Millions of Immigrants Never Set Foot on Ellis Island – Find Their Records Here
By Tony Bandy
For many of us who’ve seen the images and read the diaries of our ancestors, immigration to the United States is more than just faded bits of history, it’s our family – our aunts and uncles, mothers and fathers, nieces and nephews. It’s an essential part of the genealogy and family history process, of learning about where we’ve been and how we made it to this present year of 2017.
Yet finding the immigration path chosen by our ancestors is still in many ways challenging, even with today’s vast online databases. With 12 million legal immigrations from 1892 through 1954 alone, it’s hard to know where to start. What databases are accurate? Which ones are complete? Which ones should we disregard?
While we can certainly use the existing records from Ellis Island and Castle Garden, two of the better-known immigration points for the United States, these collections only represent part of what is available. These resources leave out many other important historical locations such as Galveston, Texas and Angel Island, California, or even New Orleans.
To help you jump-start your research in this area, I’ve put together a list of free-to-use immigration records from a variety of resources. While it’s by no means complete, it’s a start – and with this list in hand, you will be well on your way to finding a few, if not more, of your historical family members. Let’s jump right in and see what we can discover!
Ancestry.com is huge – and the list of historical records, family data, and information held by the genealogical giant is continually growing. If you are new to Ancestry, or the topic of immigration, start first with this outline of the basics. Next, learn more about the free records that are available from Ancestry here. Below are four great examples of no-cost collections you can find here when it comes to immigration:
- Emigrants in Bondage, 1614-1775 (free index, images require a subscription)
- Philadelphia Bank Immigrant Passage Records, 1890-1949 (free text-only collection)
- U.S, Boston Arrivals of Jewish Immigrants from HIAS Records, 1882-1929 (free text-only collection)
- U.S., German Immigrants, 1712-1933 (free index, images require a subscription)
As with most of the record sets and databases on Ancestry, you will find both basic and advanced search options including a variety of metadata search points such as surname, date, location, ship, etc. Some of the terms do vary, so be careful as you examine the different databases. Also note that for the free record sets you often will only have the larger index recording to view and some individual record elements are still only available with a paid subscription.
FamilySearch.org is another amazing source of genealogical information for your family. There are immigration resources here that are quite useful and that come in a great variety of record variations and sets. Start by clicking here for help with their immigration collections. Once done, consider the following examples to get your research going:
- California Immigration Registers of Japanese, Filipinos, and Hawaiians at San Francisco, 1928-1942
- California, San Francisco Passenger Lists, 1893-1953
- Louisiana New Orleans Passenger Lists, 1820-1945
- Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Passenger List Index Cards, 1883-1948
As you browse through these, you will find that the searchable fields, metadata entry points and results will vary – however, usually a combination search – using as much information as you have – will yield good results.
U.S. National Archives
While, in many cases, you will find the official U.S. National Archives immigration and passenger lists records on both Ancestry or FamilySearch, you can also find much good information at the National Archives site itself. Start first by navigating to the Access to Archival Databases (AAD). Once there, select the Genealogy/Personal History/Passenger lists option. Here you will find over 5 million searchable records ranging from the 1830’s up to the early 1900’s. Searchable fields include, but are not limited to, surname/first name, age, native country code, manifest identification code and others. The record sets include:
- Russian Immigration
- Arriving Immigrants During the Irish Famine
- German Immigration 1850-1897
- Italian Immigration, 1855-1900
While in no way comparable to the larger collections found at the other sites we’ve profiled, it won’t take away from the potential family history that you may be able to find!
Realistically, there are so many more immigration records out there – while I’ve touched on a few, this really is just the beginning. Take for example the Bancroft Library from the University of California in Berkeley – with their amazing project called Chinese Immigration to the United States, 1884-1944 you will find a vast searchable digital archive that might prove fruitful to your family investigations.
At the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), you will find immigration records from many institutions. You will also find stories, images, and more – all of which can help trace the path your immigrant ancestors took once in the United States. Read a tutorial for using this resource here.
Lastly, consider the Immigrant Ships Transcribers Guild (ISTG) as an additional resource that could prove quite helpful.
If you’ve had a moment to browse through some of our record set examples as outlined above, more than likely you’ve come to one conclusion: there’s a lot of data to sort!
It can be frustrating, but it can also be very rewarding. The key is to maintain your research focus and zero in on the initial sets and records that tie in to your current family tree branch or relatives. Once you can extract the needed data or follow their path, you will usually find other open doorways for more exploration!
Freelance writer, family researcher, and librarian/historian, Tony Bandy can be found at Adventures in History.