Tracing Family History at the National Archives

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) maintains a very comprehensive website, and has vast holdings in several locations throughout the country.

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 for locations. You will need to check with each office to find out exactly what records they hold, and what programs they offer.

The National Archives in New York City is located at 1 Bowling Green, New York, NY 10004. Phone: 1-866-840-1752

You can also access immigration records for family members who passed through Castle Garden in The Battery (1855-1892) and those who passed through the Ellis Island Immigration Station (1892-1954).

Visit the website of the National Archives (

For those wishing to extend their search and continue to trace their family history, the Genealogy/ Personal History section of the National Archives is comprehensive, and contains an extensive listing of different records useful for genealogical research. Many records can be ordered online.

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.

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 department that 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.

  • 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. Documents after 1892 however usually provide a date of arrival. 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. The dates of their arrival will seldom appear on their spouses' petitions. 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 are usually 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. 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

Last updated: July 28, 2021

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