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Overheard on the Message Boards: Help With Canadian Immigration
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

January 16, 2003
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: I am currently working on my French Canadian roots and have many immigration/naturalization questions. I am hoping some of you will have had experience with this and can offer advice/assistance. The ancestors I am currently researching came to the U.S., specifically Michigan and Wisconsin, in the mid 1850s and 60s from Quebec. Here are some of my questions:

  • Do all immigrants from that time period have immigration papers of some sort?
  • If you're naturalized is there yet even more paperwork/documents to be found beyond the immigration papers?
  • How would I go about finding such records in the states of Michigan and Wisconsin for the time period I mentioned above?
  • I live on the east coast and cannot travel to these states, can this research be done via the Internet or old fashion letter writing?

-- Kelly

A: Immigration and naturalization sometimes offer us some obstacles. The changes that have taken place over the years with regard to these two record types have forced genealogists to sometimes get creative in what they do and where they turn for information. In a world drowning in paper work, we almost can't believe that records of any nature weren't always kept, and yet the more research we do the more we discover how many holes there are that leave us hanging.

Before going into the records that may or may not exist for the time period and locality in question, there are a few things to understand about the immigration and naturalization processes overall and why the records have changed over the years.

Immigration and naturalization records may be full of good information.

Immigration vs. Emigration

Like so many other aspects of family history there are specialized terms in the immigration process that many find confusing. The first is whether an ancestor immigrated or emigrated. Actually, he or she did both. The change in the term is the result of whether you are saying the person immigrated to a country or that he emigrated from a country. Since our ancestors in fact did both, both are correct, but we use one when discussing the fact that an ancestor went to a country and the other to state that they left a country. In your case, they were leaving Canada so they emigrated from Canada and they immigrated to the United States. I mention this only so that when you are conversing with individuals online they will not supply you with information that is not what you expected.

I also mention the two terms because of the way these records are often catalogued in libraries, especially the Family History Library, which offers many microfilmed records, including a lot of immigration and naturalization records.

When using the Family History Library Catalog, usually we search on a place. When we have found the place we want and selected it, a list of subject headings are listed in alphabetical order. If you were to scroll through the list until you got to those that begin with the letter I you would assume that the library had nothing on immigration for that locality. It is possible you would be wrong in your assumption. The Family History Library has filed all immigration under the heading Emigration/Immigration so you would need to look at the subject headings that begin with the letter E.

Under that heading you would then discover what was available for the locality in question and could perhaps order the microfilms to your local Family History Center. Cost is usually nominal, to cover the expense of handling and mailing and then you have about 30 days to view the film in question. It is a wonderful opportunity to those who cannot travel to a specific state, though you would need to travel to your local Family History Center as the microfilms do not leave the centers while they are on loan.

The Immigration Process

While people have been immigrating to what became the United States since the early 1600s, you will find that first there was no federal government, so to speak, and for some time no real country, each colony in many ways a completely separate entity. This is not to say that information on those earliest of arrivals doesn't exist, but it is usually not in the same manner of the passenger lists that we use for those who came after 1820.

The year 1820 is one of the magic years for immigration. This year, passenger lists, known then as customs lists because they fell under the responsibility of the local port's custom agent, were recorded. These early lists were simple affairs listing only the name of each passenger along with their gender, age, occupation and nationality. Little can be learned usually as to place of birth in the old country from these earlier lists. In 1891 there was a change in who was responsible for the passenger lists and because the government had a more hands on approach additional columns began to be added to the questions asked of each immigrant. Eventually in 1907 they would ask for place of birth.

More than 40,000 residents from Quebec would move to the United States between 1840 and 1850. Another 500,000 immigrated from 1850 to 1900. It has been estimated that one in every four families living in Michigan finds a direct connection to Ontario, another major area of Canada from which people emigrated to the Great Lakes area. While there is a lot of history about this move of people, unfortunately there are no records for the time in question. The earliest passenger lists or Canadian border crossings are those at the St. Alban's District in Vermont which begin in 1895 and do include those who traveled by train or ship and those who crossed the border into Michigan among other states along the Canadian border. This is much too late for you.

The other alternative was the port of Detroit. The records for this port do not begin until 1906, though I did double check the list of ports covered in the National Archives microfilm publication M575, Lists of Passengers Arriving at Miscellaneous Ports on the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts and at Ports on the Great Lakes, 1820-1873. Unfortunately there were no ports for Michigan. And research showed that immigration into Wisconsin was even more limited, with the only passenger records being those in the 1900s.

Naturalization Records

After a most frustrating attempt to locate some useful passenger records, it became clear that the naturalization records may be your only hope assuming that the ancestors in question were naturalized. Like passenger lists, the naturalization records and the information collected have undergone some major changes as well. Earlier records are not nearly as thorough, usually just denouncing allegiance to the ruler of the former country.

For those who were naturalized before 1906, which I am assuming would include your ancestors, the records are found on the county level. Because of this, if your ancestor moved from place to place, once he was in the United States, it is possible to find his naturalization records scattered across the counties or states in which he lived. The first step in your naturalization work would be to verify all the places in which your ancestor lived. You will need to investigate the naturalization records in each county if he moved around.

There are three sets of papers generated during the naturalization process. The first is the Declaration of Intent. Sometimes it will tell you when and what port your ancestor immigrated to. Usually though, the best information is found in the Application for Naturalization, also known as the Second Papers. The third record generated was the actual naturalization certificate, which does not usually help you in tracking back to the homeland and place of birth, though it may hold clues to where and when your ancestor filed his application.

While the passenger lists were sparse, it is possible that you will have more luck with the naturalization records. Many of them are available on microfilm and again, you should check the Family History Library Catalog for the counties in question to see if you can get the necessary records on microfilm. You may find, though, that you must contact the county directly to request a search of their records. It is also a good idea to check out the regional branch of the National Archives for your area. You can find out more about this and where the branches are available by visiting the Web site.

In Conclusion

For more information about emigration from Canada and immigration to Michigan and Wisconsin, you may want to see if you can get access to some of these books

  • Duncan, Mary Lou Strieth. Passage to America, 1851-1869: The Records of Richard Elliott, Passenger Agent, Detroit, Michigan. Detroit: Detroit Society for Genealogical Research, 1999.
  • Keffer, Marion C. Migrations to-from Canada. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Genealogical Society of Washtenaw County, 1982.
  • Knowles, Valerie. Strangers at Our Gates, Canadian Immigration and Immigration Policy, 1540-1990. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1992.
  • Sachtjen, Maude. Immigration to Wisconsin: A Thesis Submitted for the Degree of Bachelor of Philosophy, Normal Course. Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1928.
  • Vander Hill, C. Warren. Settling the Great Lakes Frontier: Immigration to Michigan, 1837-1924. Lansing: Michigan Historical Commission, 1970.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

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 rhondagen@thegenealogist.com.

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