For many people researching their family history in the United States, the research process seems to end at the coast. Finding information on where your ancestor came from before getting off a ship in New York or elsewhere in the US can be a daunting task. While some researchers can track their families back to the Mayflower or other early colonists, there is a large percentage of Americans that had family arrive around the turn of the century. Between the years 1870 and 1930 the population of the US increased more than threefold, from 38.6 million people to 123.2 million. Besides their numbers, these immigrants are unique in that the information available for them is much more varied then those that came before them and in some cases even more so than those that came after them.
Some information is based on the time of an event, some is based on the time of birth of the person and some is a combination of both of those factors. For example, if your male ancestor lived in the US in 1942 and was born between 1877 and 1897, then they would likely have taken part in what is called the a military draft registration called the “old man’s registration” and you can find their WWII draft cards. These cards show their place of birth, their birth date, their address at the time and reference another person who is a permanent contact which is sometimes another relative. These are not military records per se and certainly most of these men, who were between the ages of 45 and 64, did not serve in WWII, but they do provide information on the person and you might not think to look for such records if you thought your ancestor was too old to serve in the army.
I’m going to review several different types of information you can find on immigrants, and show how you can use that information to get to the next piece of information. These resources include Passenger Manifests, Census Records, Naturalization Papers, Military Draft Cards, and Historical Newspapers.
Let’s start at the beginning. Your ancestors probably arrived in the US on ships. All ships entering the US had to keep manifests listing all their passengers and those records were generally preserved. While accessing these records used to be quite difficult, today it is actually quite easy. The biggest problems now are if the name on the manifest is not the name you know of your ancestor, and if their name is common, figuring out which person with the same name is the person you are trying to find. While all records between 1820-1952 are archived by the National Archives, some are easier to access than others, due to where and when your immigrant ancestor arrived.
Keep in mind that the names on the passenger manifests are the names they filled out when they departed for America, and may not be the name you know for them. I don’t want to further the myth that many people changed their names at Ellis Island, because that’s not true (see my article Name Changes at Ellis Island), but when searching for people keep in mind that their first names may have been what they were called overseas, and not what they were later called in the US. If you know a family traveled together, it is sometimes useful to search by each of the family members, such as the wife and children, in case one of their names is closer to what you think it was then the husband. Name changes did occur frequently after arrival in the US, so if you ancestor did change his name once in the US, you obviously will need to know their original last name when searching through the passenger manifests. If your ancestor became a naturalized citizen in the US, their naturalization papers can sometimes tell you what their original name was overseas.
• Castle Garden
If your ancestor arrived in New York between 1855 and 1890, they probably passed through America’s first immigrant processing center, Castle Garden. Castle Garden was located on the bottom tip on Manhattan, the Battery, and the Battery Conservancy today operates a web site CastleGarden.org that lets you search through the immigration records. In addition to their own search interface, Stephen Morse has a search page that gives you a little more flexibility in searching the Castle Garden records. It is estimated that one sixth of Americans had their ancestors processed through Castle Garden.
• Barge Office
Between 1890 when Castle Garden closed, and 1892, when Ellis Island opened, immigrants were processed at another location in lower Manhattan called the Barge Office. After a fire at Ellis Island in 1897 there was also a period where the Barge Office was used again until new buildings were built on Ellis Island. There is no fancy web site for the Barge Office, but their records, like those of Castle Garden and Ellis Island are part of the collection of ship manifests available on Ancestry.com. In fact, Ancestry has ship manifests going back as far as 1820 when they became required.
• Ellis Island
Ellis Island opened in 1892 and operated until 1954, although after the Emergency Immigration Act of 1921 and finally the Immigration Act of 1924 which greatly restricted the number immigrants allowed into the US, Ellis Island was used less for immigration and more for processing refugees and to handle deportations. At its peak in 1907 Ellis Island processed over one million immigrants. It is estimated that one third of all Americans had ancestors processed at Ellis Island. The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation operates the EllisIsland.org website which allows searching for people who passed through Ellis Island and the viewing of the original passenger manifests. Stephen Morse’s One-Step Webpages site has several forms that make searching the Ellis Island database easier. His Ellis Island Gold Form is the probably the best place to start your search.
In the above example (click to enlarge) you can see the arrival of a Max Trauring in NY in 1902. He’s listed as being 17 years old from Austria, but most recently residing in Antwerp, Belgium. He was listed as going to his uncle David Suffrin in Chicago.
Here’s another example (click to enlarge):
Note that in this record there is a Lea Trauring also coming from Austria, a few years younger than Max Trauring in the above record, and also going to her uncle David Suffrin in Chicago. In this record, however, her birth town of Lancut is listed. As you might guess Max and Lea were siblings and both were born in Lancut, as you’ll see illustrated in a later example.
The US government carries out a census of all residents every ten years. Some states also have carried out censuses at different times. The information collected in each census changes each year, and some censuses are more useful than others for finding out about your relatives. Federal censuses from 1880 and earlier do not contain a whole lot of information about the people, although they do list basic information like address, age, marital status, as well as the place of birth of the person recorded, and that of each of their parents. This information can of course be very useful if you have no idea where your ancestor came from, but it can also be frustratingly useless. For example, if your ancestor arrived in the 19th century and listed the place of birth of themselves and their parents as ‘Russia’ that could translate to any one of the following modern-day countries: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Finland, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Poland, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine or Uzbekistan. Other territories including parts of Turkey may also be included in that list depending on when exactly the person arrived.
Continuing the focus on the years 1870-1930 we can look at the Federal Censuses of 1880, 1890, 1900, 1910, 1920 and 1930.
The 1880 census, as mentioned above, contained only basic information on immigrants.
The 1890 census was, unfortunately, destroyed in a fire in 1921. Out of the 65 million or so records only some 6000 remain.
The 1900 census added some very useful information to the census for finding out more about your family. It asked married women how many children they had given birth to, and how many were still living. This can help you to figure out if children were left behind overseas, or if perhaps some children died young. Knowing that records exist somewhere on these additional children if they are enumerated in that field, can help you know what to look for when searching records. In addition, in 1900 the census started asking what year the person immigrated and their naturalization status. Knowing the year the person arrived can help you track down their passenger manifest, as well as help estimate other dates like their naturalization. The naturalization status field showed whether the person had not started the naturalization process and was thus still considered an alien (AL), whether they had filed their first papers (PA), or if they were already naturalized (NA).
The 1910 census asked all women about the number of children born and surviving, not just married women. It also asked how many years the person was married (in their current marriage). The 1910 census also introduced the first question about language spoken, but only usually only recorded the language if the person did not also speak English. The 1910 census also listed whether the the person was a ‘survivor’ of either the Union or Confederate armies during the civil war. If your ancestor lived in the US during the civil war, this indication can help you know whether you should be looking for civil war military records.
Excerpt of 1910 census record for Max Trauring in Brooklyn, NY
In the above example (click to enlarge), a record is shown for a Max Trauring in Brooklyn, NY. You can see he’s the head of the household (his wife and children were on the next page), that he’s 42 years old and that he’s been married for 18 years. You can also see that he and his parent were from Austria (the Austrian Empire, in this case what would become part of Poland after WWI) and he and his parents spoke Yiddish. You can also see that he arrived in the US in 1888 and that that his Naturalization papers had been filed (Pa).
Note that this is not the same Max Trauring as in the Passenger Manifest example above, but a cousin of his with the same name.
The 1920 census had a couple of very unique pieces of information which are very useful. First off, it asked what year the person was naturalized. Having the specific year obviously helps in finding a person’s naturalization papers. The 1920 census also asked what language the person spoke at home before immigration, as well as the languages spoke by their parents. Information on language spoken can sometimes be a better indicator of the country of origin that the Place of Birth field, since like in the example of Russia above, there may have been over a dozen languages spoken in one ‘country’ listed in the the Place of Birth field.
In the 1930 census there is less useful information than in 1920, but there is the added field showing if the person ever served in the US military. If your relative served during WWI, then it should be shown in this field.
The 1940 census is not yet available to the public, but is scheduled to be released on April 2, 2012. The US National Archives will supposedly be releasing the census records online, although it is unknown at this point whether there will be any kind of index available when it is released. Certainly commercial companies like Ancestry.com will be working hard once it is released to fully index the 1940 census. For more information on the 1940 Census, go to the 1940 Census Records page on the National Archives web site.
So now that you know what you’re looking for, where do you find these census records? If you have a subscription to Ancestry.com, their Census Records are probably the easiest place to search for census records. They have all publicly available census years indexed with all images online. Other sites also have census collections such as Footnote.com (which has 1860, 1910, 1920 and 1930) and FamilySearch.org (which has many of the censuses online, although it’s not clear to me if they are all fully indexed yet). You can also access the census records on microfilm in various archives and family history centers.
For those who follow this blog, you know I recently introduced a new PDF form called the US Immigrant Census Form, which helps you extract the important information from the 1880-1930 censuses that will help you find out more about your relative. The form, available from the Forms page, helps you collect all the specific information mentioned above about a particular person over each of the above years. If your ancestor lived in the US over one or more of the covered census years, I think you’ll find the form very useful is collecting all the relevant information on your relative in one place.
In addition to the federal censuses, states also carried out censuses at various times. If your relative doesn’t show up in a federal census, it’s possible you might find them in the state census close to it. To find what census records are available for each state, and where to find the records for them, check out CensusFinder.com.
If your family lived in New York at the turn of the century, the 1905 NY State Census is very useful and is indexed and searchable for free on FamilySearch.org. The records include the person’s address, which country they originated from, the number of years in the US, and their citizenship status.
Excerpt from 1905 NY State Census (from FamilySearch.org)
In the above example (click to enlarge), a family is shown in the 1905 NY State Census living in Brooklyn. You can see their names, genders, age, country of birth, years in the US, citizenship status (the parents are listed as Aliens, and the children are listed as citizens) and occupation. This is the same head of household as shown in the 1910 Federal Census above.
If you don’t know where your relative came from, their naturalization papers can be a great way to find out about where someone came from, although usually only if they were naturalized from 1906 and afterwards. 1906 is the year the federal government took over the naturalization process. Before that date, someone could become a US citizen in any number of local and regional courts. If your ancestor was naturalized before 1906, it is still possible to find their records, but they may not give you the information on the town where the person originated. From 1906 on, the records became standardized and required the town of birth for each person.
Post-1906 Naturalization Petition – shows birth city (from National Archives)
In many cases, only the husband/father went through the naturalization process, while the wife and children received their citizenship through the father. Keep in mind that if the person you’re looking for was a minor when they arrived, you’ll likely need to find the naturalization papers for their father. The National Archives has a good article on the issue of women and naturalization online. Interestingly, after 1907 a women who married a man automatically received the same citizenship status as him, meaning if he was a US citizen and she was not, she would gain US citizenship, but if she was a US citizen and he was not, she would lose her US citizenship.
There are a few ways to look for naturalization papers. There is a difference between records that are pre-1906 and post-1906. Some of the pre-1906 records have been scanned and indexed, such as at Footnote.com, where you can find records from various court regions such as NY Eastern, NY Southern, OH Northern, CA Los Angeles and CA San Diego. I’ve personally found my gg-grandfather’s Declaration of Intention (1901), Oath of Allegiance (1903) and Petition for Naturalization (1903) from the Footnote.com NY Eastern collection.
Pre-1906 Naturalization Petition from Eastern District of NY (from Footnote.com)
As I have already written about how to find and order Naturalization papers on the Naturalization page, for more information read what I’ve already written there.
Military Draft Cards
In both World War I (WWI) and World War II (WWII) men were drafted into the US military, and this included many immigrants. Even if your male relative that you are researching did not serve in the military, if they were the right age at the time, they would have been required to register for the draft, and their draft cards can contain important information on their origins. As mentioned earlier, in the case of WWII the records which are actually public are from a set of draft card for men who were between the ages of 45 and 64 in 1942. This means they were born between 1877 and 1897, and you might not realize to look for their WWII draft cards.
• WWI Draft Cards
Did your male relative live in the US during WWI, and was he born between September 11, 1872 and September 12, 1900? If so, check WWI Draft Cards (on Ancestry.com or LDS microfilm).
WWI Draft Card for Max Jay Trauring (from Ancestry.com)
In the above example (click to enlarge) you can see the person’s name, address, age, birthdate, whether they have declared for Naturalization, what country the person is a citizen of if not the US (in this case Austria), job, employer’s name and address, closest relative, his signature and on the right side a physical description. That’s a lot of information, although missing from the information is where the person was born – you only know Austria which as this was WWI meant the entire Austrian Empire which spanned a big chunk of Europe.
Just to be clear, this is the same person as the example from the Passenger Manifests, but not the same as the person used in the Census examples.
• WWII Draft Cards
Did your male relative live in the US in 1942, and was he born between April 28, 1877 and February 16, 1897? If so, he may have been recorded in the “old man’s registration” which was done of men between the ages of 45 and 64 in 1942 who were not already in the military. Basically, there were a series of registrations for those eligible to fight (i.e. who were of fighting age) earlier, but this Fourth If so, check WWII Draft Registration Cards (on Ancestry.com or FamilySearch.org). Draft registration cards of younger men, who may have actually served in the military are not currently available. Note that draft cards from several southern states (AL, FL, GA, KY, MS, NC, SC and TN) were destroyed and will not show up in any record search, and some of the states which do have records only have partial coverage.
WWII Draft Card for Max Jay Trauring (from FamilySearch.org)
In the above example (click to enlarge), which is the same person as in the WWI example, you can see the name and address of the person in 1942, his age (56), his birth town (Lancut) and Country (Poland), his date of birth (Aug 25, 1885) as well as a permanent contact (his wife) and the name and address of his employer (Miller Dry Goods Co. in Wilwaukee, WI).
Note that this WWII draft card gives the town of birth (which the WWI draft card did not) and that it lists the country as Poland, not Austria, because after WWI the town of Lancut became part of the newly re-formed Poland. You’ll also note that the town Lancut matches the town of birth given by his sister Lea who showed up in the 1906 Passenger Manifest example above. You can also see that he moved from Chicago, Illinois where he was living in the WWI draft (and where he was heading to in the 1902 Passenger Manifest) to Muncie, Indiana where we was living in the WWII draft.
Newspaper shows Nat. above from 1917
Depending on when your ancestor arrived in the US and where they settled when they arrived, searching through historical newspapers can provide important information on your immigrant ancestors. Some of the most useful information can actually be found in obituaries, although in smaller communities even day-to-day information on an individual might be found.
Two of the big sources for historical newspapers are GenealogyBank.com, a commercial company, and Chronicling America, a free-to-use project run by the Library of Congress.
In addition to these two large sources, there are many smaller efforts to put newspapers online, sometimes by local libraries or universities. I describe using GenealogyBank.com and other sites in detail in my earlier article Genealogy Basics: Historical Newspapers and I recommend jumping over to that article to see how to search for your ancestors in historical newspapers.
This article covered a lot of possibilities for finding information about your immigrant ancestors. If you’re looking for immigrants that came to the US during the great influx surrounding the turn of the 19th century, at least one of these resources should help you find out about your ancestor, and hopefully point to their origin overseas. Once you know the town of origin for your ancestor, you then can start the next stage of your research to find out about their lives, and the lives of their family, in their original homeland. Of course, these records are only the major records to check, but there may be more records that are dependent of your ancestor’s circumstances.
For example, if your ancestor passed through Belgium, there may be records there to check (as described in this early blog article, but due for revision soon as it is a bit outdated).
Other sources worth checking are cemetery records. Sometimes people were buried in specific areas of a cemetery owned by an organization linked to the town they came from overseas.
No article can be totally comprehensive, but I hope this article helps to get some people started on finding where their immigrant ancestors came from overseas.