While the majority of immigrants during the peak years of U.S. immigration arrived through Ellis Island (more than 1 million in 1907 alone), millions more immigrated through other American ports including Castle Garden, which served New York from 1855-1890; the New York Barge Office; Boston, MA; Baltimore, MD; Galveston, TX; and San Francisco, CA. Some of the records of these immigrant arrivals can be viewed online, while others will need to be searched through more conventional methods. The first step to locating an immigrant arrival record is to learn the immigrant's specific Port of Entry as well as where the immigrant records for that Port are filed. There are two major resources available online where you can locate information on the Ports of Entry, the years of operation and the records kept for each U.S. state:
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services - Ports of Entry
A listing of Ports of Entry by State/District with the years of operation and information on where the resulting immigrant records were filed.
Immigration Records - Ship Passenger Arrival Records
The National Archives has published a comprehensive list of available immigrant records from dozens of American points of entry.
Prior to 1820, the U.S. Federal Government did not require ship captains to present a passenger list to U.S. officials. Therefore the only records prior to 1820 which are held by the National Archives are arrivals in New Orleans, LA (1813-1819) and arrivals in Philadelphia, PA (1800-1819). To locate other passenger lists from 1538-1819 you will need to refer to published sources, available at most major genealogy libraries.
How to Locate Your U.S. Immigrant Ancestor (1538-1820)
What if you have no idea when or where your ancestor came into this country? There are a variety of sources which you can search for this information:
- Family History - check with all family members, even distant ones. Even a family story or rumor gives you a starting point for your research.
- Previous Research - Someone else may have already done research on your ancestor which indicates their port and date of arrival
- U.S. Census Records - The 1900, 1910 & 1920 U.S. Federal Census records provide useful information for tracing immigrant ancestors, such as age, place of birth, immigration date, whether naturalized and the naturalization date.
- Church Records - many churches around the U.S. were originally formed by groups of immigrants who came to this country together or from the same area. The records will often list information about the family's country of origin.
- Naturalization Certificates - Naturalization records created after Sept 1906 give an immigrant's arrival details (date & port).
Once you have a port of origin and an approximate year of immigration you can begin your search for the ship passenger lists.