Immigration & Naturalization Records

Immigration records, also known as "ship passenger arrival records" and "land border entries," can provide the genealogist with insight into the origins of their families. Since most Americans immigrated to this country from elsewhere, you will find out much by examining these documents.

History of Immigration Records

Regional customhouses were the original keepers of immigration records. The U.S. Customs Service maintained information about immigrants by selecting customs districts. All districts had ports with customhouses and custom collectors.

An act of Congress was passed in 1819 which specified that the captain of any ship coming from a foreign country arriving in a U.S. port was required to present a list of the individuals onboard the ship. This list, the ship passenger arrival record, was the first type of immigration record. The records were kept by the customs collectors for statistical purposes.

By 1903, the U.S. Bureau of Naturalization and Immigration was formed. In 1933, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) was started and handled all aspects of immigration. The INS was abolished in 1940, and in 2003, the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services was formed under the division of Homeland Security.

For Genealogists, Immigration Records are Illuminating

Immigration records can be a great resource for genealogists. In them, you can find out where your family members came from, where they were born, what their relatives names were and much more.

Some great online resources exist at present to help guide you in your study of immigration records. Check out the National Archives. On their site, you can find passenger arrival lists. Another useful site is Ellis Island.

Immigration records can open up new vistas of exploration for you in your ancestry research. You can be led to find details about where your family came from, the customs and traditions of the country of origin, what kinds of languages they used, and what their skills might have been. For a good genealogist, immigration records can be a significant part of putting together the puzzle of family history.

Be sure and check out your family's immigration records. This can be a great part of your genealogy research.

Helpful Hint

Immigrants often experienced a name change upon reaching the U.S. for any number of reasons. These may have included the following reasons:

  1. The clerk was unable to understand what they were saying (i.e. could not translate their language).
  2. The immigrant didn't know how to spell their last name / gave incorrect spelling, etc.

If you are having problems finding your ancestor's name, then you may need to get creative with the spelling. For instance, if your surname is Sanchez, you might look under Zanches. Use soundex and metaphone tools to get other ideas for alternative spellings.

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