Beyond Ellis Island records: How do I find immigrant forbears?

BY: 

Dear Professor Gates:

All of my grandparents emigrated from St. Kitts. Records of my paternal grandparents are available on the Ellis Island website between 1912 and 1922, but none of my maternal grandparents can be located, although, based on the 1910 U.S. federal census and the 1915 New York state census, they arrived in the United States between 1898 and 1901. Are there other databases with immigrant information? —Suzanne Clark

Yours is a common concern for the descendants of immigrants. We certainly do have some alternate sources that you or anyone with immigrant kin can check, but before we reveal them, we’d like you to consider the following.

Were Your Ancestors’ Names Misspelled?

One reason you have not been able to locate your immigrant ancestors’ passenger lists could be that their surnames or given names are spelled differently on passenger lists than what you have seen in other records. Another possibility is that the individuals who indexed their passenger records may have mistakenly misspelled their names.

In addition to the Ellis Island Foundation’s passenger-list database, there are other websites, both subscription-based and free, that have various passenger-list databases. FamilySearch has a number of free databases available on its website, including New York, Passenger Arrival Lists (Ellis Island), 1892-1924. Subscription-based Ancestry.com also has a number of immigration-related databases, including New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957.

When searching these databases, one is able to search for variant spellings of surnames, as well as search a range of years, birthplaces and ages for the individual in question. Widening your search may help you locate an ancestor in these records. It is important to note that although your immigrant ancestors resided in New York, there is a possibility that they arrived in the United States through a port other than New York, which may account for their absence in the Ellis Island database.

Try Naturalization Records

If you still find that you are having difficulty locating your ancestors’ immigration information, there are other sources that may help you narrow your search. If your ancestors became naturalized citizens, naturalization records oftentimes provide information regarding an immigrant’s arrival date in the United States.

Note that prior to 1922, women were seldom naturalized individually and instead received naturalization status through their husbands. Checking U.S. census records is one way to determine whether an ancestor became a naturalized citizen. Federal census records for the years 1900, 1910, 1920 and 1930 include information on an individual’s year of arrival, naturalization status and year of naturalization. “NA” indicates that a person is a naturalized citizen; “PA” shows that the individual has begun the process of becoming a naturalized citizen; and “AL” means that he or she has not submitted the documentation to start the process of becoming a U.S. citizen. Depending on who provided the census taker with this information, the immigration and naturalization dates may not be accurate on these census records, but they will provide you with a starting point for determining when and if your ancestors became naturalized citizens.

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