In my first Jewish genealogy post, I talked about how to figure out your ancestor’s name. Now that you have a potential name, let’s find where in the world they are! Understanding Jewish immigration is key in researching your ancestor. If you know Jewish history, you know that past generations tended to move all over the place. While this post focuses mainly on immigration to America, some of these tools can be used in other parts of the world.
Know Your History
If your Jewish ancestor is one of the millions that came to America, the first step is narrowing down where in America they may have landed. To do this, you have to know the history of Jewish immigration. The first Jewish settlement in America was by a group of Sephardic Jews who made their home in New Amsterdam (or modern day New York) in September 1654. This group of 23 were fleeing persecution by the Portuguese Inquisition after the conquest of Dutch Brazil.
From 1654 to 1820, Jewish immigrants found their way to American shore through several different ports. The most popular were New York, Newport, Philadelphia, Savannah, and Charleston. Most of these ports had records of those who were allowed into the country. In 1820, a law was passed that required certain information to be included on passenger lists. Some of the information you can find on these lists include: names, age, gender, occupation, country of origin, and country/place of intended destination.
In 1855, Castle Garden in New York City opened. This was America’s first official immigration center. Castle Garden operated, officially, from August 3, 1855 to April 18, 1890. It was closed when the federal government decided to control all ports of entry and process all immigrants to America.
The most well-known port of entry, Ellis Island, opened in 1892. This port processed more immigrants, not just Jewish, than all the North American ports combined. The Ellis Island Foundation has a website where you can search their database for ancestors who would have arrived between 1820 (pulling from other ports) to 1957. According to their site, they have over 65 million passenger records and ship manifests. You can find more information at https://www.statueofliberty.org/ellis-island/
If you are having a difficult time finding your ancestor when they arrived, there is a chance that at some point they went back to the homeland. Many immigrants ventured back home either to pick up additional family members to bring to America or they were just homesick. Whatever the reason, they would have needed a passport.
An example of a passport application is below. This belongs to my 4th cousin 4x removed, Elmer Murphy. While Elmer himself wasn’t an immigrant, he traveled extensively thought the world. In his application, we are able to learn where he was born, the date of his birth, where he currently lives, and his occupation. Since he is traveling with his wife, we learn her birth date and place of birth (although it doesn’t actually state her name). Some passport applications include a picture of the applicant. Even though Elmer’s application doesn’t, he is required to give a description of himself. We learn that he is currently 32 years old, 5’10”, with blue eyes, dark hair, and a dark complexion. Just those few details, allows you to be able to start picturing what your ancestor may look like.
When looking for your ancestor’s passport applications, Ancestry has an extensive collection. Also, keep in mind that the National Archives holds applications from October 1795 to March 1925. For applications from April 1925 to present, you will need to contact the State Department.
With Elmer, I was able to go one step further when looking at immigration records. It seems that he had business in Mexico and a card that allowed him to travel between the two countries. This card was different than a passport as it was for people other than tourists and visitors. The bonus, there is a picture with this one!
Just like researching any other documents, you will need to keep in mind spelling variations. This is especially true when looking at ship manifests. Names at ports tended to be spelled phonetically. With immigrants from different countries and different languages, most of those working at the port didn’t take the time to make sure names were spelled correctly. Also, names were sometimes translated into what they would be in English. For example, Schmidt became Smith. While it can be frustrating, spelling of names sometimes requires you to play around with the spelling before you find what you are looking for.
Naturalization papers are a great source of information. Before 1906, the information contained in the papers varied depending on what court was handling the file. A three step process was adopted which helped to correct the problem. With the new process, the applicant was required to file a Declaration of Intent, then a Petition for Citizenship, and lastly a Certificate of Naturalization. All three documents contain valuable genealogy information.
Below is an example of a Declaration of Intent. This belongs to Richard Edward Burns who immigrated from Ireland. In this document, we learn when Richard was born, where he was born, which port he arrived at, and when he arrived to America. We also see where Richard is renouncing his “allegiance and fidelity” to Queen Victoria.
When looking for your ancestor’s immigration documents, there are a few key things to keep in mind. Remember, immigration documents could be filed in any court. There was not one specific government agency that handled immigration documents. If you’re having a difficult time finding your ancestor in America, take a look at Canadian records. America capped immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe which forced some immigrants to come in at Canadian ports. The two countries did develop a program where if the immigrants intent was to continue to America, they were given a card to present at the border that stated that information. Also, if you know they entered at an American port, but cannot figure out when, take a look at census records. In the years 1870, 1900, 1910, 1920, and 1930, the census asked questions regarding immigration status. This sometimes included the year they immigrated. I have found that the year given to the census taker isn’t always accurate, but it at least will give you a time frame start with.