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How to find your first American ancestor

Find my past author
Findmypast
11 November 2019

Discover the records you need and learn some handy research tips to keep you on track.

If you're from North America and are just getting started in family history research, one of the best jumping-off points to your past is to discover the first of your ancestors from these shores.

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Find American ancestors and so much more

America is a nation founded on immigration. For centuries, people have traveled from around the world to start a new life and new legacies in the United States, and the chances are that your family is no different. Here, we'll run you through the potential resources to discover your first American ancestor.

Published in collaboration with The National Archives in London, this incredible record set comes from a time where permission – or a licence – would be needed in order to travel abroad. This record set contains the details of those who applied for such licences.

There are records of people traveling to New England, Barbados and other British colonies from 1634-1639, as well as one register from 1677. In addition, the record set contains the oath of allegiance taken by British soldiers as they traveled to serve in the Low Countries, meaning that if you have British ancestry, there's a lot you can discover.

Almost 30 distinct travel collections make up this mammoth resource, including:

New York Passenger Lists & Arrivals

This massive collection of 62 million records covers 1820-1957, the height of immigration through Castle Gardens and Ellis Island in New York. If your family immigrated to America during that period, these records present a fantastic opportunity to find them.

Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Passenger Lists, 1800-1948

Over 3.3 million records that can help you to discover more about your ancestors who arrived in Philadelphia. These records tell you names, ages, citizenship, birth country, arrival year, arrival city and more. The beauty of arrival records is that they're not as limited by departure point as departure records, so these records contain details of people from all over the world.

California, Los Angeles, San Pedro, and Wilmington Passenger Lists, 1900-1948

If your family arrived on the west coast rather than the east, you may find them in this collection of over 400,000 Californian passenger lists, showing the names, ages, birth places and arrival dates of passengers arriving in California.

Baltimore passenger lists 1846-1851

This record set includes transcripts and images for over 1.5 million records, with details of those who came to Baltimore over a 137 year period. Discover names, places of origin, ages, dates of arrival and more.

If you're of British or Irish heritage, this collection of around 99 million handpicked records can be vital in tracing your first American ancestor. The information given in the records varies, however you can usually expect destination, port of origin, age, name and often the class in which they traveled and whether their intent was to stay in the US or return home.

Taken from the height of the Great Famine in Ireland, this collection of over 90,000 records is part of the history of the Irish in Boston. A record of people fleeing devastation in search of a new life abroad, this could be essential to understanding your Irish family history.

It can be difficult to know where to start looking to find your ancestors who immigrated to America from overseas, but there are many techniques that you can use to get started searching for your origin ancestors, or those ancestors of yours who first immigrated to America. Once you overcome and break through the immigration brick wall, there's a new world of records for you to search next.

How to find immigrant ancestors

Here are 11 tips to help you trace your immigrant ancestors and to start breaking through that brick wall in no time.

1. Create a timeline

When working with immigration records, it's important to have a clearly defined timeline created for your ancestor so that you can dive into the records more easily and narrow your search. Having an approximate date range of when your ancestor immigrated is key to starting your research so that you can narrow where to look, particularly when searching the records outlined above.

2. Location is key

It's also important to have a clear understanding of the location(s) of your immigrant ancestor, as having their location can help you narrow down your search since the naturalization process may have occurred over multiple courts and locations.

3. Get rummaging

A great place to start is to do a search around your house for clues that might point you in the right direction. Look for family bibles, heirlooms from another country, postcards, journals, books with inscriptions written in them, photographs, etc. don't leave any stone unturned, you never know what may be the key to uncovering vital migration details about your ancestors.

4. Check census records

If your ancestor immigrated to the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the US Census records can provide you with clues to help you narrow down your search for immigration records. The US Census records have sections for citizenship as well as naturalization of the person and parents of the person listed, so it can help you determine which ancestor came over and where from.

Narrowing dates can be a little bit more complex, so it's best to use the census records as a starting point. As with all records, keep in mind that some of the data might not be 100% accurate as the census data was collected verbally from the head of household and wasn't fact-checked by the enumerators.

One tip to keep in mind is that often immigrants didn't begin the naturalization process until after they had been in the country for a few years, so be careful with this data because it could be either data derived from the head of household's memory or it could be inaccurate because of the way they chose to report it.

US Census abbreviations

If you see abbreviations in the census under the naturalization columns they can provide clues about your ancestor's naturalization process and can help guide your search.

5. Look for place of origin

If you can pinpoint where your immigrant ancestor lived before they immigrated to the United States, it will help you narrow your search. You can often find this information in records you've likely already searched previously. Church records, school records, marriage records, death records, gravestone inscriptions, etc. can all reveal hints about where your ancestor may have lived prior to journeying overseas. The census records can help you narrow down the country at least.

6. Stay organized

Even if you don't find anything or find possibilities, track down everything you've searched. If you're organized while you search then it will be easier for you to put the pieces together when you have more information, plus some of that information you didn't think was helpful initially, could end up being a key element in your research later on.

7. Peruse passenger lists

Millions of people migrated to the United States between 1836 and 1914 and, luckily for us, ship manifests were required from the colonial period onwards. If the record survived, it's likely that you'll find your ancestor in one of these lists. Passenger lists and the information you can learn from them varies as each shipping line had their own way of keeping record.

Keep in mind that passenger lists are often kept in the country which your ancestor departed, so if you aren't finding your ancestor in the US records, this could be why. If this happens to you and you don't know where your ancestor came over from, don't worry, there are many other strategies to locate your immigrant ancestor.

8. Try browsing instead of searching

If you have a general idea of when your ancestor came over, you can browse ship records by time period to try to find your immigrant ancestor.

9. Use wildcards and name variants

Be sure to use the wildcard tool or search with name variants as in some instances, your ancestor's name may have changed due to miscommunication, language differences, or even to Americanize the name, but do keep in mind that this act of changing names upon entering the United States wasn't very common. The wildcard function is a tool to help bring up additional, variant results in your searches. The wildcard tool allows you to search with fragmented data or parts of names. Use either an asterisk (*) or a question mark (?) within any search term. If you're looking for a "Eugene," for example, but don't know if he went by "Gene" in the records, you can look for both by using the wildcard at the beginning of the name, for example, *gene. It will bring up anything that ends in gene to help you.

9. Research naturalization records

Naturalization records are the records associated with the process of becoming an American citizen. These records often include key details about your ancestors that you might not find anywhere else and are essential to finding your origin ancestor.

These records may also include people who were born in the United States because the way the records are indexed is that they include the family members of those who are applying for naturalization. If your ancestor was born in the United States, but their parents immigrated, you could find your citizen ancestor in the naturalization records and those records could lead you to their parents who were applying for naturalization.

Naturalization records are often more than one page long, so be sure to look through all the pages in the search results by clicking the "next page" button to see everything included in the record set.

The naturalization process could take many steps so if you have multiple locations where your ancestors lived, be sure to check those location's naturalization records as well as part of the process may have been completed there.

10. Don't forget about passports

If your ancestor wanted to travel abroad he/she had to apply for a passport, like we do today, so be sure to check for your ancestor in our passport application records.

11. Widen the net

It's always a good rule of thumb to search for all the members of the family because these vital details might be in one of their records, but not the records of your ancestor in question. For example, your ancestor's hometown might be listed in his/her's sister's marriage certificate, but not in any documents of his/her's. Your ancestor's close, or even distant, relatives can provide additional clues to help you fit the pieces of the puzzle together.