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The Immigrant Fascination, Part One: The Experience

Learning the origins of immigrant ancestors is one of the most fascinating pieces of information we learn while tracing our family trees.


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Learning the origins of immigrant ancestors is one of the most fascinating pieces of information we learn while tracing our family trees. Whether we are Russian, African, German, Italian, Arabs, Welsh, Norwegian, Chinese, Hungarian or all the above, each of us has a unique heritage filled with vibrant cultures, traditions and languages that in many ways help define who we are. But how do we trace our immigrant origins? How do we find distant cousins in foreign lands? This is the first in a series of articles dedicated to provide useful tips on how to answer these questions.

Key Terms

Before getting started, let's take a quick look at the vocabulary of immigration:

Emigrant - someone who leaves one country to settle in another (i.e. someone leaving their native England).

Immigrant - a person who comes to a country where they were not born in order to settle there (i.e. a foreigner arriving in America).

Inmigrant - someone who moves into a different region of the same country or territory (i.e. someone who moves into the Northern United States from the South).

Naturalization - the process whereby a foreigner is granted citizenship.

Outmigrant - a person who moves out of one community or region in order to reside in another of the same country or territory (i.e. someone who moves away from the South to settle in the North).

The Experience

It is helpful to think through the process of leaving one country and entering another in order to understand what records government and other officials produced to document the procedure. The immigration experience differed between time periods and places, but the following represents important questions to ask about each new-comer. The resulting sources, which are quite varied, will be discussed in subsequent articles.

First, what motivated a person or family to emigrate? This is a hard question to answer as few surviving documents elucidate these personal factors. Historians sum up motivations through the terms the "push-pull factor." In other words, did some external force push them out of where they were living, such as famine, unemployment, oppressive governments, or confiscation of property? On the flip-side of the coin, what attracted or pulled them towards a new home; for example, improved soil, promises of wealth or to be closer to loved ones?

What port did the emigrant select as his or her exit? In order to answer this, we need to know first the nation of origin, and then determine what ports operated in that country and surrounding countries during the appropriate time frame. We will need to turn to history books. We might even be fortunate enough to find that the port officials made a note of the names of persons who left on passenger ships.

How did our ancestors finance this expensive voyage? Most U. S. immigrants came in hopes of a brighter future than the one they left behind abroad. Did they receive aid from local officials, did they sell themselves as indentured servants, or did the government transport them as convicts? Many methods of payment existed over the centuries, each generating unique records.

As ancestors crossed the ocean, were there any literate people aboard writing journals or ship logs to document the passage? Before the arrival of the steam engine, it took several weeks and in bad weather months to cross the Atlantic. Surviving journals bring this experience to life for us as we relive the harsh conditions involved in our ancestors' voyages. Perhaps they even list our family member by name.

Upon arrival in America, what procedures did immigrants pass through in order to be granted admission? At which port did they arrive? The mechanics of entering the United States legally by sea has generated paperwork with complete coverage dating from the year 1820. Ancestors often had to supply the name of relatives or friends already within the country, to show they would have support awaiting them, in order to gain admission. In later years, clerks recorded these relatives' names and addresses.

After safely entering the country, immigrants often went to stay with family or friends until they could save up enough money to make it on their own. These friends oriented the foreigners to a new way of life in a new country. They may have helped them learn the English language and find employment. Identifying who these relatives were helps us determine more about our ancestors' families and origins. Immigrants may have stayed long enough to appear on censuses or city directories in their households.

Following the stay with relatives or friends many immigrants outmigrated to settle throughout different sections of the United States. They may have clustered in regions or urban districts where those of their own ethnicity dominated. This would enable them to relate, speak and perpetuate customs with other like-minded individuals in a new land. Immigrants often permanently settled near relatives who had also crossed the Atlantic. Figuring out who they are can likewise assist us in tracking down origins as the more people we bring into our research pool, the more records we have to peruse, increasing our likelihood of success.

Naturalizations occurred both before and after the Revolutionary War. Naturalization entitled immigrants to additional rights and privileges as official citizens. Before the Revolutionary War, the English did not need to be naturalized in the British colonies and most naturalizations concern European immigrants. After the War and the establishment of the United States, all immigrants considered whether or not to become naturalized U. S. citizens. However, during the pre-1900 period, it was usually only the men who passed through this process, so we will rarely find naturalization records on wives and children.

Hopefully this article has raised important questions for you to consider, stimulated interest and begun to provide guidance to help you start to explore your immigrant origins. Don't forget that each person's experiences were unique, but overall, many similarities existed. Future articles will provide more in-depth information about tracking down the records these immigrants left behind.

Definitions slightly altered from

Other Articles in the Series

The Immigrant Fascination, Part Two - Departure

The Immigrant Fascination, Part Three - Ocean Passage

The Immigrant Fascination, Part Four - Arrival

The Immigrant Fascination, Part Five - Citizenship

The Immigrant Fascination, Part Six - Success in Spite of Record Loss

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2005.

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

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