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Establishing an Immigration Timeframe

by Maureen Taylor
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How to Jump the Ocean
A common place to get temporarily stuck in genealogy is the immigrant ancestor. Maureen Taylor offers some tips for finding information on your ancestor's arrival in the U.S. when standard resources such as immigration lists are unavailable.

To effectively search for ancestors in overseas records it is helpful (if not necessary) to find a date of immigration and a point of origin. However, sometimes no matter how hard you try, you can't find the exact date of immigration for that troublesome ancestor. There may be reasons for this failure, such as a lack of passenger lists for the period in which your ancestor arrived, but this doesn't mean you can't establish a timeframe for the event. The smaller the immigration window the greater your chances for research success. Follow these few steps to unravel the immigration mystery in your family.

Step 1: Be Methodical

As every experienced genealogist knows, it is best to work backwards. Examine all of the documents you've accumulated on your immigrant ancestor and put them in reverse chronological order from death to birth. Then create a timeline for their life based on the records. Do you see any trends? Have you missed any important events? Think about what you know about your ancestor and try to compile a list of unanswered questions including date of immigration, port of arrival and point of origin.  

Step 2: Locate a Variety of Records

To successfully assign an immigration timeframe, you have to re-create your immigrant ancestor's life one event at a time. Make a list of documents that might exist for that ancestor and follow the paper trail for those you don't already have. Remember that the types of documents someone created in their lifetime depended on when and where they lived. For example, you don't want to look for a birth record if your ancestor's birth date predates civil registration. Start with the basics — birth, marriage and death records, church documents, indentures, land records, court records and, of course, immigration materials.

Double-check that you've gone over all the resources such as letters, diaries, and photographs in your own collection and those in the hands of relatives. You can often find relatives to query by using online message boards. Message boards provide a way to reconnect with even distant family by posting a request for information on a particular surname. Include a request for photographs and artifacts in your posting. It's surprising how many documents, even Colonial ones, are still in the hands of distant relatives and not in archives.

Oral histories are another type of record that may provide unique insight. If you haven't already done so, interview any relatives that may be able to provide an oral history of your family. Oral traditions reveal pieces of your family history that don't exist in the written record. Many families have stories relating to the immigrant experience.

For early immigrants, you may not find any home documents or relatives to tell immigration stories, so don't forget to try libraries and archives for relevant material. Published books and magazines may have articles or biographical sketches on those ancestors, while archives may have manuscript sources.

Once you've collected these documents, go back through them and look for clues. Keep a checklist of details to investigate further. This list can jog your memory later in the search and shed new light on old questions. It also helps you focus your research.

Step 3: Examine Immigration Patterns

One of the most important considerations in immigration research is historical context. Regardless of when or why your ancestor immigrated, odds are that they followed one of the following predictable immigration patterns. The key to your mystery can be in the identifying the right one for your family.


Immigrants often settled near each other, thereby establishing a cohesive community of persons linked by culture and language and possibly point of origin. By identifying where certain ethnic groups settled you might see trends that relate to your family. Try to locate any information on your family's ethnicity in the community in which they lived. You might uncover new sources of information such as organizational records or even a newspaper. One researcher found her missing links by searching Swedish communities in the Midwest for individuals with similar surnames. Her techniques wouldn't work for more populous immigrant populations like the Irish in New England or for common surnames, but if you have an unusual surname or are working in a specific area you can be successful.

Family and Friends

Have you located correspondence and diaries of neighbors, similar immigrants or friends? It is a documented fact that many immigrants traveled to America with other family members or individuals from the same neighborhood or village. Few people immigrated alone. By searching for groups from the same area, you may stumble upon the clue you need to build an immigration timeframe for your ancestor. This can supply you with an entry point and links to family in the homeland. Even if your ancestor initially immigrated alone, other family members probably joined them later on. Or, sometimes a couple of siblings immigrated while other family members stayed behind. By locating new home sources and following immigration patterns you can often locate correspondence between the two families, which may give you important clues.

Repeat Migration

When you are fortunate enough to find a passenger list with your ancestor's name on it, make sure that it was their only trip. While early immigrants rarely returned home for visits, trains and steamships encouraged such travel. In French Canadian families, for example, there are often several border crossings recorded for relatives traveling between countries for business or visits. Other immigrants traveled here for business or education before deciding to reside in an area. Searching records for other trips can save you valuable research time later on. You can miss vital information by making assumptions about their travel habits.

Don't Forget Collateral Lines

Sometimes the path to success is not the direct route. Your ancestor might be the youngest child in a family of twelve children. By the time they were born the family may have stopped mentioning specific places on birth and death certificates. Don't stop to think about the amount of time it will take to track down information on those dozen siblings. Concentrate on the end result. At any point in your search for additional immigration information you could locate what you need. It sounds frustrating, but a few names on a baptismal certificate provide new avenues for research.

Step 4: What's in a Name?

Part of the assimilation process included changing or anglicizing names. The spelling or name you are familiar with may not resemble the name they arrived with. Names were not changed at the port of immigration, but as the family Americanized. For example, in one family half the siblings may have changed their name to White while the others remained LeBlanc. When researching collateral relatives, be sure to look for name changes — both official and informal.

Naming issues can be further complicated by language issues and educational levels which can affect how a name appears on documents. If you are missing records such as birth, marriage, and death certificates or census documents, try spelling the surname a different way or saying it aloud to develop a phonetic spelling.

Step 5: Watch out for History

While political, economic and religious events brought the majority of immigrants to the United States, it may not be apparent why your ancestor chose to immigrate. Studying the history of the area in which they settled, the specific region or country from which they came, and immigration patterns for that ethnicity can help you discover the reason. Locate information about your ancestor's ethnic group. Reading publications about other immigrants, such as published diaries, letters and interviews help you understand the historical context of their immigration.

Searching for relevant facts means broadening your field of research to include materials written by historians, social scientists and archaeologists. Just because a particular community or surname doesn't appear in the genealogical periodicals or publications doesn't mean it has never been studied. For instance, use your public library skills to search online periodical indices or other types of non-genealogy resources that are available. Town historians and archeologists are also good resources of local history.

Finally: Retrace Your Steps

O.K. You've created a timeline for an ancestor, reexamined documents, found new information and researched the background history. If you've done all that, you should have a sense of when an ancestor arrived in America. Even when I don't know exact details about some of my immigrant ancestors, I can usually assign a span of dates for when they immigrated based on their ethnic group and where they settled. I even know why they came here based on their occupation. What I don't know and you might not ever discover is the exact year they arrived. Does this mean I can't look for records and family overseas? No. It makes it more difficult and time consuming, but having a time frame and place helps narrow the possibilities.

About the Author
Maureen A. Taylor, Owner and Principal of Ancestral Connections, combines her background in history, genealogy, photography and library science to assist individuals and institutions with research and project management. She is the author of several genealogical books and articles including the recent Uncovering Your Ancestry through Family Photographs (Betterway, 2000) and a guide to family history for kids, Through the Eyes of Your Ancestors (Houghton Mifflin, 1999). Her columns on genealogy appear in The Computer Genealogist and in New England Ancestors. She is the project manager for, a site that lets visitors plan a genealogical research trip to the Boston area.

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