Martha Gerdeman


Everyone who lives in the Americas has immigrant ancestors, even if they wandered across the land bridge between Asia and North America during the Ice Age.

Many among those of us who have European ancestors automatically think of Ellis Island when we consider our immigrant forebears. Ellis Island, however, was open during only a short period in American history.

Originally there were no immigration laws. In 1787 the Constitution included a section (Article 1, Section 8) that gave Congress the power to enact naturalization laws. In 1790 a two-year residency requirement was established for citizenship. In 1795 the length of time required was lengthened to five years, but again there was no restriction on immigration.

That means that those of us whose ancestors came before 1790 are lucky to find records. Some very early passenger lists do exist; there are many on and has links to “Partner Sites” that offer many other collections. (Search the Wiki for “U.S. immigration”).

On Ancestry I have found a passenger last for John Foulsham (Folsom), my earliest proven immigrant ancestor. By simply Googling his name plus “immigration 1638,” I was able to add the name of the ship (The Diligent).

Not until 1877 were the first laws restricting immigration passed. In a nutshell, all succeeding acts have been written for the same purpose…to exclude “undesirables,” a category that has varied over the years.

So, before 1877 we have to depend on passenger lists to find our immigrants. From 1820 on captains of arriving ships were expected to provide passenger lists for their vessels. Then in 1855 an actual immigration station was created at Castle Garden, N.Y. There is a website,, which has a search feature, but when I tried it, I got a page of gibberish only a computer geek could understand.

Castle Garden operated until 1892 when Ellis Island took over as the processing center for immigrants. According to the Ellis Island website, probably 40% of us have ancestors who came through Ellis Island. It stayed in operation until 1954. In 1897 the building burned to the ground, taking all records to that date with it. Customs lists, however, do survive and immediately a new, fireproof building was constructed.

Not everyone had to pass through the processing examination, only those in third class, or steerage. They were the poor folks, fleeing one thing or another, hoping to find a better life. I guess the authorities figured that those passengers who could afford first- or second-class passage were able to support themselves and apparently healthy.

And I hope you know by now that no official at Ellis Island changed your ancestor’s name. Passenger lists were completed in the port of embarkation, by workers who spoke many languages and could talk to the immigrant in his or her language. If the name was changed, there are several reasons. First, could my ancestor read or write. In other words, did he have any idea how to spell the name? Besides that, when he arrived in the U.S. of A., was his name difficult to spell or pronounce? He may have changed it to fit it in. Gradually, the Schmidts may have become Smiths.

They may not have wanted to be traced, especially if they were running away from something like compulsory military service. Or, when they spread out into other parts of the country, the county clerk probably spelled the name the way he heard it. That’s true in the case of my Orsborns, frequently recorded as some variation of Osborn.

If you haven’t tried to find immigration records for those ancestors, give it a try. Next week we’ll look at some hints in other records that can help.

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