Let’s face it... Unless you are full-blood Native American, you have ancestors who immigrated to the U.S. at some point. Here are 4 things you need to know before you start searching for them.
1. Ellis Island is not the only place to look for immigration records. In fact, they only have records from 1892-1924. More people immigrated to the U.S. through other places/means/time periods than those who came through Ellis Island. However, you may have a family story about an ancestor who came through Ellis Island. I did too. After years of searching, I found that they actually sailed to Canada and crossed the boarder into the U.S. that way. The lesson here is, don’t get caught up on Ellis Island records. Another largely used immigration center was Castle Garden. There were 11 million immigrants who came through Castle Garden from 1820-1892. They have a searchable database at: http://www.castlegarden.org/ If you are confident your ancestor did come through Ellis Island, the best database to search is by usingSteve Morse’s “Ellis Island Gold Form” found at http://stevemorse.org. The Ellis Island search is very picky. You have to enter the name exactly. This poses a problem for most immigrants because their names were spelled wrong, or could not be translated into English the way they sounded in their native language. Steve Morse created a database that lets you have wildcards and sounds-like searches.
2. Which brings me to my next point. Don’t get caught up on the spelling of names. Names change over time, and especially when there was a move to another country. Try searching for just first names, ages, occupations, places of birth, etc. if the last name search isn’t showing results. Make sure to use variations of names. Try spelling the last name phonetically, or use wildcards such as * or ? in place of variant letters.
3. There are many types of immigration records to search, and many places to search. Don’t forget boarder crossings, ship/passenger records, emigration records (kept in the country they left), and naturalization records. Each record has different information, and not all records will be available for each of your ancestors. Also, it is important to know that not all passenger records are created equal. For the most part, the older the record, the less the information there will be. Ancestry has some great collections, but they don't have everything. FamilySearch has a great informational page with links for free searches for most of the ports, as well as websites that are helpful: https://familysearch.org/wiki/en/United_States_Immigration_Online_Genealogy_Records
4. It was very common for families to travel separately. Sometimes they sent one or two family members ahead, until they could save up for more money. A clue for finding the year they immigrated is checking the 1900, 1910, 1920, and 1930 census records. There is a column indicating the year of immigration. It may be different for each of the family members, so make sure to check all of the years listed.
Learning about your immigrant ancestors can be very rewarding! It’s amazing to think about what they went through so we could enjoy a country of liberty and dreams!