Immigration and Naturalization Records

Family history researchers in this country have a fascination with the idea of our immigrant ancestors. We want to see their names on a ship's passenger list. We want to find our ancestral home in the "Old Country." These goals are not always easily met. Successfully identifying the origin of an immigrant ancestor requires a lot of work on this side of the pond. Search all records created by your ancestor and his siblings in this country first.

Clues to Immigrant Origin

Family tradition says that your immigrant ancestor "left Germany before the Civil War and entered America through Ellis Island." Before you start examining passenger lists for New York, do your homework. Clues to the point of origin and the date of immigration may exist in any of the records the class has already studied.

Don't forget that clues to a family's origin may be found in the records of any family member, not just your ancestor's. In addition, immigrants tended to remain together, especially in the early days of their immigrant experience. If the clues found in your subject family's records are sparse, search records of their fellow church members or neighbors whose origins as shown in census records are similar.

When you have completed your search of these records, it is time to search for passenger lists and naturalization records.

Passenger Lists

"The Steerage Act"

On March 2, 1819, Congress passed the Steerage Act. Among the provisions in this act was one which required that passenger lists (manifests) of all vessels arriving in the United States be delivered to the local Collector of Customs. Effectively, this act divided immigrant research into two categories: the search for immigrants entering the country before 1820 and the search for those who entered the country after that date.

Finding immigrants who entered the country before 1820

To ensure a chance of successfully finding your ancestor on a ship's manisfest, you must know his or her full original name, including all variations, the approximate date of arrival and the approximate age of arrival. With that information, begin your search for pre-1820 passenger lists with Passenger and Immigration Lists Index: A Guide to Published Arrival Records of More Than 1,775,000 Passengers Who Came to the New World between the Sixteenth and the Early Twentieth Centuries, edited by P. William Filby with Mary K. Meyer. This massive work, called Filby's for short, is available in most public libraries. Remember that this is an index to published passenger lists only. Many of the published works cited in this index are available at your local library or the Library of Congress. In addition, the Burton Historical Collection of the Detroit Public Library, maintains copies of all works indexed in Filby's. Contact the library for current policy on obtaining photocopies of the requisite pages.

Although Filby's indexes only published passenger lists, other indexes may include unpublished lists as well. These indexes usually examine passengers by group:

Don't forget that ports of embarkation also kept passenger lists. For further information on availability and location of these embarkation lists, see The Source (Eakle and Cerny, Salt Lake City: Ancestry, Inc., 1984), Chapter 15, pages 458-461.

"Pennsylvania State Archives Ships Lists"

Finding those original ship's lists which predate 1820 may be difficult. Most no longer exist, and those that do are not in a centralized location. In order of probability, early original passenger lists may be in the state archives, the state historical society library, courthouse or town hall, local library or historical society. The Family History Library has microfilmed some of these original lists, so search the Family History Library Catalogue. Perform a Place Search using the name of the port city. Passenger lists will usually be listed under the topic "Emigration and Immigration." If your immigrant ancestor arrived during the early colonial period, you may never find his or her name on a passenger list. However, documenting the approximate time of arrival in the New World may allow you to state that your ancestor may have sailed on one of only a few vessels.

Finding immigrants who entered the country from 1820 through 1891
(Bureau of Customs period)

Immigration Records at NARA
Immigration Records at NARA

As of 1 January 1820, passenger manifests for ships entering a United States port were a federal requirement. Therefore, these lists are federal records and are held by the National Archives in Washington, D.C. As with most federal records, multiple copies may exist for these passenger manifests. The original lists were made in duplicate. One copy was sent to the Bureau of Customs (RG 36) and the other was kept by the ship captain. These U.S. Customs passenger manifests cover the period 1820-1891. Additional copies and quarterly abstracts were made for the Department of State from 1820-1874. The Department of State then made transcripts of the manifests from 1820-1832, which have been printed in eight volumes. In addition, many ports kept their own copies. As in all duplicated records, these lists are not identical, nor are all still extant. Therefore, you may need to search for lists in repositories other than the National Archives.

These Customs manifests were made on forms printed by the individual shipping companies and were therefore different in format and content; but all included the following information required by law: name, age, sex, occupation, and place of origin. Note that a list of Deaths, Births, and Stowaways is usually found at the end of the Customs lists.

Immigrant and Passenger Arrivals: Select Catalog of NARA Microfilm Publications
NARA Pasenger Arrivals Microfilm Catalogue

Passenger lists are arranged by port in chronological order of ship's arrival. Therefore, unless you know the port, ship, and date of arrival you must first search the various passenger lists indexes. There are overlaps in these indexes and some major gaps. Check all available indexes if you cannot find an ancestor in the more common indexes. Note that some of the indexes were made from port copies or state copies of passenger lists. As with all indexes, there are frequent omissions and serious misspellings.

Because an ancestor is not found in a passenger list index does not mean he was not on the original list. For unindexed time periods, such as New York from 1847-1896, you must try to narrow your search. There are several resources which may help you identify the ship on which your immigrant sailed to the United States. All are available in the National Archives research room.

Basic search strategy for an immigrant arriving in the port of New York in an unindexed time period:
  1. Find the year of entry (census)
  2. Determine the probable port of embarkation
  3. Find the names of ships sailing from that port to New York during that year
  4. Find their dates of arrival in New York
  5. Search microfilm rolls covering that time period

Finding immigrants who entered the country from 1891 through circa 1959
(Immigration and Naturalization Service period)

In 1891, responsibility for immigration and naturalization records was turned over to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (RG 85). These original immigration passenger manifests for the period 1891-1957 are also on microfilm at the National Archives. Forms for recording passenger information were standardized by the Immigration and Naturalization Service; and by 1907, the information required had grown to 36 columns and included: marriage, last residence, final destination, in the U.S. before, relatives in the U.S., read or write, amount of money on hand, who paid passage, race or people, town of birth, physical description, name and address of closest relative in the native country.

Search Ellis Island Records
Ellis Island Passenger Manifests Index

One of the most important resources available for research in passenger lists is the American Family Immigration History Center online containing an index to the Ellis Island passenger manifests for the period 1892-1924. Also available on this site are photographs of some of the passenger ships and images of the original manifests. Note that the links to the images are sometimes incorrect. If you have trouble finding the correct image, visit Tips for Using the Ellis Island Online Database 1892-1924. This site will allow you to search passenger manifests directly. By the way, Ellis Island opened in 1892, so if your family legend states that your ancestor came to this country through Ellis Island before the Civil War, there is a mistake somewhere.

By Way of Canada: U.S. Records of Immigration across the U.S.-Canadian Border, 1895-1954 (St. Albans Lists) by Marian L. Smith
"St. Albans Lists" by Marian L. Smith

Not all immigration occurred through ship's ports. There are also border manifests for border crossings from Canada and Mexico. These lists were kept on cards and are therefore self-indexed. Canadian crossings were recorded from about 1893; Mexican crossings from 1905. Manifests for the St. Albans District and Detroit have been microfilmed. They are all at the National Archives.

Naturalization Records

Naturalization Records at NARA
Naturalization Records at NARA

From passage of the first naturalization law in 1790 through most of the twentieth century, an immigrant could be naturalized in any court of record. Although technically federal records, before 1906 you will usually find an immigrant's naturalization records in the federal, state or local court most convenient to him, not in the National Archives. There are a few exceptions. Some naturalization records from local courts in California and Washington have been donated to NARA. There are also three indexes available at the National Archives:

Naturalizations performed in Federal courts are housed in the Regional Archives branch serving the respective states.

Naturalization was usually a two-step process requiring five years.

These papers did not need to be filed in the same court, nor did every court require both papers. There are exceptions to the filing rules, the most notable being that of "derivative" citizenship granted to a wife and minor children. Changes in the laws governing citizenship for women will affect your research on female ancestors, both immigrant and native-born. Read Marian L. Smith's excellent article, "Women and Naturalization, ca. 1802-1940" for more detailed information on this subject.

The Family History Library has microfilmed many of the naturalization records created before September 1906. Perform a Place search in the Family History Library Catalog using the county where your ancestor resided at the time he was naturalized. Look for the "Naturalization and citizenship" topic and check the available records.

Historical Records Series
Historical Records Series

The U.S. Naturalization Service was created 27 September 1906 and all naturalizations which took place after this date will be found in the Naturalization Certificate Files (C-Files) of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. C-Files from 1906 to 1956 have been microfilmed and are available through the Freedom of Information Act. This bureau was reorganized as the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services under the Department of Homeland Security in 2003. The USCIS maintains an excellent web site. If your ancestors immigrated after 1906, please study the information provided in their section on Genealogy. You can now make a genealogy request for information online. Follow the instructions, requesting an index search first, then requesting a copy of these naturalization certificates or any of the other record types detailed below.

Other immigration records held by the USCIS include:


Passport Applications at NARA
Passport Applications at NARA

Passport Application, example
Passport Application, page one

Passport Application, page two

Passports have been issued by the federal government since 1789. These are documents issued to citizens, but that class included naturalized citizens; and for the periods 1863-1866 and 1907-1920 it also included aliens who had filed their intent to become naturalized. The National Archives has two microfilm publications containing passport applications. Note that passport applications issued after 31 March 1925 are held by the State Department and are protected by the Privacy Act. You can obtain copies of your application only.

Two microfilm indexes exist for these applications, although note that the entire time period is not covered by an index.

The National Archives Online Resources

The National Archives and its regional branches house much of our country's original immigration and naturalization records. Although only samples of these records are currently available through the Archives web site,, those samples, various electronic databases, and excellent articles provide a rich education for the genealogist. Here are some of my favorites.

ARC (Archival Research Catalog) Gallery: Immigration and Naturalization

Although NARA's Access to Archival Databases (AAD) does not contain links to digital copies, the section on Passenger Lists indexes roughly 2.3 million names organized by ethnicity.

But I Really Just Want to Find Them!

Manifest Markings
"Manifest Markings" by Marian L. Smith's U.S. Immigration Records

By this time, most of you students have realized that I find the records we use fascinating, and I feel that the more you know about those records, how they were created, how they were maintained, what they say, and what they mean, the more likely you are to find those records, find your ancestors in them, and correctly interpret what those records mean. If you depend only on online indexes, you may miss a valuable record. When it comes to immigration records, however, the number one source bypasses all the hard work:, a subscription site. This link will take you to the immigration search page, which also includes information on the collection and lists the available records: US Immigration Collection.

Highlights from this collection include:

When searching's collection, keep in mind the fact that name's the same doesn't mean you've found the right person. Ideally, origin, destination, dates, and associates should correlate.

Don't forget the principles for searching online indexes:

Immigration and Naturalization Records at

Ancestry is not the only source for images of immigration-related documents. Footnote now has a growing collection of naturalization documents and indexes. Included among these are:

The One-Step Webpages

The Ellis Island website's search possibilities are not always easy to use. Steve Morse's One-Step Webpages were created to overcome these limitations. Not only do these pages streamline the search for immigrant ancestors, they allow the researcher direct access to the NARA microfilm rolls, a necessity, given the fact that the Ellis Island site's holdings cover only the years 1892-1924 for New York, and the site, although it provides wonderful coverage, doesn't index some of the specialized lists, nor is its browsing capability user-friendly. In addition, Steve provides "one-step" access to ship lists at the various ports, as well as "one-step" searches of a variety of sites covering ships' pictures, ship histories, and the Morton Allan Directory of Steamship Arrivals

Use these links to explore the One-Step Webpages:

Web Sites

Background Information
Online Indexes and Lists
Links Lists

Please mail comments and suggestions to Susan Johnston at Email me