45 Reasons to Research Immigration Records


When I first started my ancestor research, after I had gotten over the initial excitement of reviewing census records and interviewing my living relatives, I almost immediately began trying to find my immigrant ancestors and how they got to America (Note: my earliest ancestor who immigrated came here in 1851). Through free repositories such as Ellis Island and Castle Garden and other sites, as well as those records available via subscription sites I plugged away.

After collecting a few records, I began to analyze the contents of those records. What I learned and the abundance of information available is below. There are tons of information included in these records – AND if you analyze them enough you can discover familial relationships that are much beyond what ship they arrived in and on what date they immigrated.

The first few records were really old – as in mid-1850’s immigrating old. Below is a sample of one of those records for one of my ancestors from his voyage to America in 1857.


Image 1

As you can see, the quality of the image is not too great and the amount of information is not abundant. Not to mention that the handwriting is difficult to read.

But things got better. Later versions of the ship manifests included additional information and were easier to read. And remember – many of the records had two pages of entries for the same person, so make sure that you look at the page before and the page after you have found someone. Here are some examples from the late 1800’s and 1900’s. And the last image is not from a ship, but from immigration via aircraft.


Image 2

Image 3

Image 4

Image 5

So, let’s take a look at the information available in the last four images – which make up the preponderance of the form types in the late 1800’s through mid-1900’s or so. As you can see, the later images were typed. This of course could create a problem – were they typed from a handwritten form, which could certainly introduce errors not only in typing but in transferring?

In any case, let’s list the information that is available in all the form variations and why it is valuable to our genealogy and family history research:

  1. Name of the Immigrant – to me this is always fascinating. Despite the legend that names were changed at Ellis Island – they certainly were not. But folks did change their name later. Members of my own family changed their Hebrew names to their English/American equivalents – not necessarily at the time of immigration but at some point later. So searching for the Anglicized name may not bear fruit in these cases when searching for their immigration records. Later naturalization records may give some hints to their birth name. Many times abbreviations were used. For example in Image 1, my ancestor Bernhard Braunhart had his entry shortened for his given name to “Bernh’
  2. Family – families certainly did travel together and sometimes not, but sometimes not on the same ship or in the same year. For example, my great grandmother immigrated in 1888; one sister in 1892, another sister and brother in 1890, her mother and yet another sister in 1898. Other relatives may have been on the same ship – so take a look at all the manifest pages. Just like in census records, a page or two away may be an aunt, a cousin, or other relative.
  3. Age
  4. Gender
  5. Marital Status
  6. Occupation
  7. Ability to Read and/or Write – also indicates which language they were proficient in.
  8. Nationality /Citizenship
  9. Race
  10. Place of Birth – City/town and country
  11. Place of Last Residence – City/town and country
  12. Name and Address of Contact for Location from Whence they Came – This is very useful information because it may provide information about a family member in the “old country” that you may know nothing about. This is especially true in Image 2 as this record was used to provide further evidence of the name of the father of my immigrant ancestor.
  13. Visa – Number and where and when issued.
  14. Final Destination – City/Town and State.
  15. Whether Going to Visit a Relative or Friend – name and complete address is requested in this entry. Similar to the contact person from whence they came – this entry can also provide terrific clues as to other relatives of the immigrant.
  16. Ever Been in Prison, Almshouse, Mental Institution or Supported by Charity?
  17. Polygamist?
  18. Anarchist?
  19. Labor Contract?
  20. Physical and Mental Health Condition?
  21. Deformed or Crippled?
  22. Do You Have a Ticket for Final Destination?
  23. Who Paid for Your Passage?
  24. How Much Money in Your Possession?
  25. Been to The U.S. Before?
  26. Height –  just one of the physical characteristics requested in the form. In lieu of a lack of a photo for an ancestor – these characteristics provide some clue to what they looked like.
  27. Hair Color
  28. Eye Color
  29. Complexion Type
  30. Marks of Identification
  31. Name of Ship
  32. Port/City of Departure
  33. Date of Departure
  34. Part of the Vessel for Travel – which deck, for example
  35. Port/City of Arrival
  36. Date of Arrival
  37. For Aircraft – Carrier and Flight Number
  38. Purpose for Coming to the U.S.
  39. Length of Intended Stay
  40. Ever Excluded from U.S., Deported or Arrested?
  41. Detained Aliens – Name
  42. Detained Aliens – Reason for Detention– usually medical; the form is not shown here but is a separate form
  43. Detained Aliens – Final Disposition
  44. Detained Aliens – Date of Discharge
  45. Detained Aliens – Number of Meals Provided

And by the way – if these 45 reasons aren’t enough for you, you can always research and analyze emigration records – that is the records for the immigrant from his or her departure location.

As stated above, there is a ton of information available in these documents and records – not just the name of the immigrant and the ship and date of arrival. One can piece together quite a bit of clues about the immigrant’s family, health, physical characteristics and other interesting and helpful information.

So search away – but make sure that you analyze every piece of information provided. You just might find new family members who did not even travel or immigrate.


Thank you for visiting The Ancestor Hunt!


Join the Conversation


  1. I didn’t know (or forgot) about the second page of immigration records. Thanks for the information-rich list.

  2. All that, and if the manifest was marked up later when the immigrant went through the naturalization process, you can even find exact dates and document numbers for records created decades after the immigrant arrived!

  3. Kenneth, will be posting a brief – very brief – review of this article and a link to it in the June issue of Root Cellar’s “Preserves” our 3 times/hr emagazine. FYI – I frequently post links, and make recommendations, to your website. You do a Super Job!!!
    Thank you, Linda

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