Finding our immigrant story
Immigration has long been a hot-button issue in this country politically as each generation wished to prohibit others from emigrating here. Of course, all of us come from immigrants; even our “native” Americans came from elsewhere originally. When you’re researching your family’s genealogy you will eventually want to learn where and when they came to this country, whether your ancestors were on the Mayflower or a steamship.
Immigrants to what is now the United States came mainly from the British Isles between 1607-1815 with a smattering of German, Dutch, Scandinavian, and African slaves. By the 1890s immigrants came primarily from eastern and southern Europe including Russia, Greece and Italy. People came here to escape religious or political persecution and with the hope of a better life for themselves and their children.
In your search for your immigrant ancestors the U.S. Census is your best friend. Starting in 1900 the Census requested the year of immigration and whether an alien or naturalized citizen. This will help you find the year your immigrant ancestor arrived in this country.
Other censuses asked questions of where people and their parents were born. Beginning in 1819 ship captains were required to present to Customs officials a list of passengers on board. Surviving passenger lists are coming online and you can try sites such as stevemorse.org, CastleGarden.org (1820-1892), EllisIslandRecords.org (1892-1924) for New York arrivals; Family Search, and Ancestry.com, to name a few, have records from Baltimore, San Francisco, and other ports. You can also find border crossings records for those entering the U.S. from Canada and Mexico at the National Archives, FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com.
Keep in mind that many ships first docked somewhere other than their ultimate destination, and that includes Canadian ports.
Questions asked of passengers varied over the years but always the name, age, sex is recorded as well as native country. Later questions became more detailed, including literacy, destination, who paid the passage, how much money the immigrant had with him/her, sanity, race, etc., and physical exams were required to ensure the immigrants were healthy and if not, they were sent back at the passenger ship’s expense.
You may have heard the story “our family name was changed at Ellis Island.” It isn’t true. Customs officials simply checked off the immigrant’s name as it was recorded on the passenger list. Name changes usually occurred when the immigrant went through the naturalization process or if he/she traveled under a false name, or if ship booking agents couldn’t speak an immigrant’s language and mangled the name.
There are challenges in searching for immigrant ancestors, but following their path to this country is rewarding, whether they came to Jamestown in 1607 or New York in 1906. Their journey tells us of the sacrifices and perils they faced to reach the United States and the promise of a better future no matter when or where they came from originally. Our ancestral story is one we all should hear and remember and pass down to future generations.
Columnist Nancy Battick of Dover-Foxcroft has researched genealogy for over 30 years. She is past president of the Maine Genealogical Society. Reader emails are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her semimonthly column is sponsored by the Aroostook County Genealogical Society which meets the fourth Monday of the month except in July and December at the Caribou Library at 6:30 p.m. Guests are always welcome. FMI contact Edwin “J” Bullard at 492-5501.