By Kimberly Brown, Family Historian
No matter who your ancestors were, you’re bound to run into ancestors who migrated from one country to another. Fortunately for the family historian, there are all kinds of records documenting an ancestor’s immigration, from his initial application to emigrate from his native country to his naturalization in his new home. Immigration records contain information such as an ancestor's age, physical description, occupation, and age. They may also list the names and addresses of the relatives, if any, that your ancestors were joining.
An ancestor usually couldn’t emigrate from his mother country without a permit and, in some cases, a passport. You can find your ancestor’s application for emigration in his native country, usually in government archives or in the port city where he embarked on his voyage. Ships also kept records of every passenger on board, and you can usually find these records in the destination port city.
If you know what country your ancestor came from but you don't know the city or region, you can start by searching the major port cities in that country. If you don't know what port city they landed in, you can do the same thing. For ancestors who immigrated to the United States, start by searching New York City records. More immigrants came through New York than any other American port city! Other major American ports were Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, New Orleans, and San Francisco.
How should you start looking for immigration records? Look in the census. Census records often list an individual's place of birth, parents' places of birth, immigration year, and citizenship status. Starting in 1850, the census listed the birthplace of every individual, and from 1870 onward the birthplaces of every individual's parents were also listed. Starting in 1900 the census gave each individual's immigration year, and starting in 1910 it told whether each individual was naturalized or not. The 1920 census also gives detailed information about the native languages of each individual and their parents.
Using the information from the census, you can get a basic idea of where to start searching for immigration records. Pay attention in particular to whether or not an ancestor was naturalized. If he was, you can find his naturalization record.
There are many easy-to-use resources available for finding immigration records. The U.S. National Records Archives at http://www.archives.gov/genealogy/immigration/ has 1820 to 1982 records sorted by port of arrival. The records are not available online, but they are on microfilm and an extensive list of the records available is on the site. Another great resource is http://www.ellisisland.org, which has New York City port records available to search for free. The Immigrant Ancestors Project at immigrants.byu.edu is also a free, searchable database of port records from European countries. Whether you look starboard or portside, your immigrant ancestors won't be hard to find. Land ho!