Immigration and Naturalization: Part 2

Oct 7, 2021 | by Katie Rebecca Garner

Aside from what remains of the indigenous population, the U.S. is peopled with immigrants and descendants of immigrants. Some immigrant ancestors are as recent as parents or grandparents while other immigrant ancestors go as far back as colonial times.

Since the earliest settlements in America, many people have come over for various reasons: escape from religious persecution, seeking better opportunities including land ownership, forced to immigrate as convicts or slaves. Oftentimes, the countries immigrants come from had factors pushing emigrants away as America had factors drawing immigrants. One example is landlords forcing peasants off the land at the as the feudal system ended. Knowing the emigration waves from your ancestor’s home country gives historical context into why they crossed the ocean to a new home. The FamilySearch wiki includes pages on various countries’ emigration waves.

Many who wanted to come to America were too poor to afford passage, so they made arrangements where another would pay for their passage in exchange for indentured servitude in America for several years. It was also common for the father to immigrate ahead of his family and earn money in America to bring the others over.

Groups often emigrated together. When fleeing religious persecution, it was common for members of the same congregation to travel together and settle together. It was also common for someone who came to America to write home to their friends and family about the opportunities they found in the new land, encouraging them to come as well.

No matter when, why, or how your ancestor came to America, they left records on their way here, which give clues to their life in the old country and insight into their travel experience. This article will discuss searching for these records. For information on the naturalization process, see the previous article in this series.

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Clues about Immigration

The first clue about an immigrant ancestor is records stating their birthplace in another country. This includes censuses, death records, military records, sometimes church records, and marriage records. Sometimes the clues of immigration are found in records of the children of the immigrant: census records and death certificates which ask for the parents’ places of birth.

The next thing to determine is when and where the ancestor arrived in the U.S. If no record states when the ancestor arrived, you can estimate when they arrived based on the ancestor’s first appearance on records in the U.S. Naturalization records may also state when and where the ancestor arrived in the U.S., so it is helpful to look for the naturalization records before looking for the immigration records.

If the immigrant ancestor naturalized after 1906, the naturalization records will have asked for the port and date of arrival, which will make it easier to find the ancestor on a passenger list. Naturalization records before 1906 were inconsistent so they may or may not contain information key in locating a passenger list.

County histories of the places your ancestors lived usually contain information about early settlers and prominent citizens. This may include immigration information.

Finding the Immigration Records

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If you have records stating the immigration port and date of arrival, finding the passenger list is as simple as searching that port at that date. If you do not know the immigration port, multiple ports may need to be searched and guesswork may need to be used to prioritize the likelihood of each immigration port. While there are searchable databases for multiple ports, such databases usually are not comprehensive.

Start by searching the port closest to where the ancestor lived or settled. It may also be helpful to know which ports were the most popular at the time your ancestor immigrated. The following table provides a reference to major ports’ population.


Port of New York established by Dutch


Port of Boston founded


Port of Boston most prominent


Port of Philadelphia founded, competes with port of Boston


Port of New Orleans founded by French


Port of Baltimore founded


Port of New Orleans controlled by Spanish


U.S. gains control of New Orleans Port


New Orleans 4th most prominent port


Erie Canal completed, Port of New York becomes busiest port

The passenger lists often include the destination city and the hometown. If families travelled together, they may be listed together on the passenger list. Information on passenger lists was more consistent after 1906 when the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization was established. Before then the information contained on these lists was based on what the ship captain wanted to include.

The passenger list includes the name of the vessel the ancestor travelled on. A simple Google search can yield a picture of the vessel.

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Boarder Crossings

If an immigrant ancestor came over from Canada or Mexico, they would have gone through a border crossing checkpoint instead of a port of entry. Sometimes immigrants found it more cost effective to sail to Canada then take a train into the U.S. If you are not finding your ancestor in a passenger list, try searching border crossing records and ports in Canada.

Finding the Hometown

To research the ancestor in the old country, it is necessary to know the ancestor’s hometown. If the ancestor immigrated or naturalized after 1906, their immigration or naturalization records would contain their hometown. However, if the ancestor immigrated and naturalized before 1906, the hometown is less likely to be in those records and must be searched for in other records including: obituaries, marriage records, draft registration, pension records, newspapers, family bibles.

Name Changes

When a family emigrated from a non-English speaking country to America, they may have anglicized their names. Even if the family did not, it is likely that their names may have been misspelled, mispronounced, and misunderstood throughout their lives in America. This is especially likely before the family learned English.

An example of this is the Trankina family, who immigrated to the U.S. from Italy around the late 1800s. Their surname is spelled differently on every census they were enumerated on and in other records: Frankina, Trankino, Franchinco, Tranchina. Additionally, being able to identify them on records required knowing both the English and Italian versions of their given names. is a website good for learning other languages’ versions of given names.

Using the FAN club (Friends, Associates, Neighbors)

Many people migrated in groups, as discussed earlier. People who knew each other in the home country would have settled near each other in the new country. Some of these ethnic groups were tight-knit and even kept their old language in the new country. Germans did this prior to WWI. Sometimes these groups migrated together. If you are having trouble tracing your immigrant ancestor family, choose a neighbor who came over from the same country and trace them. It is likely they were also neighbors or associates in the old country.

The immigration and naturalization process were an adventure for the ancestors who experienced them, and they are an adventure today for the researchers who learn of their ancestors’ experiences.

Katie Rebecca Garner

Katie has been involved with genealogy since 2014. She has a degree in Applied Science in Family History Research from BYU-Idaho, and is pursuing an AG through ICAPGen. Katie specializes in U.S. Mid-Atlantic and is currently developing curricula to teach genealogy to children.

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