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The Immigrant Fascination, Part Two: Departure

Emigrants left their native lands for a variety of reasons and officials have sporadically shown interest in the identities of those exiting their countries. . . . resulting in the creation of a variety of sources found in many different nations.


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Emigrants left their native lands for a variety of reasons and officials have sporadically shown interest in the identities of those exiting their countries. This interest has manifested itself in the creation of a variety of sources found in many different nations. Many historians and organizations have tracked down these records; however, not all of the sources have been located. The study of these sources for genealogical purposes is a developing field. The Center for Family History and Genealogy at Brigham Young University, is now executing a plan called the Immigrant Ancestors Project, to fill in these gaps and make these records available online. This article contains descriptions of some emigration documents from various European countries and tips on how to access them. If readers are aware of overlooked sources or have additional questions not answered here, feel free to contact the author.

Convict Transportations

England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland and France, are among the European nations who expelled criminals to distant colonies. For additional information on these records, refer to the author's previous article "Forced Emigration: The Historic British Remedy for Criminal Activity," in the GenWeekly archives.

Emigrant Letters

Letters sent between emigrants and the families and friends they left behind can be found in archives throughout the world. Some of these, such as those concerning people who left Ireland during the great famine, have received a lot of academic attention, see for example Dr. Keith Snell's Letters from Ireland During the Famine of 1847 (Irish Academic Press, 1994). For another of many such examples, see The Petworth Emigration Project.

Many of these letters sent home, in the British Isles at least, were published in local newspapers. Emigrants realized that it would be cheaper to communicate with everyone back home through this method, than sending everyone an individual letter. Genuki's United Kingdom and Ireland Newspapers site lists finding aids for this resource.

Indentured Servants

When British emigrants could not afford to finance their own passage abroad during the Colonial Period, they often temporarily sold themselves as white slaves to receive free passage across the Atlantic. Virtual Jamestown discusses these sources and has an excellent online database identifying over 10,000 of them.

Military Records

In what is now Germany, when residents failed to show up to fulfill their mandatory military service, investigations were made. Many of these people had emigrated. The Immigrant Ancestors Project is studying these sources.

Many English, Welsh, Irish and Scottish soldiers served abroad and later decided to move out into the British Empire. Military records, some of which have been studied by the Immigrant Ancestors Project, are deposited in the National Archives just outside London.


When people went abroad, they may have sent news back home about the births of children, marriages and deaths - for example the Gentlemen's Magazine from London has received attention from emigration experts. See the Emigrant Letters section for more details concerning this source.


The Programme de Recherche en Démographie Historique contains a database of French emigrants who settled in Québec. The Immigrant Ancestors Project identifies a pre-1790 index of Spanish emigrants to Latin America at the Archivo General de Indias, based in Seville, Spain.

Poor Assisted Emigration

In England, the government created many unique ways to care for their poor - including exporting them. They have carried out many schemes from the early seventeenth century to the present to assist the poor in emigrating to different parts of the realm. They sent London orphans to Virginia in the 1600s, see Virtual Jamestown's Web site. Later, poor law unions paid to export impoverished parishioners in order to relieve themselves of these people's financial burden. The Poor Law Union Database, based upon Jeremy Gibson's guides, identifies the repositories of these records. There were also other governmental schemes, such as those known as "Home Children," whose often sad story is told at The British Home Children: North America's 100,000 Invisible Child Immigrants.

Out-Going Passenger Lists

Out-going passenger lists survive only sporadically in Europe. They often contain birthplace information not found in the in-coming countries. For example, in Liverpool, at one time Europe's principal exit for migrants, the pre-1880 passenger lists for only one ship company have survived, documenting perhaps less than one percent of the emigrants. Passenger lists were not systematically kept in the British Isles until the twentieth century. Dr. George Ryskamp of the Immigrant Ancestors Project reports finding outgoing passenger lists for Spain and Portugal, see Cyndi's List categorizes online records under the title Ports of Departure and has listings for:

o Belgium: Antwerp

o England: Hull, Liverpool, Southampton

o France: Cherbourg, Le Havre

o Germany: Bremen, Hamburg

o Netherlands: Amsterdam, Rotterdam

The Web site The Ship's List contains a lot of useful information, including a map of Northwestern European ports active during the nineteenth century. The Immigrant Ships Transcriber's Guild has a list of over 100 ports from throughout the world and thousands of transcribed passenger lists.


Passports are more likely to survive in the receiving country rather than the country of departure, as are most records of migrants; however, the Immigrant Ancestors Project has located paperwork relating to the issuance of passports in Italy and Spain.

Probate Records

Testators in England and France, and possibly in other countries, often made wills just prior to their departures to the New World, in recognition that it would be a dangerous voyage. In England, these records fell under the jurisdiction of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury. They are completely indexed and can be viewed for a small fee at Administrations, filed in the same court, cover those who died intestate at sea or abroad. They are not listed in the online database. Yvette Longstaff, AG, demonstrates how she found a French-Huguenot's will back in France created for the same reason in her online course Huguenot Research.

Religious Sources

Many religions have produced migration documentation. As members moved from congregation to congregation, including those who went overseas, they took with them a certificate attesting to their good standing. At times, entire congregations emigrated with their minister. For the Society of Friends, search the Monthly Meeting records for this source, which at times makes reference to the issuance of these certificates. For the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, refer to the Mormon Immigration Index and Branch Meeting records in the European country of origin. For Baptists, look through chapel minutes.

English Catholics assisted their poor youth in migrating to places such as Canada in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For more information, see Leaving from Liverpool.

When single Italian immigrants in America decided to marry, they often had to write back to their Catholic priests in Italy to obtain baptismal records and other documentation to legally marry in the Catholic Church. This paperwork has survived in marriage allegation records in Italy.

In Sweden, Lutheran clerical surveys often contain annotations stating that individuals had emigrated.

Other Articles in the Series

The Immigrant Fascination, Part One - The Experience

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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