July 21, 2023
Everyone who lives in the United States has immigrant ancestors. In some cases, your immigrant ancestors were so long ago that no one will ever be able to trace individuals. This is the case for people who belong to various indigenous groups.
For most Americans, it means that sometime in the last four hundred years or so, their ancestors arrived in America. Some came because North America represented a way to improve their lives. For others, such as enslaved people, they had no choice about the move.
No matter how or why they came, those more recent immigrants each had an immigration story to tell. Finding those stories is one of the most fascinating aspects of genealogy. You may never find any documentation of your own ancestor’s journey to America, but it is usually possible to find a general description of the typical travels of a class of people.
For example, I know that my earliest traveler to America was an ancestor named Richard Terry. Richard arrived in Boston in 1635 aboard the James. He was seventeen years old when he stepped onto American shores. He didn’t leave any records about his journey, but it is still possible to get an idea about what his travel was like by learning about other, more famous journeys. The Mayflower had arrived only fifteen years before. There are many descriptions about its journey and what the conditions on board were like. It’s logical to assume that young Richard’s journey was somewhat similar in terms of ship conditions and length of the voyage.
If you’re lucky, you may find a journal or diary written by someone your ancestor sailed with. For later immigrants, you may also find photos of the ship. A good place to look for these kind of immigration documents is http://www.norwayheritage.com/ . This free website is a goldmine of immigration information, and it applies to all European immigrants, not just those from Norway. It’s a website worth spending some time exploring since it contains all sorts of good information.
It’s also possible to find information about enslaved ancestors’ trip to America, which was called the Middle Passage. PBS has a website called “Africans in America” which is an introduction to the Middle Passage. It can be found at https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part1/1p277.html .
For those of Asian descent, PBS has a website about Chinese immigration to the United States, beginning in the 1850s. It can be found at https://www.pbs.org/opb/historydetectives/feature/chinese-immigration/ . It’s also worthwhile to Google the name of other Asian groups plus the word “immigration” to find various websites about their immigration to America.
Newspapers from American cities can also give you a glimpse into what conditions were like in America when your ancestors arrived. Many newspapers are now digitized. Check free websites such as Chronicling America (https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/ ). Pay-for-view newspapers websites such as Newspapers.com and Genealogy Bank also hold newspapers for many areas and times.
For ancestors who arrived after the U.S. was formed, passenger lists are available. These begin in 1820 for the Port of New York. All surviving passenger lists are held by the National Archives. All have been digitized. The lists are available on various websites, both free and paid.
Even if you can’t narrow your immigrant’s journey to a specific passenger list, it’s worth exploring the internet for general information about what he or she may have experienced on the trip.