Immigration Basics

Basic Starting Information:

  • Name
  • Approximate Date of Immigration
  • Approximate Age at Immigration

Options for Establishing the Basics:

  • Look for an alphabetical listing of ships that carried immigrants to America.
  • Heaviest immigration was in the spring – March, April, May – second in the fall – September, October, November
  • Try to discover whether your ancestor was traveling with someone; try another port – passengers arriving at one part sometimes continued on to another port after completing immigration processing
  • Combine family knowledge with general information – fit your ancestor in a time and place

Immigration Regulations:

  • Regulated by individual states before 1890
  • New York used Castle Garden from 1855-1890 and processed nearly 8 million immigrants there
  • 1903 – anarchists are denied admittance
  • 1907 – those with physical and mental disabilities and children arriving without adults are excluded
  • 1917 – literacy test introduced for those over 16 and nearly all Asians are banned
  • 1921 – the beginning of immigration quotas
  • 1950 – those with links to communist and fascist organizations are excluded
  • 1965 – quota system abolished – beginning of modern US immigration law

Places to find immigration information:

  • Passenger Lists
  • Colonial land grants, lists of indentured servants, oaths of allegiance
  • Newspapers of port cities usually had a columns titled “Harbor News” or “Port Intelligence”
  • Voter registration records found in local courthouses, especially for the early twentieth century
  • Homestead application after 1862
  • US Passport application after 1940
  • European countries have passport applications

Passenger Lists:

  • Customs Passenger Lists exist for the five major ports of Baltimore, Boston, New Orleans, New York and Philadelphia, as well as numerous minor Atlantic, Gulf Coast, and Great Lakes ports

Ports of Entry:

  • Each colony or port city exercised authority over its own immigration affairs.  The major port of entry during the eighteenth century was Philadelphia
  • Throughout the 19th and into the early 20th century, a total of 101 ports were used, and toward the end of the 19th century, “crossing stations” were established along the US borders with Canada and Mexico
  • There were five major ports – Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New Orleans – and many minor ports, such as Portland, Maine; Gloucester, Mass; New Haven, Conn; Providence, RI; Wilmington, DE; Norfolk, VA; Savannah, GA; Charleston, SC; Key West, FL; Mobile, AL; and Galveston, TX among others
  • Some steamships arrived at two ports just a day or two apart, discharging some passengers at each port
  • Halifax, Nova Scotia and Montreal and Quebec City, Quebec were the major East Coast ports at that time.

Finding the Information:

Read the introduction carefully to understand precisely what records are included and precisely how they are indexed

  • You must know where your ancestor resided prior to departure
  • The lists at the national Archives are arranged by port of arrival, and thereunder chronologically.


George Everton, Jr., The Handy Book for Genealogists United States of America, eighth edition, (Everton Publishers, Inc., 1991)

John P. Colletta, Ph.D., They Came In Ships – A Guide to Finding Your Immigrant Ancestor’s Arrival Record

William Filby, Passenger and Immigration Lists Bibliography, 1538-1900: Being a Guide to Published Lists of Arrivals in the United States and Canada, 2nd ed., (Gale Research Co., 1998)

Website to Consult:

  • Steamship Historical Society of America – over 200,000 engravings, drawings, photographs, and postcards of steamships –