by Linda Kush
Genealogy is our personal history, a deep dive into the events, decisions, and twists of fate that brought a family to its current place in time. But studying history in a broader sense provides fascinating context to our research. Political and economic change, war, and technology advances influenced our ancestors to leave their homes, start families, change careers, and even change their names.
Certain events in history had a big impact on present-day family history research as they created the very records that we genealogists use time and time again. These records allow us to travel back in time to discover our families and their stories. Get to know them and you will invariably learn more about your American ancestors.
Historic Events and Records Sets You Need to Know About if You Have American Ancestors
November 9, 1620: The Mayflower Lands in the New World
Tracing your family back to the Mayflower isn’t just for Boston blue bloods. Even though only 102 passengers made the voyage, it is estimated that they have 35 million descendants. To find out if you have a Mayflower ancestor, start by looking here.
1775-1783: American Revolutionary War
Did your family arrive in North America in time for the American Revolution? If so, you have multiple paper trails to explore. To find your ancestor who served in the American Revolution, search this database at FamilySearch.org.
But don’t stop there. To find out what other records might help fill in your family tree, learn more about Revolutionary War records here.
August 2, 1790: The First United States Census
Article 1, Section 2 of the United States Constitution called for a census of the country’s population to be taken every 10 years, and shortly after the first Congress met in 1789, it charged the federal marshals to get right on it.
On August 2, 1790, the marshals and their deputies began knocking on every door in the 13 states, plus Kentucky, Maine, Vermont, and Tennessee, to count the residents. The process has been repeated every 10 years since and., as every genealogist with American ancestors knows, these precious census records form the scaffolding on which we construct our family histories.
The U.S. Census records are made public after 70 years, and we look forward to getting our first look at the 1950 Census next year. There are many U.S. Census databases available online, but you can always search them for free at FamilySearch.
For an in-depth look at what details are contained in each year of the U.S. Census, be sure to read our census guide here.
March 2, 1819: The Steerage Act of 1819
In the early 19th Century, Europeans began immigrating to the United States in increasing numbers, and the trans-Atlantic shipping companies seized the opportunity for bigger profits. Ships that had delivered timber from America to Europe could now make money on the return trip, too, packing their holds to capacity with hopeful passengers. As these passengers began to arrive in American ports starved and sick, and as deaths at sea increased, American authorities grew alarmed at the squalid conditions they had suffered.
The Steerage Act was designed to protect the welfare of these travelers. It imposed strict limits on the number of steerage passengers allowed based on ship tonnage and set minimum requirements of food and water to be carried for each passenger. A fine of $150 – an enormous sum at that time – was charged to the shipping company for every passenger over the limit.
To enforce the new law, ship captains had to present American port officials with a list of every passenger on board, including name, age, and occupation, as well as a list of those who had died at sea. While The Steerage Act may not rank among the top events in history books, it is a major milestone for family historians. Today, these lists (or manifests), form family connections between the Old World and the New.
A free index of manifests from the port of New York, 1820 to 1892 is available here.
You can also read more about gaining access to U.S. immigration records online here.
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1843: Great Migration on the Oregon Trail
Western expansion in the 1800s is a key piece of the American story, and the Great Emigration of 1843 along the Oregon Trail showed millions the way west.
In May of 1843, 875 pioneers in 100 wagons left Missouri – 700 made it to Oregon five months later. Their story was splashed all over newspapers of the day and inspired a generation of Americans to go west. The Oregon Territory and Its Pioneers lists settlers arriving in Oregon from 1811 to 1855 and is full of stories, photos, and information.
To discover records about your ancestors that went west, whether in the original migrations or later, read this guide.
1845-1850: Great Irish Potato Famine
In 1845, a potato blight wiped out the potato crop in Ireland, destroying the main source of food for the people. The crops failed for another five years, and the British government’s indifferent and incompetent response compounded the disaster. It is estimated that a million people in Ireland died of starvation and disease, another 1.5 million fled the country for America, while still more moved to England, Australia, and other countries.
Even as the potato crop recovered, people continued to leave Ireland to join family and friends and seek opportunities in the United States.
The diaspora was crippling to Ireland, which lost more than half its population and has never recovered, but it enriched the United States with needed laborers, great leaders, and rich culture. Today, 10 percent of Americans claim Irish ancestry, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.
The National Archives offers a free online database of Irish immigrants who arrived in New York between 1846 and 1851. You can search the Famine Irish Passenger Record Data File here.
You can learn more about researching your Irish ancestors in this article as well. And don’t forget to check out the immigration resources mentioned throughout this article.
1846-1848: Mexican-American War
The Mexican-American War pitted American manifest destiny against politically fragile Mexico. In the aftermath, Mexico ceded 500,000 square miles of territory to the United States ranging from Texas to California and as far north as southern Wyoming.
Military service records from this war for Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, and the Mormon Battalion are available on FamilySearch.
To learn more about Mexican-American ancestors read our guide.
1848: Democratic Revolutions in Europe
In 1848, a surge of protests against monarchy and feudalism began in Germany and spread across Europe, but failed to make the political and social gains the protesters had hoped for. This touched off a major wave of emigration to the United States. These immigrants were known as “Forty-Eighters,” many entering through Galveston, Texas.
The Galveston Historical Society offers a free immigration database where you can search for your Forty-Eighter ancestors and others who arrived through this port.
1849-1857: The California Gold Rush
News that gold was discovered in California in 1848 touched off a mass migration that ballooned California’s non-native population from 8,000 to 380,000 in eight years.
To explore your family’s Gold Rush history, check these sources:
August 1, 1855: Castle Garden Opens in New York
Before there was Ellis Island, there was Castle Garden, and we can thank the opening of this immigration processing center for the ship manifest database by that name.
Like the Steerage Act, Castle Garden was created to protect new immigrants while imposing order on the growing flow of newcomers. Thieves and con artists had roamed the docks, preying on bewildered new arrivals right off the boat and leaving them on the streets of New York penniless.
Castle Garden, run by the City and State of New York, provided a safe haven for new immigrants to get reliable information on jobs and housing while allowing public health authorities to examine them and detain – or sometimes deport – the sick. Learn more about Castle Garden records here or search the database here.
1861-1865 and 1865-1877: The Civil War and Reconstruction
Four years of fighting between the Union and the Confederacy left more than 600,000 Americans dead – the impact of which we still feel today. And it’s no secret that this war left behind many records.
Reconstruction, the period following the war where rebuilding the nation, reintegration of the 11 Confederate states, redress for slavery and the rights of previously enslaved persons were the focus, also produced a variety of genealogical records.
Whether your ancestors fought for the North or the South, were freed from slavery, or were influenced in some other way by this pivotal war, you can begin your search with this helpful article or by looking here.
Our African-American genealogy research guide also offers help for finding and using records created during reconstruction and researching slave ancestors and freedmen.
January 1, 1892: Ellis Island Opens in New York
In 1890, the U.S. government decided it should assume responsibility for processing the increasing tide of immigrants. Ellis Island was its first and largest processing center. More than 12 million people passed through the center between 1892 and 1956 when it closed.
Ellis Island is deeply ingrained in the American story, with millions of families viewing it as the place where they became Americans. The Statue of Liberty Ellis Island Foundation maintains a free database that picks up where Castle Garden leaves off. You can create an account and search the database of 65 million records for free, but there is a charge to download manifest images. This article will guide you.
1914-1918: World War I
World War I began between the Allies and the Central Powers in Europe. Though most of the fighting occurred in Europe, countries around the globe were drawn into the war. When the United States entered in 1917, men ages 18 to 45 were required to register for the draft.
You can search 24 million U.S. draft registration cards for free at FamilySearch or search this database of United Kingdom Service Records for 1914-1920. The website The World Remembers features a database of World War I dead from 11 countries on both sides.
August 14, 1935: Social Security Act
With this act, the U.S. government began issuing Social Security numbers to American workers in 1937. Though originally conceived as a retirement benefit, today, a Social Security number has become the de facto identifier that a person exists in the American economy.
For genealogists, the driving feature of Social Security is the modest death benefit paid to survivors. When this benefit is issued, the deceased is added to the Social Security Death Index. The index proves the deceased name, birth date, death date, and residence at the time of death.
You can search the Social Security Death Index for free on FamilySearch.
1939-1945: World War II
In contrast with World War I, World War II combat troops were engaged all over the world, from Europe to the Pacific Ocean. The United States officially entered the fight on Dec. 8, 1941, and some 16 million Americans served in the conflict.
The National Archives website has several valuable databases that are free to search including United States Army Enlistment Records, American Prisoners of War, and Japanese Americans forced to relocate to internment camps.
Learn more about the important draft records associated with WWII here.
These major moments in history did more than shape those involved – they left precious paper trails that family historians can use to discover their ancestors. Explore these historical events and records and start adding fascinating details to your family tree.
Linda Kush is a freelance writer and genealogist in Boston. Her book, “The Rice Paddy Navy,” began as a family history project. She is gratified that it has helped family historians whose fathers and grandfathers served with her father in China in the U.S. Navy during World War II.
Image: Nevada, wagon train. Photograph shows teams of six mules and one horse attached to three wagons on dirt road; man sitting atop lead wagon. Library of Congress.