Thanks to statistics and how history played out, the odds are that your family hasn’t been in America for more than a few hundred years at most. This means that, at some point, someone in your family line immigrated to America. When did my ancestors come to America?
Immigrants to the United States are usually documented via records or annotated on the census. Use historical clues to set an estimated timeline and then search the available immigration and census records to verify or adjust the narrative.
Ready to discover when your ancestors came to America? Keep reading – and let’s discover some cool historical facts about our families and immigration together!
How to Find Out When Your Ancestors Came to America
If you just want to have an idea of when your ancestors came to America, then you may not need to do all of these steps. But if we’re going to take any of these steps, let’s take them all – and do the genealogy job right. That way, future generations will not only know exactly when your family first came to America, but they’ll have historical proof of that time.
Oh, and before we dive too deeply into things, let’s do a quick vocabulary review. Because we’re about to see two very similar-looking words a lot: emigration and immigration. What’s the difference between the two?
Well, that’s a whole other topic. But the quick semantics lesson is this:
- Immigration is when you go IN and live in another country. Example: my grandfather immigrated to the USA.
- Emigration is when you EXIT a country. Example: my grandfather emigrated from Sweden.
Got it? Awesome. Both ends (the country of origin and the destination) may have paperwork – so remember to check them both.
1. Define Your Family’s Current Immigration Narrative
Start by asking family members (and/or checking the family genealogical charts or memory books) to see what the current family narrative (or belief) on immigration is. Ask grandparents or great-grandparents or cousins or whoever you can.
If there isn’t a family narrative, that’s okay, too. Some families don’t currently know when or how they came to the USA – and that’s fine. We’re going to help you know how to find out how to find that first point of immigration to the USA. Some families don’t know exactly where in the world their family originated. This can be due to an intentional choice made by an ancestor, language barriers, the fact that an ancestor didn’t immigrate willingly, enslavement, or other reasons.
If you aren’t sure where to start, a DNA test may be a great first step. A DNA test can help you with several vital pieces of information.
- A DNA test can give you access to ethnicity estimates. These estimates have improved (and continue to do so) with each additional person who adds to the database.
- These tests can give you a list of places where your ancestors likely used to live.
- The real goldmine of information is the potential for meeting living relatives.
Being able to meet and collaborate with living relatives is amazing. Not only will they be able to help you with your family tree, but you’ll be able to help them, too. Plus, they may be able to help you narrow your search for that specific ancestor’s immigration information. Read our article analyzing which genealogy-based DNA test is best right here. Or feel free to skip right to our DNA test recommendations.
Now that you have a time frame or timeline, we have a starting reference point. From here, we’ll either verify and confirm that information – or we’ll find more accurate information. In either case, we’re going to go on a genealogical detective hunt to discover more about our family’s story.
For example, my family’s narrative included the information that my great-grandfather emigrated from Sweden to Utah in the 1880s. That gives me a starting point, although it’s still a whole decade of papers to search. Let’s see if I can’t narrow that down with a census.
2. Use Census Records to Verify or Disprove the Timeline
Census records are amazing. And we’ll discuss how to use them further on in this same article. Even so, they’re a great starting point because you can use them to (relatively quickly) verify or change your expected timeline for immigration.
And, if you sign up for a free FamilySearch.org account, then you can search the publicly-available census records for free. Simply input what you do know about your family – and search the census records. Plus, FamilySearch uses a shared-tree format that could give you even more information if another relative or user has done any research on a shared family line.
One more hint: the 1900-1930 census records are especially helpful in helping you determine immigration information. So even if you’re starting with an earlier-than-desired ancestor, search those census records. They can give you some amazing clues that will save you time further down the genealogical research road.
In any case, using the census, I was able to discover that my great-grandfather immigrated in 1888. That’s only one year – and a much better (and narrower) timeline than a whole decade!
3. Find and Record Immigration Records
Now that you have a better idea of the timeline, it’s time to go search the immigration records and collections. There are a ton to choose from. But because you know when (and hopefully where) to search from, you don’t have to search through each and every collection.
Instead, you can do a more generalized search. Both FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com have some great, generalized search options. Between the two, I think Ancestry.com’s is better (it’s bigger and easier), but it’s really hard to beat the free and awesomeness of FamilySearch.org.
Even so, using Ancestry.com’s search function, I was quickly able to discover my great-grandfather’s name on the manifest records of a ship named the Arizona in 1888. Okay, so he was listed under nickname. So make sure you use those wild card search functions – or do a search using commonly misspelled versions of the name. Because I can see how an English-speaking person could get “Carl” from a thickly-accented Swedish teen saying “Charles.” That and he used the two names pretty interchangeably.
Be sure to search several databases. And be persistent. I’ve searched for Carl/Charles’ information for a long time – and it’s only just now that I’ve finally found it. And even then, if Breanne hadn’t pointed out the census information and alternate name tricks, I’d still be looking.
4. Find and Record Emigration Records (if available)
Now that you know where your ancestor arrived from, you can use that (and their country of origin) to find any emigration records. Or, if there aren’t any, you’ve at least got a head start in looking for any records of your ancestors in another country. Or in multiple countries, if the case may be.
For example, my great-grandfather’s ship came from England and Ireland, but he’s from Sweden. So I could look in all three places for paperwork for him. Odds are best that I’ll find the most in Sweden, though, as either Ireland or Liverpool were probably just a quick stop on the ship’s route.
5. Expand Your Search to Your Family’s Original Homeland
Now that you know where your family is from make sure you follow that paper trail for more hints and clues about your family. Or at least note it so that you can follow it later. 🙂 It’s a whole other topic, so we’ll save it for another article.
But even so, one day, you might want to know when an ancestor’s siblings immigrated to the United States. Or other cool family facts. So make sure you annotate things – and have the information from the other countries for later.
6. Search Other Records for Immigration (and Emigration) Information
Now that we’ve got an idea of what has (or hasn’t) worked, let’s expand your search for your ancestor’s immigration records. Here are some other places you will want to look for their names.
- Ship Passenger Lists or Manifests – Depending on your ancestor’s status at the time, they may be listed as a passenger, an indentured servant, or as cargo if they were an enslaved person.
- Ellis Island Immigration Records – Ellis Island was a popular stopping point for immigrants, though it wasn’t the only place they stopped. This is a big enough topic that we’ll cover later in this article.
- Harbor Records – If your ancestor disembarked for American living at another harbor, that might be noted in the correlating harbor’s records.
- Quarantine Records – If your ancestor was ill at their arrival to America, they might have had to quarantine on the boat (or somewhere else, depending on the exact timing and location). It’s possible that the record of illness (and who was quarantined where) was kept as a public health record, as a private journal entry, or as some other type of record.
- Private Journals or Memoirs – If your ancestor kept a private journal that’s still accessible, that might be a treasure trove of information about their immigration history. If it’s not already, make sure you digitize it and preserve it for future generations.
- Business Logs and Contracts – If your ancestor immigrated as an employee or an indentured servant, they might also have some sort of a contract or a log noted.
- Records of Enslaved Peoples – Enslaved people were unfairly dehumanized and weren’t usually mentioned on the ship’s passenger list. Instead, they may be mentioned under the cargo manifests. If they’re not mentioned specifically in a ship-based list, they may be mentioned in a slavery market or sales log.
Depending on the timeline, where they docked, and other factors, some or none of these will be applicable to your ancestor’s story. Don’t be discouraged. Keep searching. Find what you can. And then be sure to write it down!
7. Cite Your Resources
Now that you know more about your timeline (and it’s been verified or adjusted with the help of the census records), it’s time to pause and record the immigration information we’ve learned to date.
Ideally, you’d cite your resources in a perfect, standardized way. I’m still learning what that is (much to Breanne’s chagrin). So in the meantime, do your best.
It doesn’t have to be fancy – but you do want to write it down. And if you write down (and save digital and paper copies) each source as you go, then you won’t have to repeat work later on when you forget a piece of information.
Seriously. Go write it down. Save those sources. Cite them. And save your family from having to repeat all the work you just did.
If you have FamilySearch, it has a sources section. There, you can easily save any of your search results. Or, if you found the information on another database, you can upload images and store them. Just be sure to save the search information – and how you found it, too.
Did Your Ancestors Come Through Ellis Island?
Whether or not your ancestor came through Ellis Island is going to depend on when and where they arrived. It’s estimated that 40% of people living in the USA today can trace at least one ancestor through Ellis Island. However, there were other immigration hubs in Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, San Francisco, and New Orleans.
Even so, in its 62 years of working existence, more than 12 million immigrants came through Ellis Island. So there’s a chance that your ancestors did come through there – depending on the timing.
So the first step in determining where to search is looking at the date your ancestor immigrated – and then see if you know where they first landed in the USA.
For example, my great-grandfather emigrated from Sweden to Utah in the 1880s. For reasons that will become clear in the next section of this article, this means that he did not go through Ellis Island. This means that I’ll have to look for his travel paperwork (like his name on the ship’s manifest) elsewhere.
Even so, if you aren’t exactly sure of where to start your search, go ahead and give the Ellis Island database a quick search. It’s easy, quick, and a lot of fun to use. But if you don’t find your ancestor there? Don’t despair. There are a lot of other places to look.
When Did Ellis Island Records Start and End?
Ellis Island kept immigration records starting January 1, 1892, and its last document is dated from November 1954. Not all of the records before 1897 are available, though. Don’t worry – we’ll talk about why in a moment. But first, more history!
The number of people who came through Ellis Island after 1924 significantly dropped for two reasons.
- First, because most immigrants’ paperwork was processed via the US Consulates’ offices worldwide.
- Second, the USA began to limit the number of immigrants allowed into its borders.
Even so, any immigrant with issues that needed to be resolved was referred to Ellis Island. So despite the drop in use, Ellis Island still processed more than half of the total immigrants who came to the USA. Between 1924 and 1954, that was still several million people!
To read more about the history of Ellis Island, be sure to check out the Ellis Island website – click here to go there in a new window now.
Now – why aren’t all of the records from 1892 to 1897 available? Easy – they were destroyed. Ellis Island had a fire in June of 1897 that burned many of the existing records.
So if you’re looking for a ship’s manifest from before June 1897, then you probably won’t be able to find it (as it was most likely destroyed in that fire). However, you can check the US customs’ office for records that should contain most (if not all) of the same information from the ship’s manifest logs. You can click here to go to the Ellis Island passenger and ship search database. Please note that if that link is still being updated, you can also access the database here.
How to Use Census Records to Track Ancestors Across the United States
Census records are genealogical gold mines. Seriously. They are an amazing repository of information about entire families. And all of the major sites (including FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com) offer access to the census records between 1790 and 1940.
Oh, and did we mention that FamilySearch is free? It’s the best free genealogical software out there – you can read our rationale for why that is in our article here.
In any case, start by checking the census year (they’re taken every decade) closest to when your ancestor died. Or if you know that your ancestor moved out of the United States, look at the census right before they moved. From there, move backward by each census (decade) to keep looking for that ancestor.
Despite the census having a singular purpose, each census record asks for and kept different types of information. In our experience, the 1900-1930 census records are, in particular, amazing treasure troves of information. They have information about immigration, parents, parental birth places, heritage, children, education levels, and so much more.
So as you find your ancestors on the census records, pay attention to all of those clues and details. They’ll help you find your ancestor’s immigration information.
For example, my great-grandfather is easily found in all of the census records between 1910-1930. He was a missionary abroad in 1900, so he wasn’t counted in that census. Comparing all of that information, it looks like one census recorder wrote down his information wrong – but the other two confirm that he emigrated from Sweden in 1888 and became a naturalized citizen at that same time.
I still haven’t found his naturalization papers yet – but if you want to read about how to find those (and how I found the wrong Charles’ paperwork), that’s a good way to find more information, too. Click here to read our article on finding citizenship paperwork next.
What if My Ancestor Isn’t a Documented Immigrant?
If there aren’t any documents detailing an ancestor’s immigration history to America, don’t despair. There are lots of situations where those documents were destroyed or never available in the first place. In some cases, an ancestor may have chosen to bypass the immigration process purposely.
If that’s the case, you should still be able to find historical evidence of those ancestors. You may need to get a little bit more creative in searching for names, dates, and other clues that let you find those ancestors on the census records or in other documentation. You may also need to rely more on personal documents rather than public ones.
For example, one of my family lines was notorious for distrusting government officials. Living relatives have verified that fact! And given their emigration history, I can empathize even if it is frustrating. In any case, every census record focuses on different names and pieces of information. They didn’t lie to the official census takers, but they sure didn’t try to use uniform information across them. It’s frustrating trying to track that line and amazingly rewarding when I find new clues.
But just because an ancestor is undocumented doesn’t mean there won’t be other documents about them. It just means you have to be more creative in finding what is available.
Discovering when your ancestors came to America is a rewarding process, albeit one that takes some time. However, if you use this systematic approach to doing so, it’ll go much faster and easier than any other way. And it’s definitely faster than a blind search!
Before writing this article, I’d known that my great-grandfather Charles had emigrated from Sweden as a teenager. But I didn’t have any paperwork with his name on it to prove (or disprove) that family factoid. And I’d spent a good bit of time trying to find proof of his immigration.
In the space of time that it took me to write this with Breanne’s guidance, I was able to find some amazing pieces of information. Here’s what I discovered in just a few short hours.
- The name of the ship he emigrated on (Arizona – and the dramatic irony isn’t lost on this Arizona girl) and a picture of the ship
- The ship’s manifest with his name on it
- The date he landed – and the port where he landed
- A manifest of a ship from when he went back to his homeland as a missionary
So while it still took a few hours, it’s tons faster than it used to be. Thank you to everyone who’s participated in indexing these records in the past. And an even bigger thank-you to everyone who continues to work on indexing these vital historical and genealogical records.
So seriously – give this systematic process a go. And if you find that we’ve missed a resource or you need some help, use our contact us page to let us know so we can keep this up-to-date and as helpful as possible.
How Many Generations Ago Was America Founded? America was founded between 7-10 generations ago. There is a range as a generation may commonly be defined as 25, 29, 30, or 33 years in length. For more information on how to calculate generations or how long ago other common events took place (measured in generations), read our article on it right here.
Will I Need to Hire a Genealogist to Help Me Find My Granddad? If you are unable to find the information you want, it may be time to ask a genealogist for help. However, you may be able to find that information by asking a hobbyist or a genealogist who does pro bono work. Read our article on when to hire a genealogist for more ideas – and details on when you actually need to hire professional help.
How Much Does it Cost to Hire a Genealogist? Hiring an individual genealogist costs an average of $65 per hour, while a team of genealogists costs doubles that fee. We asked dozens of genealogists what their fees and requirements are – and compiled that data into this cost analysis article here.
- “Family History Center.” Statue of Liberty & Ellis Island, 21 Aug. 2020, www.statueofliberty.org/ellis-island/family-history-center/.
- “Ellis Island.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 27 Oct. 2009, www.history.com/topics/immigration/ellis-island.
- Overview History: Ellis Island. 14 July 2020, www.statueofliberty.org/ellis-island/overview-history/.
Last names are a lot of fun - but sometimes they aren't super easy to track. Then again, it's also a lot easier to track family history when you've got a family surname to help you make sure you've...
While dating my now-husband, it made me laugh when people asked him if he was related to famous people with his same last name. Now that we're married, though, I'm getting that same question about...