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23-06-2015, 21:20   #1
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Introduction to Genealogy in the United States of America

When doing genealogy research in the United States, you have to treat it like 50 countries joined together as each state has their own laws and responsibility for the creation and collection of certain types of records (e.g. BMD, probate, state census, etc.). Coupled with that is the fact that there is a federal government for the entire country and it also creates and maintains different types of records (e.g. federal census, military, naturalization, passenger list). A third layer is added with the non-government organizations, such as the Catholic Church, who also create and maintain their own records.

At the very least when starting research in the U.S. try and have:
• the name of the ancestor
• an approx time period when they came to the U.S./left Ireland
• a city/state/port of arrival AND/OR a city/state of residence

The bible of American genealogy is The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy (Szucs & Luebking, 2006, 3rd ed.). Both Ancestry and Familysearch have excellent free Wikis, and other learning resources, that you can consult for more information about all types of genealogy topics and records.

There are too many websites to list, but the major ones with records are:
• (€ - all types of records)
• (free - all types of records)
• ((€ - all types of records)
• (€ - mostly military records)
• (free - cemetery records)
• (€ - all types of records)

No matter what type of record you are interest in, try Ancestry and Familysearch. Check out the Genealogy in Time magazine Top 100 for 2015 for other useful websites.

Remember, the vast majority of American records are not online. It might seem like they are, but the billions that are online are just a drop in the ocean. The remainder are still in the National Archives, individual state archives, various state health departments, surrogate courts, libraries, etc. Do your online research, but realize that you will more than likely have to do offline research too. One way to access them is via the microfilm loan facility provided by the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah (if is from these millions of microfilms that the records on are scanned from). Consult the Familysearch catalog, and if you find a relevant film you can have it delivered to your local LDS Family History Centre for $7.50. Pearse St. Library in Dublin is also an approved Family History Centre.

Just like with any genealogy research, start with what you know and work backwards/forwards through the records. It is important to conduct good research, especially with those common Irish names. Try and get original records, cite all of your sources fully, reconcile conflicting evidence and gather as much evidence as possibly before claiming an ancestors as your own.

Census Records
The federal census is the most well known, but there are also state censuses to avail of.

Federal census
This is usually the first record set that people begin their research with. It is available on many websites, including most all of the ones listed above. The subscription sites have both a complete index and all images. Familysearch has a complete index but images for only some years. recently announced that they now have the first free complete index and accompanying images for all years.

The U.S. federal census has been conducted every ten years since 1790, and those records are available from 1790 to 1880 and 1900 to 1940. The 1890 federal census was destroyed in a fire (fragments remain for some places). The early censuses (1790–1840) list only the names of free heads of household; they give numerical representations for the rest of the people in the household. These can include both family and non-family members. From the 1850 census onward all members of a household are listed, along with their state or country of birth. For those born in Ireland only the country is usually mentioned; it is very rare to see a county or town given.

From 1880 onwards the census asks for each individual’s relationship to the head of household. A great deal of information is given on census population schedules from 1900; for example, "month and year of birth" and "number of years married" in 1900; "year of immigration to the United States" in 1900 and 1910; "if naturalized, year of naturalization" in 1920; and "place of birth of this person, place of birth of of birth of mother" in 1900-1930.

State censuses
This U.S. Census Bureau webpage gives a complete list of all editions of censuses in states where they were carried out. They are useful because they were often carried out in "off years" from the federal census, e.g. 1823, 1875, 1892. Try the main genealogy websites first to see if they have them. For example, most, if not all editions of the New York State census are on Ancestry and Familysearch. Failing that, you will have to go old-school and consult microfilms and possibly the original records themselves. If you have to go down the non-online route, it is very useful to have an address so you can work out which electoral district your ancestors lived in and hence which microfilm, document, book they might be in.

Birth, Marriage and Death records
Each state has their own system and laws for recording vital record events (births, marriages and deaths). Mandated statewide recording of vital events only began between 1880-1910, with a different year for each state. For example, New York state began recording vital events in 1881 and Alabama in 1908. Compliance from state residents was not necessarily uniform from the beginning of registration. Before these official start dates, many towns and counties in each state began recording vital events at an earlier date. In Massachusetts, towns began keeping such records in the 17th century. Many large cities (New York, Boston, Philadelphia, etc) often have their own vital records, usually separate from the state system.

This link will tell you where vital records for all 50 states are kept. The main websites also have many vital record databases and they are added to all the time for various states.

Immigration Records
The two mains types are passenger lists and naturalization records.

Passenger Lists
It is important to consider both the U.S. and Canada when trying to find passenger list information for those who immigrated to the United States. Conceivably, they could have landed anywhere on the Atlantic or Gulf of Mexico shoreline.

The main ports of immigration were: Galveston, Texas; New Orleans, Louisiana; Mobile, Alabama; Charleston, South Carolina; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Baltimore, Maryland; New York City, New York; Boston, Massachusetts; Saint John, New Brunswick (Canada); Prince Edward Island (Canada); Saint Johns, Newfoundland (Canada); Quebec City, Quebec (Canada); Montreal, Quebec (Canada).

Up until the Famine (1846-1851), most people who came to North America did so through Canadian ports, as the passage was shorter and less expensive that going to an American port. Those who were intent on going to America would then travel or walk to their destination. Unfortunately, standardized passenger list for Canadian ports only began to be collected in 1865. You will have to consult with records in local, provincial and national archives and libraries in Canada to see if passenger lists exist for before that year. Many stayed for a period of time in their initial Canadian landing place before heading to the U.S. It is suggested to try and consult Church, court and poorhouse records in that port of arrival.

Suggested sites: Library and Archives Canada / Access to list of archives by province

Immigration to the United States can be divided into four eras for Irish research purposes: pre-1820, 1820-1845, 1846-1891 and 1892-1954.

In 1819, an Immigration Act legislated for the mandatory creation and collection of passenger lists (known as custom lists). This began in 1820 and there are no standardized passenger lists from before this year. Consult the Passenger and Immigrant List Index (P. Philby, 16+ vols., 1981-2012) if you are researching pre-1820 arrivals. My understanding is that this publication is not available at a library in Ireland so you may have to consider inter-library loans. It is also a database on Ancestry.

Within the United States, up to about 1830, Philadelphia was the main port of arrival and more Protestants than Catholics immigrated from Ireland. After 1830, most immigrants came to New York and more Catholics than Protestants came to the United States from Ireland.

The onset of the Famine in 1846 saw huge numbers of Irish people come to the United States. They flocked to eastern seaboard port cities, primarily Boston and New York. By this time, New York dominated other ports in terms of numbers of arrivals, but Ellis Island did not yet exist. Before 1855, the ships just docked in Manhattan. Castle Garden opened in 1855 and was used until 1890. Ellis Island opened in 1892 and was used until 1954, when it closed (this is a simplified time line - the 'Barge Office' as used from 1890-1891 and 1897-1900).

Ancestry and Familysearch have near complete databases for passenger list/arrivals for many of the east coast cities, such as New York, Boston, Philadelphia. Also try:

1846-1851 Irish arrivals to port of New York (free on National Archives website)

1820-1892 Castle Garden (free, 11 million+, incomplete and ongoing)

1892-1954 Ellis Island ($, 51million+ records)

Naturalization records
The vast majority of immigrants to the United States became naturalized citizens. The Naturalization Act of 1802 created a three-step process for becoming an American citizen. First, the immigrant filed a declaration of intention to become a citizen (known as "first papers"). Immigrants could do this at any time, and many did so shortly after arriving in the U.S. After a period of two to five years the immigrant could then file a petition for naturalization ("second papers").

Before 1906, there was no central repository for naturalizations records. A person could start, continue, and finish the naturalization process at any court, of which there were local, state and federal versions. Therefore researchers should try to work out which courts were near an immigrant’s home or place of work. For naturalizations that occurred after 27 September 1906, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS, formerly the INS) will have a copy of the records. Up to 1922, women and children were automatically naturalized if the woman/mother married a citizen or if the husband/father became naturalized. After 1922 they also had to go through the naturalization process.

Read this article on the website of the National Archives for a more comprehensive understanding of naturalization and the associated records.

Try Ancestry and Familysearch for index databases and records, and also the websites of local government offices. For example, Chicago is in Cook County, Illinois and their Clerk of the Circuit Court website has an index of 500,000+ records for naturalizations from 1871-1929.

Cemetery records
Tens of millions of headstone transcriptions and images have come online in the last number of years. Headstones can also be one of the best chances of finding a place of origin in Ireland. The three main websites for such information are, and Many cemeteries have their own website with databases, so search for them online if you have the name of the cemetery from a death cert or know where the relevant person is buried. Many local genealogy and history groups have collected headstone information and published them in books. Search WorldCat and Amazon for the name of a town/place+cemetery, or just the name of the cemetery.

If there is one things America has had an abundance of since the 1600s, it's newspapers. The US Newspaper Directory lists every known newspaper that was published in the United States since 1690. You can search by state, time period, ethnicity, etc. There are also a lot of websites with digitised newspapers. Some are free and some are accessible by subscription. Start with ICON, a worldwide list of digitised newspaper websites that handily divides the American listing by state. One that is surprisingly missing from the list is Fulton History, a bizarre website, with something like 27 million+ free digitised newspaper pages.

Local genealogy and history societies
There is a tremendous volunteer ethos among the genealogy community in the United States. Every state has a few genealogy societies that cover a different town, city, region or county. The Federation of Genealogy Societies has a database where you can find the contact details for all of their members. At the very least they should be able to answer a specific query (not "tell me about Patrick Murphy in Boston") that can further your research. Many of these organizations are transcribing and digitizing their local records and putting them on their website, either for free or for their members (accessible by becoming a subscribing member). For example, the Troy (a town in New York state near Albany, the state capital) Irish Genealogy Society has transcribed many thousands of local records.

Shameless plug alert (but also useful info)
For more detailed information about records in the U.S. that are useful for Irish research, see my series of articles in Irish Lives Remembered magazine, the archive of my website, Townland of Origin, and my book, Finding Your Irish Ancestors in New York City.

This sticky is just a brief introduction as there are many other types of records that are of real use: military records, probate records, city directories and Church registers all spring to mind. Consult the Ancestry and Familysearch Wikis, mentioned above, or get googling!

Last edited by pinkypinky; 12-12-2018 at 09:34.
Coolnabacky1873 is offline  
23-06-2015, 22:17   #2
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Thanks a million to Coolnabacky1873 for doing this. I am stickying it for future reference.
pinkypinky is offline  
24-06-2015, 07:51   #3
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I'd also add that local libraries can be a priceless resource, especially in more remote areas. Most will be very familiar with genealogical inquiries and should have a good handle on what resources are available.
RGM is offline  
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08-08-2016, 13:38   #4
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a great free resource for New York newspapers is
KildareFan is offline  
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17-07-2017, 05:09   #5
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Originally Posted by KildareFan View Post
a great free resource for New York newspapers is
Fascinating resource, thanks for posting it! It has an archaic search method, but the info is priceless to those researching. I searched for a specific article and looked through 2800 listings, didn't find my story, but what a wealth of historic info there! Most US news archives go through a paywall now, so having this free resource for NY archived records is awesome!
DunnoKidz is offline  
12-12-2018, 02:58   #6
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I'd like to add that's most valuable feature is its city directories. In between censuses, you can search your ancestors year by year, or the surname, relatives and associates. These directories have been critical in my research and have solved many a mystery--and uncovered more. Be sure to use variant spellings, as ever. If you are not finding your name, think of a common name that your less common name might be close to and search that. Brown instead of Bruton, for example.

If you are an Ancestry subscriber, Fold3 is half-price but you have to ask. Not sure if that is only for US & World subscriptions.

And a typo in the sticky--FindAGrave, not FineAGrave.
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