Beyond Ellis Island Records: How Do I Find Immigrant Forebears?

Eileen Pironti, Henry Louis Gates Jr. and NEHGS Researcher Meaghan Siekman
Ellis Island’s Immigrant Landing Station, Feb. 24, 1905
Library of Congress via the American Heritage website

Dear Professor Gates:

All of my grandparents emigrated from St. Kitts. Records of my paternal grandparents are available on the Ellis Island website between 1912 and 1922, but none of my maternal grandparents can be located, although, based on the 1910 U.S. federal census and the 1915 New York state census, they arrived in the United States between 1898 and 1901. Are there other databases with immigrant information? —Suzanne Clark


Yours is a common concern for the descendants of immigrants. We certainly do have some alternate sources that you or anyone with immigrant kin can check, but before we reveal them, we’d like you to consider the following.

Were Your Ancestors’ Names Misspelled?

One reason you have not been able to locate your immigrant ancestors’ passenger lists could be that their surnames or given names are spelled differently on passenger lists than what you have seen in other records. Another possibility is that the individuals who indexed their passenger records may have mistakenly misspelled their names.

In addition to the Ellis Island Foundation’s passenger-list database, there are other websites, both subscription-based and free, that have various passenger-list databases. FamilySearch has a number of free databases available on its website, including New York, Passenger Arrival Lists (Ellis Island), 1892-1924. Subscription-based also has a number of immigration-related databases, including New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957.

When searching these databases, one is able to search for variant spellings of surnames, as well as search a range of years, birthplaces and ages for the individual in question. Widening your search may help you locate an ancestor in these records. It is important to note that although your immigrant ancestors resided in New York, there is a possibility that they arrived in the United States through a port other than New York, which may account for their absence in the Ellis Island database.


Try Naturalization Records

If you still find that you are having difficulty locating your ancestors’ immigration information, there are other sources that may help you narrow your search. If your ancestors became naturalized citizens, naturalization records oftentimes provide information regarding an immigrant’s arrival date in the United States.


Note that prior to 1922, women were seldom naturalized individually and instead received naturalization status through their husbands. Checking U.S. census records is one way to determine whether an ancestor became a naturalized citizen. Federal census records for the years 1900, 1910, 1920 and 1930 include information on an individual’s year of arrival, naturalization status and year of naturalization. “NA” indicates that a person is a naturalized citizen; “PA” shows that the individual has begun the process of becoming a naturalized citizen; and “AL” means that he or she has not submitted the documentation to start the process of becoming a U.S. citizen. Depending on who provided the census taker with this information, the immigration and naturalization dates may not be accurate on these census records, but they will provide you with a starting point for determining when and if your ancestors became naturalized citizens.

Once you are able to narrow down an individual’s naturalization date, there are a number of sources available for obtaining naturalization records. FamilySearch has several databases online pertaining to naturalization records, including New York, County Naturalization Records, 1791-1980 and New York, Southern District Index to Petitions for Naturalization, 1824-1941. also has a number of databases related to naturalization records, including U.S. Naturalization Records Indexes, 1794-1995 and Selected U.S. Naturalization Records—Original Documents, 1790-1974. Some naturalization index databases are available on the subscription-based website Fold3, including Naturalization Index—NYC Courts and Naturalization Index: NY Eastern November 1925-December 1957.


Although you can view many naturalization records online, you may need to contact a local courthouse or the National Archives and Records Administration to obtain hard copies of these records. With regard to your ancestors who resided in New York, NARA in New York City has a number of naturalization records filed in federal, state and local New York courts prior to 1906. For post-1906 naturalization records, NARA’s holdings include only naturalization records filed in federal courts, so you would need to contact one of the local courthouses for information if you find that your ancestor did not file for naturalization through a federal court. Once you have obtained a copy of these records, you can then search for your ancestor’s passenger list based on the information provided on the naturalization documents.

Check Old Newspapers

Newspapers are another way to find out more about your ancestors’ immigration to the United States. Obituaries and other articles published in local newspapers may include biographical details about your ancestors, such as when they arrived in the United States and where they first settled. It may also mention other family members or close friends who immigrated with them. If they traveled with others, you may be able to locate their passenger list by searching under their relatives’ or associates’ names.


A number of newspapers are available online through free and subscription websites, such as GenealogyBank, and Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Libraries such as the New York Public Library have a number of newspapers available on microfilm available to patrons. If you are unable to visit a particular library that has a newspaper of interest to you, that library may provide services to search and photocopy newspaper articles for you.

Look Up Records of Mutual-Aid Societies

Mutual-aid societies are another source to search for additional information about an ancestor’s immigration. These organizations were created to provide newly arrived immigrants with financial assistance as well as a support network. In New York, these societies included the Bermuda Benevolent Association and the Sons and Daughters of Barbados. We did not find one for St. Kitts, but we encourage you to do additional research. It’s worth noting that the New York Public Library has among its collections the Bermuda Benevolent Association Records, 1898-1969, as well as the British Virgin Islands Benevolent Association Collection, 1926-1989.


Let us know how it works out!

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.


Send your questions about tracing your own roots to

This answer was provided in consultation with Eileen Pironti, a researcher from the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website,, contains more than 300 million searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today.

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