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Tracing Portuguese Immigration to the United States

One of the most difficult parts of tracing immigrant ancestors is making the link back to the home country. Fortunately, immigration records can provide the missing information needed to connect research across oceans.


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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by: Aimee Troger
Word Count: 523 (approx.)
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One of the most difficult parts of tracing immigrant ancestors is making the link back to the home country. Fortunately, immigration records can provide the missing information needed to connect research across oceans. These records include ship passenger lists, port records and border crossings, United States census records, church records (in the U.S.), civil vital records, naturalization records, social security registration, and draft registration records (1917).

For the Portuguese, the biggest wave of immigration to the U.S. occurred between the latter half of the 19th century and the early 20th century. The vast majority was from the islands of Madeira and the Azores. Those immigrants landed at one of four destinations: Southern New England (mainly New Bedford, Mass. and Rhode Island), New York, Hawaii or San Francisco.

The Portuguese generally immigrated as families, making it easier to trace families movement in your research. Many of the Portuguese immigrated to the United States via whaling ships, and most of these ended up in New Bedford or Rhode Island. Those en route to Hawaii generally traveled on a ship sponsored by one of the sugar companies in Hawaii. These companies recruited the Portuguese from Madeira and the Azores to work on plantations. The immigrants signed contracts before leaving for Hawaii. Although this Hawaiian immigration began around 1850, it greatly increased after 1876 as a result of the Hawaiian Reciprocity Treaty. Official documentation exists for all Portuguese immigrants entering Hawaii after that date.

Passenger ship lists generally are the most informative of all immigration records and can usually be easily accessed on microfilm from L.D.S. Family History Centers. They also may be found at local and national archive repositories, through genealogical societies, libraries, and the Internet. An excellent online source is the Ellis Island archives documenting New York landings at For Portuguese immigration in particular, Lusa Web contains extensive passenger lists of Portuguese bound for the United States from the mid-1800s through the 1920s.

When researching ship passenger lists it will be helpful to already have an idea, within a range of years, when your ancestor might have arrived. Census data can be particularly helpful in that area: The 1900 census includes the year of immigration to the United States.

When using a passenger list to locate an ancestor, you can expect to find at least some of the following information: name, age, sex, occupation, marital status, country of origin, race, last permanent residence and name and address of nearest relative or friend in home country. Sometimes the passenger list will also include the final destination of the traveler, and will indicate the name of a friend or relative with whom they will be staying. When you determine the ship your ancestor traveled on, it is useful to see if ta ship's log is available to consult. This log is a record of the journey and will include any deaths or births that occurred during the passage.

Although some passenger lists will not include nearly as much information, they should still be consulted. Even finding simply an age or a home city can be the necessary information to make the connection back to the home country.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2004.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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