Immigrant family history research often rewards perseverance

Strategies for searching for records of seafaring immigrants were discussed by Jayare Roberts in his workshop, "Documenting the Voyage of Your Immigrant Ancestors."

There are many records and indexes of immigrants, and some of these records are very accurate and detailed. If a researcher is willing to persevere, a fascinating picture of the past can often be created. While some people can access their immigrant forebears on the Internet site, there are many others who cannot.

A natural beginning point for these people is the National Archives and Records Administration, which, for a fee, will search passenger indexes through 1892 for the port of entry, name of the vessel, approximate date of arrival, and full name of the passenger.

Additional information is needed for searches after 1892.

Other places to look for indexes are Passenger and Immigration Lists Index, by P. William Philby; San Francisco Ship Passenger Lists, by Louis J. Rasmussen, Railway Passenger Lists of Overland Trains to San Francisco, by Rasmussen; and the Morton-Allen Directory of European Steamship Arrivals.

Other general sources include the Balch Institute at the University of Baltimore, the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota, and A Century of Population Growth, which has names and locations in its appendix. Access to some of these sources can be made through family history centers.

Conference-goers view hallway exhibits.
Conference-goers view hallway exhibits. Credit: Photo by John Hart

Once the search is started, some things that aid in the research are to remember to check name spelling variations, similar vessel names, nearby ports of entry and alternate dates of arrival. Reading the preface of index books allows the researcher to understand the focus and scope of the book, said Brother Roberts.

Because some immigrants heard stories of problems at Ellis Island or Castle Garden in New York, they went to Canadian or Mexican ports and crossed the border by land. Information about these crossings are found in border crossing manifests. Some families show up in multiple records.

"One family went to South Africa, had children, went Sicily, had children, went to America had children, went back to Sicily, had children, and the children by themselves went back to America," he said. "At least one of the children went back to Sicily — all in one lifetime. So if you don't find them where you expected to find them, keep expanding the years of your search."

He cautioned that indexes are starting points, and that errors have crept into them.

The Steamship Historical Society at the University of Baltimore has many photos and etching of steamships that can enhance scrapbooks, he said.