Researching your immigrant ancestors: tools to improve your search

Last week, I decided to be a tourist in my own backyard: I visited Liberty and Ellis Islands, and toured the Ellis Island museum.  The exhibits detailed the history of the immigrant experience both in the countries of origination and upon arrival at Ellis Island, and many contained recorded accounts and documentation of the immigrants’ journeys.  The records, known as ship passenger arrival records, that emerged from the massive influx of immigrants particularly between 1880 and 1920, can provide family historians with an abundance of useful information such as the immigrant’s nationality, place of birth, age, height, profession, place of origination, contact information of family members in the United States, and the name of the ship he sailed upon.  The overwhelming number of online resources and documents pertaining to immigrants for various historical periods and ports can make this information difficult to navigate.  In addition, the names on passenger lists are often misspelled and key facts may have been omitted.  So how do you sort through the available materials to find the most relevant and complete information?  Through my own genealogical research, I have found the websites below to be particularly thorough and user friendly for locating immigrant related facts.  Many of these websites reference links to more detailed immigrant information such as specific populations or organizations.

Ellis Island records.  Why not begin your search at the source?  If you know the name of the ship or passenger, you can search for free at to find the names of millions of immigrants who arrived through this New York port and primary processing center between 1892 and 1924.

National Archives and Records is home to an extensive microfilm collection of passenger lists for ships arriving in the Port of New York from 1820 to 1957 and indexes for the years 1820-1846 and 1897-1948.  The records of passenger lists were organized by the U.S. Customs Service and Immigration and Naturalization Service.  Naturalization records, particularly after 1906, also incorporate details related to the passenger’s legal entry into the United States.

Olive Tree Genealogy.   This site provides links to passenger lists for immigrants entering the United States after 1820 and limited lists for passengers arriving prior to 1820.  Similarly, you can find links to passenger manifests for immigrants arriving in Canada after 1865.  There are indexes categorized by port of arrival (e.g. New York, Pennsylvania, Florida and New Orleans) and those classified by the immigrant’s country of origin (e.g. Denmark, France and Germany to the United States).  At, you can search several databases of Ellis Island records.  These databases are differentiated by forms using either enhanced search options, basic search options with features not included on the website, or ones limited to all New York passenger arrivals from 1820 to 1957.  The site also maintains passenger lists for many other U.S. ports of immigration and directories of ship names and companies.  There are informative and accessible step-by-step tutorials featured on this website for locating an immigrant ancestor.



Louisa Kalish

Louisa Kalish is a lawyer and a freelance writer for online legal and general interest publications. She became interested in genealogy during a brief stint in pro bono family law. While not engaged in her writing and legal pursuits, she is an active volunteer in several charitable organizations and heads the parenting organization at her children's school. She resides in New Jersey with her husband and three children.

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