Several celebrities in the current series of WDYTYA? USA traced their forebears to Britain. Kimberly Powell reveals how to research your ancestors who emigrated to the United States
Kimberly Powell reveals how to research your ancestors who emigrated to the United States
Along with the British colonists who first founded America, nearly 3.5 million British emigrants chose the United States as their home between 1820 and 1930, making it likely that most British family trees contain an American relative or two.
Nearly half a million English, Scottish and Welsh arrived in the US between about 1845 and 1855 in the first of three large waves of British emigrants. Many were attracted by opportunities in the textile factories of New England; or the lead mining regions of Illinois and Wisconsin; the iron and copper mining ranges of Michigan; the coal mines of Ohio, Wisconsin, and Indiana; and the gold fields of California and Nevada. For others, the lure was land. During this period, government land was selling for $1.25 an acre, making it possible to buy for about the same cost as renting for a year or two in Britain. Additional US acts passed during this period made some land available for as little as 12.5 cents per acre.
A second large wave of British emigrants arrived after the American Civil War (1861-1865), followed closely by a third sustained wave that began about 1879 and lasted until the depression of 1893. English emigrants made up 13.6 per cent of all European emigrants to America during the peak decade of the 1880s, attracted by the construction of the country’s transcontinental railroads, homestead opportunities in the Great Plains and American West, and the need for skilled workers brought about by America’s rapid industrialisation. Cheaper steamship fares made passage more affordable, and many US railroad companies promised low-interest loans for emigrants willing to buy land and settle near their rail lines. One final surge of British emigration after the Second World War included nearly 100,000 war brides, as well as British citizens who once again viewed America as a land of opportunity following the ravages of war.
Following the trail
If you’ve located a relative in UK Outbound Passenger Lists, 1890-1960 on Ancestry or
Nearly 3.5 million British emigrants chose the United States as their home between 1820 and 1930
Findmypast, then it’s relatively easy to follow the trail back to America, where millions of passenger arrival manifests are also available online.
For the majority of British emigrants who left for America prior to 1890, you may need to use other records in England to narrow their approximate departure date.
Ellis Island didn’t open until 1892, but earlier emigrants can be found arriving through Castle Garden in New York ( castlegarden.org), as well as ports in Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia, New Orleans and dozens of other locations.
Emigrants may also appear in naturalisation records, border crossing records between Canada and the United States, and passport applications. Many of these records can be accessed online through genealogy websites such as Ancestry and FamilySearch (with Worldwide/ World subscriptions).
US federal census records can be a good first source of information on emigrant relatives. An individual’s occupation may provide a clue to their motivation for emigration. Censuses for 1900, 1910, 1920 and 1930 also show the individual’s year of emigration, which can help narrow the search for passenger lists. Learn how to use these and other clues in census records to lead you to additional resources at abt.cm/1FByVED.
British emigrants who went in search of cheap land from the US government may be found among the records of the General Land Office of the Bureau of Land Management ( glorecords.blm. gov), which offers access to digitised images of more than five million Federal land titles issued between 1820 and the present, including homesteading records.
Records of those who went to work in the US’s mines or factories are incomplete and scattered. Check with state archives where your US relatives were living and search the manuscript collections of more than 1,000 archives nationwide using ArchiveGrid ( beta. worldcat.org/archivegrid). Other useful records to consult include birth, marriage and death (vital) records, military and others, which can be accessed via the worldwide subscription options on websites such as ancestry.co.uk, findmypast. co.uk, and others, plus free websites including familysearch. org (see Record Round-up panel).
However, a foray into social history sources can help bring to life the day-to-day joys and tribulations that your ancestors may have faced.
Emigrant guides produced by government officials and transportation companies hoping to encourage British nationals to settle in the US are a rich source of detail. Wiley & Putnam’s Emigrant’s Guide ( bit. ly/1HPUSBb), published in London in 1854, offers “advice and instruction” for emigrants preparing for a voyage to America, covering everything from selecting a ship to how to find work.
Similar guides were written in America as well, some for settlers heading for specific areas. Many can be found online in historical book databases such as Google Books ( books.google.co.uk), Internet Archive ( archive.org) and the Hathi Trust ( hathitrust.org).
Historical newspapers can provide context for your family history. Advertisements, social
gossip, recipes and reports on topics such as crops, shipping, and local sickness outbreaks can tell you a lot about your ancestors in the area (see Record Round-up).
Manuscript collections, both online and in various university libraries and other repositories, can also help flesh out your ancestors’ stories through letters, company records and oral histories. Harvard University, for example, hosts an online collection that focuses on voluntary emigration to the United States between 1789 and 1930, with a
concentration on the 19th century, encompassing the peak periods of British emigration to the United States.
Specific sections detail emigrant records and stories from as the building of the transcontinental railroads. See ocp.hul.harvard.edu/ immigration. Manuscript collections can be searched through ArchiveGrid.
Many of these collections are not online, but there is often enough information in the finding aids to determine if a particular item is worth further investigation. For example, in one episode of Who Do You Think You Are? USA, a letter was found in an online collection at Yale University with a first-hand account of the death of Sarah Jessica Parker’s 4x great grandfather, John S Hodge, in the gold fields of California.
While you can uncover a lot about your American ancestors online, there is much more information available in county courthouses, state archives, university libraries and other repositories.
If you can’t visit America to do the research in person, you can hire a professional US-based genealogist via organisations such as the Association of Professional Genealogists ( apgen.org), the Board for Certification of Genealogists ( bcgcertification. org) and the International Commission for Accreditation of Professional Genealogists ( icapgen.org). Kimberly Powell is a genealogical educator, president of the Association of Professional Genealogists and genealogy expert for about.com.
A bustling Fifth Avenue in New
York on Easter morning, 1900
Steerage passengers on an Atlantic steamer bound for America, c1850