It’s rare that massive new sources of genealogical information are released, and certainly rare that such sources are released for free. Every ten years in the United States, however, the census from 72 years earlier is released. In the past it has taken a lot of time to get the census made available to the public, primarily because of the massive cost in digitizing and indexing information on tens of millions of people.
On April 2, 2012, the 1940 US Census will be released to the public. Besides the obvious benefit of having information on the over 130 Million residents of the United States in 1940, there are other reasons to be excited about this release.
For one, it is the first time that the National Archives is releasing the census in digital form. In the past, companies needed to scan millions of pages of microfilm to create their own digital images of the census records. On April 2, 2012, the National Archives is releasing the entire 1940 census in digital form. There will not be an index to those records, which brings us to the second reason this release is exciting: Many genealogy companies and organizations have been planning for this release for years and it will be indexed in record time.
Next, Ancestry.com has announced that they will be making the images and their index to those records (which they will develop on their own) free through at least the end of 2013. It’s unknown how long it will take Ancestry.com to index the records, but presumably their index would be available before the end of 2013.
Archives.com, which has been seeking in recent years to compete with Ancestry.com as a lower-cost service, announced that they have partnered with the National Archives to be the official host of the images that will be released on April 2, 2012. The official site the images will be released on has not yet been announced, but Archives.com has posted information on this partnership at archives.com/1940census.
More recently, it has been announced that three different genealogy companies have joined forces to index the 1940 US Census together and thus make the 1940 census searchable for free as well. These are Archives.com, FamilySearch.org and FindMyPast.com. They will be using FamilySearch.org’s indexing tool (which I discussed almost exactly a year ago here) to coordinate the indexing project.
One interesting point is that it makes sense that Archives.com is involved since they are hosting the images for the National Archives (and have no public indexing tool of their own), and it makes sense that FamilySearch.org is involved (since they have the indexing tool and have previously proven themselves by indexing the 1930 US Census), but the odd man out seems to be FindMyPast.com. What’s interesting is that FindMyPast.com just re-directs to FindMyPast.co.uk, as it is actually a British genealogy site. Is FindMyPast planning to move into the US genealogy market and is the 1940 census their means of doing so? or are they just planning on offering the 1940 census index to their British users as a means of tracking relatives that moved to the US? The use of FindMyPast.com in the press release instead of FindMyPast.co.uk makes this an interesting question.
Together, the three companies have set up the 1940 Census Community Project. You can check out the information on the project now, and if you’re interested in helping index the 1940 US Census, you can download FamilySearch.org’s indexing tool now and try it out with other projects FamilySearch.org is indexing.
In addition, one of the interesting pages the project has released is what the enumerator was supposed to ask each family when adding them to the census. This gives you a good idea of what to expect when the 1940 US Census is released.
So there you go, we’re 105 days away from the release of the 1940 US Census images. Now you know how you’ll be able to find your family (if they were living in the US on April 1, 1940) when the census is released.
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.
In 2018, in an agreement between the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation and FamilySearch, a new index and new scans were introduced, which is searchable on LibertyEllisFoundation.org (in addition to the existing records for the Ellis Island period), and on FamilySearch in their New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1891 collection.
• 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 are included in the Castle Garden records (see above).
• 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 LibertyEllisFoundation.org website which allows searching for people who passed through Ellis Island and the viewing of the original passenger manifests.
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.
Focusing on the years 1870-1940 we can look at the Federal Censuses of 1880, 1890, 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930 and 1940.
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. As an alternative for those ancestors which were living in New York City, you can check the New York City 1890 Police Census, which is searchable at FamilySearch in their New York, New York City, Police Census, 1890 collection, although in order to see the images themselves you’ll need to access this collection in a Family History Center.
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.
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 (from GenealogyBank)
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.
Also, in 2018 I added over 200 newspapers to the B&F Compendium of Jewish Genealogy, based on publication location. If you’re looking at a country or state, or a town in Poland, if I’ve added an online archive of a newspaper from that location, it will show up in the Newspapers category. See Links to local Jewish newspapers added to the Compendium for more information on what newspapers were initially added (although I am adding more as time allows).
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.
It might seem strange that you could have an address for a relative, but not their name. It’s not as strange as you think. Addresses require a level of accuracy that names historically have not had.
For example, I know that my gg-grandparents lived in New York under my gg-grandmother’s surname and not my gg-grandfather’s surname. That has caused no end to problems in tracking down evidence that they lived in New York at all during the years I know they lived there around the turn of the last century. The fact that they lived under my gg-gradmother’s surname indicates perhaps that there were other reasons not to list their real name. Perhaps they did not arrive legally in the country. I don’t know the answer to that question yet. I’ve tried without success to find reference to them in the censuses that happened while they lived in New York, but have never found them under either surname. Searching by name on the commercial databases like Ancestry.com works very well these days, so if they were in the census records under either name I should be able to find them, yet I haven’t found them yet. It could be that they used even another name, that their name was transcribed incorrectly, or that they’re just not in the census records.
This brings up what used to be the way people searched census records, before they were indexed by name. You would find where your ancestor lived, then based on the address figure out the enumeration district that address would be in, then go through all the pages of the census for that enumeration district until you found the address, and then look for your relatives.
Recently I found a document that listed my gg-grandfather’s address in 1902 in New York. Now, of course he could have moved there just before listing that address, but it was sufficiently close to 1900 for me to look into that address during the 1900 US Federal Census.
So how do you go about doing that? First, you need to figure out the enumeration district in 1900 for the address. In this case the address is 60 Cannon St. in Manhattan. This address doesn’t even exist today, as the streets downtown in New York have changed, but you can get around that fact by looking at old maps of the city.
For New York luckily there is a street atlas from 1899 that has been put online by the New York Public Library. If you go to the link, you’ll see thumbnails of the pages in the atlas. You can’t search the atlas by street name, but there is an index page that will tell you the page number to look for:
If you click on the index page and zoom in, you can find Cannon St. and see which pages it shows up on:
As you can see, numbers 2-104 (even) and 1-105 (odd) are on page 15. Now actually figuring out which thumbnail is page 15 isn’t so easy, but if you search for ’15’ it will come up as one of the options and a little trial-and-error will get you to the correct page:
Unfortunately the zoom function for this particular site is really not so easy to use. It makes you look at a very small section of the page, and move around by bumping the view left, right, up or down a bit. However, once you zoom in on Cannon St. you can look for #60:
As I mentioned, the zoom function doesn’t work so well so you need to look at what you can identify easy, such as the big 328 for the block, and then zoom out so you can see the cross streets:
Now we know that the cross-streets are Rivington (above the block) and Delancey (below the block). Why is that important? Because the next step is to figure out the enumeration district, and those cross-streets will help.
As you can see in the image, I’ve selected 1900 at the top, then New York for the state and Manhattan for the city. I’ve then added the three streets from the block. If I had just entered Cannon St., the list of districted would have been very long. By adding three streets it should come down to one or two districts. In this case as you can see it has determined two districts, 288 and 291. Why are there two districts for one block? The reason is easy to figure out – Cannon St. on that block must have been the border between two districts. In one district we should find odd number addresses, and in the other we should find even number addresses.
So where do we go to look for the census images for these districts? There are a few options, but I’m going to show how to do it on Ancestry.com which is what I use for census images.
Ancestry.com allows you to search by name, but as I described that didn’t help me in this case. If you’ve used Ancestry.com to look at census images, you may not have noticed that it also allows you to browse by enumeration district:
In the above image I’ve already chosen the 1900 census to search exclusively. On the left side is the search interface that most people use, but on the right side (in the red box I’ve added) is a panel that allows you to browse by enumeration district. You can see I’ve selected New York for the state, New York for the County and Manhattan for the township. It then lists all of the enumeration districts, and I can select which one to view.
If you were to select enumeration district 288 first, and scan through the pages to find Cannon St., you would notice that all the addresses are odd numbers. That fits with my guess on the street being the border of an enumeration district. If you skip over to enumeration district 291, you will see that the numbers are all even. Oddly there are a few street numbers from Cannon St. at the beginning of the census file, then it jumps to another street, and then back to Cannon St. later.
Up until now I’ve been showing you how to take an address and find the census records for that address. The second lesson I want to teach here at this point is to keep your records organized an to always refer to your notes before jumping into a research project like this. If I had done so I would have noticed that I have another document from 1901 (a Declaration of Intent to Naturalize) that lists a different address. In fact the 1903 Petition was also in an entirely different address, so three addresses in three years. I guess they moved around a lot. If I had not jumped into the research before looking at what other documents I had, I would have saved a lot of time. It still makes for a good example for this blog, however, so I hope it was helpful.
To end the post I should add that the address from 1901 was on the other side of the same block (i.e. the next street over) on the same map page I found for Cannon St., and the address showed up in enumeration district 288, the same one that had the odd street numbers for Cannon St. (this address was even numbered) and unfortunately also came up empty. Considering they lived at different addresses in 1901, 1902 and 1903, I guess it’s not too surprising that they lived someplace else in 1900 as well.
Privacy & Cookies Policy
Necessary cookies are absolutely essential for the website to function properly. This category only includes cookies that ensures basic functionalities and security features of the website. These cookies do not store any personal information.
Any cookies that may not be particularly necessary for the website to function and is used specifically to collect user personal data via analytics, ads, other embedded contents are termed as non-necessary cookies. It is mandatory to procure user consent prior to running these cookies on your website.