entire life.
Once you’ve identified an immigrant ancestor to the U.S., you’ll want to look for naturalization papers—the documentation of an immigrant becoming a U.S. citizen. Of course, not all immigrants became citizens, for a number of reasons. But for ancestors who were naturalized, the citizenship application process produced two very useful types of documentation.
U.S. Declaration of Intention (“First Papers”)
The first step in becoming a citizen involved the immigrant going to a courthouse to file a document in which he renounced his allegiance to his homeland and declared his intention to become a US citizen. The immigrant could file these papers as soon as he stepped off the boat—and he could choose to file in any court he wanted (local, state or federal).
United States Declarations of Intent for the 19th century usually contain the following information:
- immigrant’s name
- country of birth or allegiance
- application date
- applicant’s signature
Few of these early records show more than the country of origin or the date and port of arrival. But in 1906, the government required copies of all naturalization papers to be filed at the federal level, which led to more information being collected on these records in a more standardized fashion. As a result, post-1906 declarations of intention include the applicant’s name, age, occupation, personal description, birth date and place, citizenship, current address, last foreign address, vessel and port of embarkation, U.S. port and date of arrival, date of application and signature.
U.S. Petition for Citizenship (“Second Papers”)
After filing first papers and meeting residency requirements, an immigrant could formally petition for citizenship to complete the naturalization process. This might have happened at the same court where he filed his first papers—or another court entirely. Also, courts didn’t always make immigrants file second papers before 1903, even though it was technically required. Post-1906 petitions include:
- immigrant’s name
- current residence
- birth date and place
- original citizenship
- personal description
- dates of immigration
- arrival and departure ports
- marital status (with wife’s name and date of birth, if married)
- names, dates and places of birth and residence of the applicant’s children
- start of US residency
- length of residence in the state
- name changes
- photos (after 1929)
Before 1906, your ancestor could go to any courthouse to become a citizen. An immigrant could begin the process in one court and finish it another. Check municipal, county, state and federal courthouses where the immigrant arrived or settled. Many of these records and the indexes have been microfilmed, and you can get them through the FamilySearch Centers. Search the online FamilySearch Library Catalog by place for the state and county (city, too, if it’s a large urban area), then look under Naturalization and Citizenship. You may also find records at city, county, regional or state archives.
U.S. Post-1906 Naturalizations
Try the Family History Library (FHL) again for post-1906 naturalizations. Fee-based websites like Fold3and Ancestry.com also have collections of naturalization records for some localities, as well as the National Archives and Records Administration. NARA’s regional facilities hold naturalizations from federal courts (the main branch in Washington, DC only holds records from that area). The subscription site Fold3 has indexes and images for some naturalization documents for certain states.
After 1906, courts had to file copies of naturalizations with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and you can write to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The UCSIS now has a fee-based genealogy program in place for requesting alien registrations and naturalizations. Go and search on “Genealogy.” The USCIS can forward files 100 years after the birth date of the person whose file it is.
When researching women, it is especially important to take account of laws affecting their naturalization applications. See the Prologue Magazine article “Any woman who is now or may hereafter be married ... Women and Naturalization, ca. 1802-1940,” by Marian L. Smith.
“Derivative” citizenship was granted to wives and minor children of naturalized men. From 1790 to 1922, wives of naturalized men automatically became citizens. This also meant that an alien woman who married a U.S. citizen automatically became a citizen. (Conversely, an American woman who married an alien lost her U.S. citizenship, even if she never left the United States). From 1790 to 1940, children under the age of twenty-one automatically became naturalized citizens upon the naturalization of their father. Unfortunately, however, names and biographical information about wives and children are rarely included in declarations or petitions filed before September 1906.
For further information about the naturalization process and to see examples of the key documents, refer to the following websites:
Finding U.S. Naturalization Records: A Genealogy Guide (Joe Beine)
NaturalizationRecords.com - Samples of Naturalization Records
(This site is part of the Olive Tree Genealogy website.)
Canadian Citizenship (Naturalization) Records
From 1763-1947, people born in Canada were all British subjects. Since immigrants born in Great Britain and the Commonwealth were already British subjects, they had no need to become naturalized or to obtain British citizenship in Canada. A few naturalization registers exist for Upper Canada (Ontario), 1828-1850 only. Records of naturalization and citizenship from 1854 are held by Citizenship and Immigration Canada. The originals of records dated between 1854 and 1917 have been destroyed. However, a nominal card index has survived. Lists of naturalization certificates issued between 1915 and 1932 have been scanned and can be searched online using the Canadian Naturalization database. Requests for searches of naturalization/citizenship indexes and records from 1854 to the present must be from a Canadian citizen or an individual present in Canada and prepared on an Access to Information Request Form that can be obtained from most Canadian public libraries and federal government offices or download the form from the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat website. Detailed instructions and cost per search are outlined on the website. The request must be accompanied by a signed consent from the person concerned or proof that he/she has been deceased twenty years. Proof of death can be a copy of a death record, a newspaper obituary or a photograph of the gravestone showing name and death date.
Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Research: Grandmothers, Mothers and Daughters-Tracing Women offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.