European Roots: How to Research Immigration and Naturalization Records

Human beings are mobile creatures. We’re always moving in some form or another; a walk around the block, driving to the store or a friend’s house, or traveling for business and pleasure. Uprooting one’s life to start anew elsewhere is a journey unlike anything else. What opportunities await and what dangers lie ahead? Those questions and more faced Europe immigrants arriving in the United States since the first settlers of the 17th and 18th centuries. Immigration and naturalization records are a window into such experiences.

Immigration to the United States can be described as cyclical. Large influxes followed by a period of doldrum. Reasons for immigration are varied; economic opportunity, escaping religious or ethnic violence, joining family members already in country, etc. Millions from Europe immigrated to North America since the colonial period. Family history and genealogical research routinely incorporates information from immigration and naturalization records. These are critical because it allows us to trace when and where people are moving and settling. Tracking movements can illustrate how their particular fortunes change and motivating factors for migrating. For many Americans who are descended from immigrants, these records are invaluable in constructing a family narrative. We first ask ourselves broad questions on how we access and interpret said records. Where do we begin and how far back does the documentation extend?

German immigrants boarding a ship for America in the late 19th century (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

Many genealogists and historians will tell you to gather as much firsthand information and primary documents as possible. They provide a vivid window into your ancestor’s journey. Journals, diaries, and letters are excellent sources, but consider yourself lucky if these survived multiple generations. The physical condition of paper records can deteriorate rapidly unless properly curated. Families who preserved genealogical records and wrote family histories are sometimes held in local local libraries. Immigrants that first settled a region are normally the subject of historical preservation. With primary documents and oral history, you can construct a chronological framework of an ancestor’s immigration and motives.

When researching European immigration, an important reference point is the Steerage Act of 1819. Congress required all foreign and domestic ships to produce manifests and passenger lists with demographic information. This information was then collected by the local customs office. Why is this law important? First, it produced a record of any taxable revenue for the customs office. For genealogists however, it marks official recordkeeping of immigration to the United States. If your ancestors arrived in 1820 or after, a physical record of their arrival exists. Immigration records prior to 1820 are significantly more difficult to acquire, but not impossible. Most libraries with genealogical offices keep a copy of William Filby’s Passenger and Immigration Lists Index: A Guide to Published Arrival Records of … Passengers who Came to the United States and Canada in the Seventeenth, Eighteenth, and Nineteenth Centuries. This annotated index provides a wealth of pre-1819 information on immigration to North America. This aid can provide leads to passenger lists and the national origin of ships. Ship manifests from 1820 onwards give the name, date of arrival, port of arrival, and national origin. In addition to the Filby work, publications by Carl Boyer and Michael Tepper compiled passenger lists by region, such as the following:

[Ship Passenger Lists, National and New England (1600-1825), New York and New Jersey (1600-1825), Pennsylvania and Delaware (1641-1825), the South (1538-1825)] [New World Immigrants: a Consolidation of Ship Passenger Lists and Associated Data from Periodical Literature, Passengers to America: A Consolidation of Ship Passenger Lists From the New England Historical and Genealogical Register, Emigrants to Pennsylvania, 1641-1819: a Consolidation of Ship Passenger Lists from the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Immigrants to the Middle Colonies: a Consolidation of Ship Passenger Lists and Associated Data from The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record]

European immigration occurred via oceanic crossings. Handfuls of immigrants found it more economical to travel to Canada or Mexico first and then to the United States. Border crossings were not as well documented before the mid-20th century though. If you believe this might be the case, there are numerous resources referencing ships, crew lists, and ports of entry in wider North America. Determining when and where your ancestors came forms an essential component of writing a family history. Dates and names are always subject to different ranges and spellings in websites such as Ancestry or FamilySearch. Searching by trial and error is necessary; it eliminates possible misspellings or wrong dates. Narrowing a search helps reduce the number of unrelated entries. Persistence is a good trait with genealogical research. If spelling on a name is off or a date range too large, revise and submit again!

Once you have sufficient returns on researching immigration records, the next step is learning how your ancestors became U.S. citizens. Naturalization records provide information on how immigrants became citizens. Prior to 1906, any court of law granted U.S. citizenship provided that resident aliens met residency requirements. After filing a ‘declaration of intent’ anyone could petition the most convenient courthouse and be granted citizenship. These include country, state, appellate, and circuit courts. The Naturalization Act of 1906 revised that practice. Beginning on September 27th 1906, only Federal courts were allowed to oversee the naturalization proceedings. This benefits modern-day genealogists in defining the parameters for searching naturalization records. An ancestor’s location at the time of naturalization is key in locating the appropriate archives that hold their information. Knowing where they lived will direct you to what state archives will hold those court documents. Archival holdings can vary by state so be sure to read up on their website on the research process. Post-1906 naturalization records can be searched through the National Archives (Naturalization Records). All Federal court systems periodically have records transferred to the archives and depending on when your relatives became citizens that will aid in your research. Copies of naturalization certificates are not kept by the archives; one goes to the recipient and another is filed with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). When submitting a naturalization request from the National Archives, the most basic information needed is the following:

Name of individual (including known variants)
Date of birth
Approximate date of entry to the US
Approximate date of naturalization
Where the individual was residing at the time of naturalization (city/county/state)
Country of origin

Census records are another valuable resource connected with researching immigration and naturalization. The census can reveal a wealth of information on relatives, including basic demographic information and national origin. If they immigrated, their year of arrival is listed. For more information, make sure to visit the National Archives – Census Records.

Wilson’s naturalization laws of the United States, showing how to become an American citizen; including U. S. Constitution, Declaration of independence, department regulations, forms, circa 1913 (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress)

The COVID-19 pandemic forced much of the history and genealogy field to adapt. While in-person research was abruptly halted, online and digital services exploded. More households began some form of family history work and websites like Ancestry and DNA ancestry recorded a major uptick in usage. Fortunately much of the industry was already moving in this direction. What does this mean for the researcher who purchases physical copies of immigration and naturalization documents? Until normal research practices resume, digital services are being reconfigured to help with their researching backlog. Hundreds of professionally managed and volunteer websites combine information and share resources on immigration and naturalization. Here are a list of excellent European immigrant research tools and databases:

  1. Guide to Immigration Records
  2. Passenger Arrival Lists, National Archives, New York
  3. US Immigration Passenger Arrival Lists, FamilySearch
  4. Arrivals at US Ports form Europe
  5. Library of Congress
  6. FindmyPast
  7. Archion
  8. Castle Garden (New York immigration records from 1820-1892)
  9. Ellis Island / Statue of Liberty Foundation
  10. National Archives – Immigration Records
  11. National Archives – Naturalization Records
  12. Citizenship Reference Reports
  13. Fold3
  14. Library and Archives, Canada
  15. Ships and Passengers (The UK National Archives)

A final piece of advice when it comes to researching immigration, naturalization, and other genealogical records; be patient. This type of work is a massive time commitment and not all resources are uniform. Frustration can easily set in if you find certain documents aren’t available online. There are literally millions of documents that are yet to be digitized and only a handful of institutions are conducting such work. This means that more information is being posted every year. Your researching process can evolve as a result. You may spend years searching for one name or document, but when you finally find it, the reward is well worth the effort and patience.

Naturalization ceremony of Albert Einstein. He became a U.S. citizen in 1940 after emigrating from Germany in 1933. He feared the rising power of the Nazis and fascist policies of the German government (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress)

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