American genealogists usually come to a point when an ancestor immigrated and they have to figure out the exact place of origin.

In Europe however, we often have disappearing siblings (disappearing means: no marriage or death in the place of birth). Some might have moved nationally. Others might have emigrated, especially to the US.

What could be a workflow to screen their names for immigration to the US?

These are the requirements:

  • Applicable to a long list of names (several hundred)
  • Focus on the most promising collections
  • Time span from the late 18th to the early 20th century
  • 2
    I'm assuming you want a general plan of action that's not specific to the country of origin? This might be easier to answer if it's country-specific.
    – Jan Murphy
    Jan 19, 2017 at 23:08
  • 1
    Is your question better titled "Did my European family member immigrate to the United States?" I agree with @JanMurphy that this appears very broad and that focussing it down to a particular person from a particular country might make it more digestible for focussed Q&A. If there are already Q&As for what I suggest then perhaps include a few of them as examples.
    – PolyGeo
    Jan 19, 2017 at 23:25
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    I don't mind the broad question because we can point at it when writing answers to country-specific questions. But I suspect my FGIW answer is not exactly what lejonet had in mind.
    – Jan Murphy
    Jan 20, 2017 at 0:29
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    Be aware that many individuals made multiple trips and gaps in their presence in the old country might be hard to discern. One-place studies are helpful in catching references to people out of country (or in military service, at school or in apprenticeships) at the time of life events in their relatives. "America" is an ambiguous term that has often NOT been limited to the USA.
    – bgwiehle
    Jan 20, 2017 at 1:11

2 Answers 2


This answer is most applicable to those who emigrated 1880-1915. Preparation, as outlined by Jan Murphy, is essential.

There were 2 U.S. record collections I used most extensively when I mined my genealogy database to track down emigrants from my villages of interest:

  1. World War I Draft Registration Cards

Advantages - whole country coverage, self-reported, has name, (ideally) full date of birth, birthplace (but sometimes mangled or imprecise), citizenship status, nearest relative or contact (useful for common names)

Disadvantages - males only, limited age range in 1917 & 1918 [born 1872-1900], omits those already in military service and (of course) those already deceased or returned

  1. Ellis Island and Castle Garden Passenger Lists

Advantages - primary port of entry from Europe, lists after 1905 have columns for previous visits, physical descriptions and other useful facts

Disadvantages - names and places often horribly indexed (which is why I prefer the one-step searches and the Ellis Island site for more search flexibility)

There is a third resource type that I used, but it is not a single collection. Researchers and genealogy societies that have focused on specific emigrant groups have published collections with lists of passengers mined from other sources. These resources include

Since these are compilations, they are subject to error and may be incomplete. However, they are a great starting point for the groups covered. Most likely, there are others.

For earlier emigration, sites with passenger list transcriptions, such as The Ship's List and Olive Tree Genealogy are reportedly helpful.

  • The three databases Germans to America / Italians to America / Russians to America from FamilySearch are based on the same data as the US National Archives' AAD passenger list databases in my answer. It's useful to have multiple places to search the same data because search engines can differ -- but even if people prefer the Family Search search interface, the scope and content statements at NARA can be useful.
    – Jan Murphy
    Jan 21, 2017 at 0:36
  • NARA's page on the WWI Draft Cards has historical background, including the three registration dates, and the birthdate range of the men required to register, and links to the microfilm roll lists for each state. archives.gov/research/military/ww1/draft-registration
    – Jan Murphy
    Jan 21, 2017 at 0:46

Note: I'm using examples for Germany in this answer because it is the country I'm most familiar on the continent, but the basic principles are the same for any country.

I'm going to start with the advice given by John P. Colletta, PhD., in his book They Came in Ships: A Guide to Finding Your Immigrant Ancestor's Arrival Record. Colletta suggests that you discover:

  1. Your ancestor's full, original name (much easier for those of you starting in Europe than it is for US researchers)
  2. Their age at arrival
  3. Their date of arrival

Since Colletta is preparing to help his readers search for passenger arrival lists, he is picking out the bits of information which is likely to appear in the search results for those arrival lists. We need to widen this to include any identifying features that will help you distinguish your research subjects when they are in a group of search results with other people who have the same name and are close in age.

So I would start by building a set of criteria that would help you do your searches. My list would include:

  1. Their name
  2. Their place of origin
  3. Any known occupations
  4. Their religious affiliations
  5. Their "last seen" data - their last known place and time before they 'disappear' from the records in Europe.
  6. Information about their family and FAN Club (friends, associates, neighbors).

If you haven't already, I would sort people into groups according to their place of origin, and the possible time frames for their emigration. The record groups you'll want to search in will differ, depending on the time period, and search strategies that work in 20th-century records may not be feasible for the earlier periods. All the research guides that are based for US audiences working in the other direction may help you, too. For example, the US National Archives' article Clues in Census Records, 1850-1930 summarizes what information can be found in which census years. Articles or classes that talk about the different waves of emigration from the country can provide useful clues for researchers on both sides of the emigration/immigration dilemma.

Next I would do a search in Google Books, Hathi Trust, the Internet Archive, Google Scholar, PERSI (the Periodical Source Index), and via Google or other search engines, to look for academic works, genealogy periodicals, histories, blog posts, or whatever else I could find, to find out background information and/or worked case studies showing where and how people from the country of origin came to the USA. Study the research methods of those researchers and see what sources they used, and how they used them -- read the works cited in their bibliographies to get ideas. In some cases, you can get spectacular results, such as the time when I found a book that was a revised edition of someone's doctoral dissertation about the German immigrant community in my husband's parent's hometown. From that and other writings, I learned how Germans in particular had been recruited for their skills as the US was becoming more industrialized. You may be able to find your missing person by following the trail of other people from the same community, since people often migrate in groups or practice chain migration.

Which record groups to focus on depends on the time period, but there are some things to consider, such as where are you most likely to find them. I'll use Germany as an example, looking up Werdau (Werdau, Zwickau, Zwickau, Sachsen) in the online Meyers Gazetteer. The website's creators have broken down in the detail section the different jurisdictions where the researcher might find records about people from Werdau, and what kind of records might be available at each level. If you aren't already familiar with United States jurisdictions, you might want to make a table or checklist like the detail section in the online MeyersGaz to sort out the what you want to focus on, because records can be found at all jurisdictional levels. Doing a place search in the FamilySearch Catalog, starting with United States, allows you to choose places contained within, working your way down to smaller and smaller levels. The online Atlas of Historical County Boundaries at the Newberry Libary, in the publications section, has information about when counties were created, and has shapefiles which you can download; the interactive map is down, but a similar county boundary map can be found at https://www.mapofus.org/.

If you are starting from zero and have no idea where your person may be in the USA, you may want to start with doing surname searches in the large Federal datasets that cover the entire country, such as the US Federal Census, and the passenger lists at the US National Archives' Access to Archival Databases (AAD), just to get an idea of where your most common surnames are found the records. Don't restrict yourself only to sites that are intended for use by genealogists -- academic projects such as Immigrant Entrepreneurship: German-American Business Biographies provide valuable context.

In some cases, like newspaper research, you may be able to find your missing people by searching for the place of origin, and sometimes you might find your missing person by searching for the names of the people who stayed behind in Germany. The Library of Congress has a portal for their collection at German American Newspapers and Periodicals; their project Chronicling America has featured articles such as Chronicling America’s Historic German Newspapers and the Growth of the American Ethnic Press. Ernest Thode's Historic German Newspapers Online, published in 2014, lists over 2,000 historic German-language newspapers online.

I'll add more ideas for a specific workflow as they come to me, but if you haven't already, start a research journal to assemble the information you already know, so you can look for patterns. In colonial times, sometimes entire congregations migrated together. That may not be the case so much for the 20th century, but being aware of the movement of clergymen or other community leaders might give you important clues.

  • 3
    May not be true of earlier immigrant waves, but certainly those arriving in the mid-1800s and later formed and joined fraternal clubs and mutual aid societies that were specific to their ethnic identities. Newpapers often included their activities in the social columns.
    – bgwiehle
    Jan 20, 2017 at 1:05
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    @bgwiehle -- absolutely! And the officers of the fraternal organizations are often listed with the organizations in the backs of the City Directories. What I don't know is whether knowing someone's Mother Lodge in the old country would help you find them in the US, in the same way I was able to work backwards from the lodge in the US to someone's Mother Lodge in Scotland. The Grand Lodges may not be set up to search statewide -- you may need to know someone's lodge number in order for the membership secretaries to find them for you.
    – Jan Murphy
    Jan 20, 2017 at 4:22
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    The clubs I was referring to generally did not have equivalents in Europe. Some sent funds and did charitable works or disaster relief there (which where reported by the US newspapers), but there was no permanent presence.
    – bgwiehle
    Jan 20, 2017 at 14:48

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