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Rhonda's Tips: Genealogy Questions Answered
by Rhonda R. McClure

January 25, 2001
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Working with Immigrants

Q: I am looking for a good place to start my search for my relatives who immigrated to the USA through Ellis island and Philadelphia. I know my blood lines point to Ireland, Germany, and Hungary. -- Chris

A: It is always tempting when working with an immigrant ancestor to jump to the passenger lists and hope to find them. While the passenger lists are a valuable resource, especially after the 1880s, you will want to make sure that you don't overlook any of the other records your ancestor may have created after immigrating and throughout the remainder of their life.

If your ancestors arrived prior to 1920, then you will want to make sure and look for them in the census records (also the 1910 and 1900 if applicable). This will help you to know if they have been naturalized as well as giving you the year they immigrated. You will also want to make sure to get death records and vital records on any children they had after immigrating. If you have found them in the 1900, 1910 or 1920 census, and they say they have been naturalized, you will want to get their naturalization papers.

Once you have done all this, you can then turn your attention to the passenger lists. The ports that you mentioned, Ellis Island and Philadelphia have indexes to many of their passenger lists. If your ancestors immigrated after about 1905 then the passenger lists will tell you the town of birth for your ancestors, as well as whom they were meeting there and who paid for their passage over.

If your ancestors came before this time, you will want to keep in mind that if they did come through New York, it was not through Ellis Island, but through Castle Garden that they would have arrived. Also not all of the records for New York's passenger lists of this time period have been indexed. There is a large gap from about 1845 to 1897 that have not been indexed. If you have all the naturalization records then it is very possible that an index would not be necessary, you may know the very name of the ship and the date of arrival for your ancestor.

Learning About Land Records

Q: Are land records available on film like the census? I guess what I'm asking is for a primer on where I need to start looking to review these types of records. -- Bill

A: Land records generally have two types of indexes. The grantor index is an index to those who are selling the land and the grantee index is an index to those who are buying the land. This is your first stop when beginning to work with land records. Many of these are on microfilm and can be accessed through your local Family History Center.

Once you read through the indexes and write down the names, dates, volume numbers and pages for those individuals that you suspect as your own, you will need to turn your attention to the individual volumes to begin reading through the individual land records.

Land records are generally recorded at the county level. So when visiting your Family History Center and searching the catalog for the land records, you would look under the state, then county for the heading Land Records.

Release of Dower

Q: Please explain more about release of dower and where those documents can be found? -- Mary

A: The release of dower is a part of a land record in which the owner of the land, usually the husband, was selling the land to someone else. The release of dower was the wife's signing away her claim to the one-third right she had in the land.

Usually a land record has the main part of the land record, which includes the names of the grantor and grantee, the amount of money that is changing hands, and the description of the land. Below this you will find the signature of the grantors of the land and also the signatures of the witnesses. Usually below this, and written by the county clerk is the part about the release of dower.

If you have not done so already, you will want to go through the indexes for the land records looking for what land is listed for the father and each of the children in the family. You will want to plot it out and compare the land descriptions and see who is buying and who is selling. If you have found all the land records then the total amount of land purchases should equal the total amount of land sold. And keep in mind that the land may have been sold by an administrator or executor of a deceased individual.

Arriving in Albany

Q: Could you tell me, where I would locate Ship records (1847-1865) for the Port of Albany, New York. I believe my great great grandmother landed in Albany on route from Ireland. -- Edward

A: While it is true that people accessed Albany by boat, it was more likely to be by packet boats. These boats did carry freight, passengers and mail. They traveled an established route and often times bought and sold goods at each port that they stopped at. However, these were not large passenger ships that had traversed the Atlantic, as the river used to access Albany was not big enough.

So, it is probable that your great great grandmother arrived in New York City first and then traveled on to Albany.

You have a large time period in question about her arrival. If you haven't done so already, you will want to search the census records and see if you can narrow down to exactly when she arrived in the United States.

Unfortunately the time period in question is part of the fifty-year gap in indexing for the New York Passenger Lists. New York's passenger lists were indexed up to 1846 and then not again until 1897. So it becomes crucial to narrow down the exact arrival date. The first stop on this is the later census records as they have columns for year of immigration. This would take you from an approximate 20-year gap down to one year. In these records, that it still too much of an unknown.

If you are searching the passenger lists to try to pin point where in Ireland your great great grandmother came from, you are possibly going to be disappointed. Prior to about 1898, the passenger lists generally include only the name, age, occupation and country of origin.

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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