Frog RootsWeb's Guide to
Tracing Family Trees


Guide No. 15


Tracing Your Immigrant Ancestor to the British Isles




Statue of Liberty




They Changed Our Name at Ellis Island












Pier 21 Society












Southern Cross Genealogy:
The Convict Transportation Ships


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Tracing Your Immigrant Ancestors

Locating the exact origins of your immigrant ancestor in in the "old country" is one the greatest research challenges facing most North American and Australian family historians. Before you can continue your genealogical research you must know where your ancestors came from because records in the "old countries" for the most part were kept on a local basis. If your ancestors immigrated in the past 100 years or so, you may be able to find information in records that are still in the possession of family members. These might include:

  • Birth, death and marriage certificates

  • Family Bibles

  • Baptismal certificates

  • Funeral cards

  • Obituary notices

  • Diaries

  • Photo albums,

  • Passports

  • Old letters (always check envelopes for postmarks and addresses)

  • Prayer books

  • Military records

  • School records

  • Insurance papers.

Ask your older family members and cousins if they have any of these. Track down cousins via mailing lists. Exhaust sources in the adopted country before you try to cross the salt-water barriers armed only with the notation your ancestor came from Scotland, Germany, Italy, Norway, or Poland. Keep in mind that wars and political events in recent centuries have caused many changes in the boundaries of European counties so that your ancestor's place of origin may now be in a country other than what has been recorded.


Ship Ship Passenger Lists

Probably more time is spent hunting for ancestors on ship passenger lists than any other type of research. In our naiveté we assume these records will reveal exactly where in the "old country" our ancestors came from. It is not always that simple. Depending on when your immigrant ancestors arrived, ship passenger lists may or may not provide this information. In some instances your research problem can be solved by tracking down naturalization papers, rather than ship passenger lists.

Ellis Island

Ellis Island


Flag 1891-1954 U.S.A. Arrivals

If your ancestors arrived between 1891 and 1954, Immigration Passenger Lists are valuable. Immigrants were asked to provide information such as:

  • Marital status

  • Last residence

  • Final destination in the U. S.

  • If ever in the U. S. before, when, where and for how long.

  • If going to join a relative, the relative's name, address and relationship

In 1906 and 1907 more questions were added to the above list:

  • Personal description: height, complexion, color of hair and eyes, identifying marks

  • Place of birth — the exact city, town or village.

  • Name and address of closest living relative in native country.


1820-1890 U.S. Arrivals

However, if your ancestors landed in the U.S. between 1820 and 1890, you need to search what's known as Customs Passenger Lists. These contain only the following data:

* Name of ship
* Name of its master
* Port of embarkation
* Date and port of its arrival
* Each passenger's name, age, sex, occupation and nationality.

Contrary to popular belief, the National Archives does not have copies of all ship passenger lists. It does have a microfilm copy of passenger lists that were turned over to it by the Customs Service and the Immigration and Naturalization Service when this federal repository was established in 1935. Inbound federal ship passenger arrival records at the National Archives date back to 1820 for most East Coast and Gulf Coast ports and a few lists dating back to 1800 for Philadelphia.

U.S. Ports of Entry
Major indexes exist for:

  • Baltimore, 1820-1952
  • Boston 1848-91, 1902-20
  • New Orleans 1853-1952
  • New York City, 1820-46, 1897-1943
  • Philadelphia 1800-1948
  • Minor ports, 1820-74 and 1890-1924

  • Cyndi's List

Explore the
Naturalization and
Immigration Information
and some Ship Passenger Lists
Immigrant Ships Transcribers Guild



Books Suggested Reading
& References

Anuta, Michael J. Ships of Our Ancestors. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1983.

Boyer, Carl, 3rd (editor). Ship Passenger Lists: Pennsylvania and Delaware (1641-1825). Westminster, Maryland: Family Line Publications, 1992. (Originally published by the compiler 1980).

_____. Ship Passenger Lists: New York and New Jersey (1600-1825). Westminster, Maryland: Family Line Publications, 1992. (Originally published by the compiler 1978).

_____. Ship Passenger Lists: The South (1538-1825). Westminster, Maryland: Family Line Publications, 1992. (Originally published by the compiler 1979).

Brandow, James C. (editor). Omitted Chapters from Hotten's Original Lists of Persons of Quality . . . and Others Who Went from Great Britain to the American Plantations, 1600-1700. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1982.

Colletta, John P. Colletta. They Came in Ships (revised edition). Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry Incorporated, 1993.

Dollarhide, William. British Origins of America Colonists, 1629-1775. Bountiful, Utah: Heritage Quest, 1997.

_____. Map Guide to American Migration Routes. Bountiful, Utah: Heritage Quest, 1997.

Filby, P. William (editor). Passenger and Immigration Lists Bibliography, 1538-1900 (second edition). Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research Company, 1988.

Fischer, David Hackett. Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America, New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Hall, Nick Vine. Tracing Your Family History in Australia: A Guide to Sources. Adelaide, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, New York, London, Auckland: Rigby Publishers, 1985.

Hotten, John Camden (editor). The Original Lists of Persons of Quality; Emigrants; Religious Exiles; Political Rebels; Serving Men Sold for a Term of Years; Apprentices; Children Stolen; maidens Pressed; and Others Who Went from Great Britain to the American Plantations, 1600-1700. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., reprinted 1986. (Originally published: London, 1874).

Roberts, Jayare. "Ellis Island and the Making of America," Genealogical Journal, 51-116, Volume 23, Nos. 2 and 3 (1995).

_____. "Ellis Island: Update," Genealogical Journal, 176-185, Volume 23, No. 4 (1995).

Szucs, Loretto Dennis. They Became Americans: Finding Naturalization Records and Ethnic Origins. Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry Incorporated, 1998.

Tepper, Michael. American Passenger Arrival Records: A Guide to the Records of Immigrants Arriving at American Ports by Sail and Steam. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1993.




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Dot RootsWeb Guides to Tracing Family Trees are written & compiled by professional genealogists Julia M. Case, Myra Vanderpool Gormley, CG & Rhonda McClure