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Tracing Family History at the National Archives

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has vast holdings in several locations throughout the country and has a very comprehensive website. Both can help you trace your family history.

Visit a Local Office of the National Archives:

In addition to the national headquarters in Washington, D.C. (866-272-6272), there are regional offices throughout the country. Visit archives.gov/locations for locations. You will need to check with each office to find out exactly what records they hold and what programs they offer.

For example, the National Archives in New York City is located at 201 Varick Street on the 12th Floor (entrance on Houston Street, between Varick and Hudson; phone 866-840-1752 or 212-401-1620).

This location has:

  • Indexed passenger lists for most years from 1820-1957
  • Access to Castle Garden's online database for 1855-1892 (castlegarden.org)
  • Access to Ellis Island online database from 1892-1924 (ellisisland.org)
  • Free access to ancestry.com
  • Genealogy Workshops


Visit the
website of the National Archives (www.archives.gov):

NARA's web site is very comprehensive and contains an extensive listing of different kinds of records useful for genealogical research; and many records can be ordered online, or by mail or email. The particular part of their website that is useful for genealogical work is: http://aad.archives.gov/aad/(go to the section on "Genealogy/ Personal History").

The following is information that might help you find more information about your ancestors.

Passenger Records

When you find your ancestor's name in what is called an index, use the information to locate the passenger list. Usually the index will direct you to the exact place on the manifest that your ancestor's name appears. If the index provides only the name of the vessel and date of arrival, a line-by-line search of the manifest will be required to find the name.

Some specialized indexes have been compiled by nationality, port of entry or port of departure. You might also want to check naturalization petitions after 1892 and Federal census schedules for 1900, 1910, 1920, or 1930 which may list the year of immigration.

Some passenger records are available only at the National Archives and cannot be viewed online at its website.

Steamship Registers and Directories

If you know the steamship on which your immigrant ancestor traveled, check Registers of Vessels Arriving at the Port of New York from Foreign Ports 1789-1919, a National Archives publication, and/or the Morton Allen Directory of European Passenger Steamship Arrivals.

If Your Ancestor Was Enslaved

Even though your ancestor was not listed by name in the cargo manifest, circumstantial evidence of the ship can be obtained if you know where, when, and by whom the enslaved person was first purchased. You can then search:

  • The National Archives which holds microfilm copies of manifests of slave ships arriving in the ports of Savannah, Mobile, and New Orleans, 1789-1808

  • In museums' special collections containing manifests of slave ships; or in libraries' published compilations of documents related to the slave trade in America.

  • slavevoyages.org The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database has information on nearly 35,000 slaving voyages.

Naturalization Records

Nineteenth century petitions for citizenship/naturalization seldom provide arrival information; after 1892, however, a date of arrival usually appears on the document. Beginning in October 1906, the petition includes the date of arrival, vessel name, and port of entry. Indexes are available for most of these records. To conduct a search you will need to know your ancestor's name, place of residence, and the approximate time period when the petition for naturalization was filed. When searching, you should be aware that an immigrant had to maintain continuous residence for a minimum of five years before being eligible for citizenship.

From 1855 to 1922, married women derived citizenship through their husbands, and would not have to file separate papers, so the dates of their arrivals will seldom appear on their spouses' petitions. However, the law of September 22, 1922 required all women, regardless of their marital status, to file separately.

A few additional notes:

  • Petitions filed in Federal Court (i.e. the United States District Courts or Circuit Courts) are in the custody of the Courts or the National Archives, and usually are stored at one of the Regional Archives or Federal Records Centers. Petitions filed in local courts are in the custody of those local courts.
  • If your ancestor was naturalized after September 29, 1906 and you are unsuccessful in locating a record at the National Archives or County Clerk's office, you can submit a Freedom of Information/Privacy Act Request, Form G-639, to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service's regional offices or their main office in Washington, D.C.
  • Sometimes it's virtually impossible to read the original manifests, and sometimes minor changes or alterations could not be avoided. The task of digitizing the original manifest was accomplished by twelve thousand volunteers from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who extracted and transcribed data taken directly from microfilms of the ships' passenger manifests provided by the National Archives and Records Administration. Altogether over 5.6 million volunteer hours were donated to this project.

Learning More about Your Ancestors | Finding Arrival Records Online | Tracing Family History at the National Archives | Conducting Family History Research on Ellis Island

Did You Know?

Dorm Room

Although most immigrants processed at Ellis Island stayed between three and five hours, about 20% stayed overnight in dormitory rooms until their cases could be cleared. Many immigrants found these accommodations a big improvement over the severe conditions of traveling to America in "steerage".