Knowing the history of U.S. immigration and the types of immigration records created when our ancestors arrived is key when considering finding their origins. Did they arrive as part of one of the original colonies or emigrate during the 19th or 20th century? Each era varies in record availability.
In part 1 of this series, we looked at getting started with the research by examining the ancestor’s records in the United States for clues to the immigration date. We also examined the importance of establishing the identity of our ancestors with a full name, birth or marriage date, ethnicity, religion, and family/friend relationships. With so many people of the same name immigrating, we need evidence to uniquely identify our ancestors. In this blog post, we’ll discuss immigration during the Colonial Era.
From the landing of the English in Jamestown in 1609 to the late 1700s, immigrants came from England, Scotland, France, Germany, Holland, and Africa. Not all of these wanted to come to America. Indentured servants, freed convicts, and enslaved Africans were forced to immigrate. It is estimated that fewer than a million people arrived during this time.
Before the establishment of the U.S. Federal Government in 1786, the colonies kept few lists of immigrants. Since most of the colonies were British and the majority of colonists during this era were also British, the individual colonies felt no need to keep records of the passengers. Don’t give up hope, though, if you have ancestors who emigrated during this era. Reasonably exhaustive research into the available sources will help us to know if we’ve done all we can to locate our ancestors. Compared to the number of immigrants, those present on the lists are small and generally are only the head of the household. However, people often emigrated in groups, so doing cluster research on the associates of our ancestors could give us more clues.
The importance of researching our ancestors back through time can’t be overemphasized. We want to ensure that we’re tracking the correct family line. To do that, we should complete research projects on each generation until we reach our hypothesized immigrant. That would include writing a report or summary of what we’ve found along the ancestral line. We could also consider confirming with DNA those lines, using autosomal DNA, Y-DNA, and mitochondrial DNA. If the ancestor is beyond the scope of autosomal DNA, we can seek out a Y-DNA test-taker who descends through the patrilineal line. That can help to connect us with other family lines that may have a better paper trail.
Once we have a reasonably good hypothesis of an ancestor who immigrated to the colonies, we can use all available sources. Because this is location-specific, we’ll need to create a locality guide for the colonies we suspect our ancestors came to originally. Learning the history and settlement patterns can give us clues. For example, my Scots-Irish ancestors likely immigrated during the 1700s and settled in North Carolina. Religious persecution in the old country, lack of land, and war were all reasons an ancestor might have made the journey across the pond.
To give you an idea of how many immigrants from each country arrived before 1790, see the following list.1
Ulster Scots-Irish 135,000
Ireland 8,000 (Incl. in Scot-Irish)
British Isles total 425,500
The following map can give you an idea of immigration locales and groups during the Colonial Era.2
German Emigrants to Colonial Pennsylvania
An exception to the understanding that not many immigrants will be found in a list is found in Colonial Pennsylvania, which required non-British immigrants to be identified. These were primarily German immigrants, and a 1727 requirement created captain’s lists of their passengers, lists of oaths of allegiance to the British King, and lists of those men age 16 and over who signed an oath of fidelity and abjuration. The originals have been compiled and published and can often be accessed on Ancestry.com or FamilySearch.
For example, Valentine Schultz arrived in Pennsylvania in 1738. Per the 1727 requirement to record non-British immigrants, “Valentin Schultz” was named. His wife, Anna Kunigunda, child George Henrich, child Johann Peter, child Anna Barbara, and child Anna Magdalena were all listed with him.3
Soon after, Valentine signed the oath of allegiance required by the Pennsylvania colony. This record first named a “list of foreigners imported in the ship Pennsylvania merchant, John Stedman. master, from Rotterdam. Qualified Sep. 11, 1731.4
Viewing the editorial note at the beginning of the digitized book, we learn the history of the source and more about its creation.5
The originals in the possession of the Commonwealth having been badly mutilated by searchers for untold fortunes, it has been deemed advisable to publish the entire record under the authority of the State and the lists have been carefully compared and collated. To make the same of permanent value a complete index of surnames is given. In some few cases, the entire list of ship’s passengers is preserved with the ages of all. Originally these were furnished [by] the proper authorities, but unfortunately one by one they have been abstracted.
The editorial note then gives the complete text of the oath of allegiance to King George the Second and finishes with the following information.
All males over sixteen years of age were obliged to take this oath and declaration, as soon after their arrival as possible being marched to the Court House, although in a number of instances they were qualified at the official residence of the magistrate.
The images below show the ship’s passenger list and that of men above 16 who took the oath on September 11, 1731. These are followed by the full list of passengers, with men first, then women above 16, and children under 16 (not pictured).
English Emigrants to the Colony of Virginia
If you have a Pennsylvania German ancestor who arrived during this era, you will likely find him in these types of records. But what about those British citizens who arrived during the Colonial Era? Some of these lists survived and have been published. The challenge comes in determining if the ancestor is yours or another person of the same name. Careful research and analysis are required to connect to people on the colonial era lists. For example, my earliest Royston ancestor, Thomas Royston, received several land grants in Gloucester County, Virginia, between 1662 and 1693. The earliest grants of 1662, 1667, and 1669 reference his transporting a total of 38 people. Under the headright system, Thomas received 50 acres of land for each person whose passage he paid. See my blog post, Visiting the Land of Colonial Emigrant Ancestor: Thomas Royston (1610-1699) for more details on Thomas and his Virginia land.
When did Thomas first arrive in Virginia? Possibly in 1635, at the age of 25. An early list dated August 1635 gives the names of men and women who were transported to Virginia on the Elizabeth de Lo.6 The men took the oaths of allegiance and supremacy. If this were the same Thomas Royston who began transporting people from England in 1662, he would have had almost 30 years to become settled in Virginia before paying the passage for others. Another hypothesis is that Thomas Royston had a son of the same name who built upon his father’s wealth and began transporting people from England to Virginia.
Learning more about the source can help us know how to evaluate the information. When I see a list like the one listing Thomas Royston in a digitized book, I like to view the front matter, which could be a preface, author’s note, introduction, or table of contents. For this specific list, I learned that Michael Tepper edited Passengers to America, which consists of excerpts from selected volumes of The New England Historical and Genealogical Register. The table of contents describes the various issues. As might be expected, most cover passengers arriving in New England.
Why is Virginia included in a journal about New England immigrants? The article states the following.
We are again enabled to lay before our readers a list of early emigrants to Virginia. It has just been received from our correspondent in London, H.G. Somerby, Esq., but of the precise locality of the original record, he does not advise us. It is probably from the same source as that we gave in the last No. of the Register; (pages 112 and 113), namely, the records “in the custody of the Master of the Rolls.”
These passengers, though they shipped to go to Virginia, it is quite probable that many intended to come to New England. It might have been difficult for some of them to have obtained permission to come here, while no objection might be made to their going to Virginia.
Finding the Records – Indexes
For such a vast search as immigration, indexes are invaluable. The most comprehensive of its kind is that created by P. William Filby and first published by Gale Research in 1981. Supplements have been added regularly, with the latest update being in 2022. Filby’s “Passenger and Immigration List Index,” also known by the acronym PILI, can be found in many locations: MyHeritage Ancestry and FamilySearch. Be sure to note what version of PILI is being used in the index. The latest 2022 supplement is available in print. View PILI in WorldCat to see where it might be available to view.
A note from the 1990 edition reads.7
PILI has been compiled directly from published sources. The information about each arriving passenger and those accompanying him or her was edited to a standard format. Cross-references were made for each identified accompanying passenger, since without those cross-reference, muych valuable information would be lost.
The Filby index includes the name of the passenger, the place of arrival, the year of arrival, and the source. To be thorough, you’d need to search the original list and then each supplement.
Finding the Records – Published Sources and Online Collections
The immigration records for the Colonial Era have been published – first in books and now digitally. A good place to start is the FamilySearch Research Wiki. Using Connecticut, let’s see what is available. The Connecticut Emigration and Immigration page has links for passenger lists broken down by era and links to collections on FamilySearch, Ancestry, Findmypast, and MyHeritage. The Wiki links to a page on the FamilySearch Catalog, which has been filtered for Connecticut immigration. Further filter by online records only to see what is available to view from home or at a FamilySearch Center.
Ancestry has a robust collection of published sources. To find those applicable to your family history, start with the Card Catalog, then filter by Immigration & Emigration > United States > state of choice. Viewing the offerings for Connecticut, we can see there are 69 collections. Many are for post Colonial Era, but there are some for the 1660s & 1700s. The screenshot below highlights three collections. There are many more among the offerings for Connecticut.
Ancestry has indexed most of these digitized collections, but be sure to browse if you suspect your ancestor could be included and is not found in the index. Also, be sure to search with various surname variations.
Discovering more about our colonial ancestors’ immigration may seem a daunting task, but we can learn about the records available and the history of the area. As we research, we can discover family members and associates who might have immigrated with our ancestor – helping to uniquely identify him.
Part 3 of this series will explore immigration records available for 1820 – 1906.
Best of luck in all your genealogical endeavors!
- “History of Immigration to the United States,” last modified 5 October 2023, Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_immigration_to_the_United_States : accessed 8 October 2023).
- Roger C. Flick and Jimmy B. Parker, Syllabus For the Eleventh Annual Priesthood Genealogy Seminar (Salt Lake City, Utah: 2-6 August 1976); digitized book, FamilySearch ([https://www.familysearch.org/library/books/viewer/127947/ : accessed 8 October 2023).
- “U.S. and Canada, Passenger and Immigration Lists Index, 1500s-1900s,” Valentin Schultz, 1738 arrival, Pennsylvania, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/discoveryui-content/view/3087308:7486 : accessed 7 October 2023); Annette Kunselman Burgert, “Eighteenth Century Emigrants from German-Speaking lands to North America,” The Northern Kraichgau, vol 1, 1983, The Western Palatinate vol. 2, (Birdsboro, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania German Society).
- Names of Foreigners Who Took the Oath of Allegiance to the Province and State of Pennsylvania, 1727-1775, originally published as Pennsylvania Archives Vo. 27, 2nd series, Harrisburg, 1890, reprinted (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc, 1967, 1976, 1994), 26; database with images of the digitized book, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/48365/images/ForeignersAllegiance-001692-26 : accessed 7 October 2023), image 25 of 787.
- Names of Foreigners Who Took the Oath of Allegiance to the Province and State of Pennsylvania, 1727-1775, originally published as Pennsylvania Archives Vo. 27, 2nd series, Harrisburg, 1890, reprinted (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc, 1967, 1976, 1994), 3-4; database with images of the digitized book, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/48365/images/ForeignersAllegiance-001692-26 : accessed 7 October 2023), images 2-3 of 787.
- “Passengers to America,” Passengers to Virginia, Thomas Royston, 1635, database and digitized book, image 107 of 567, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/48605/images/PassengersAmerica-002025-95 : accessed 7 October 2023); Michael Tepper, ed., Passengers to America: A Consolidation of Ship Passenger Lists from The New England Historical and Genealogical Register (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Col, In.c, 1980), 95.
- P. William Filby and Mary K. Meyer, eds. Passenger and Immigration Lists Index: A Guide to Published Records of More than 720,000 Immigrants Who Came to the New World Between the Sixteenth and the Mid-Twentieth Centuries, 2019 supplement (Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research, 1981-2019), ix; digitized microfilm, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3Q9M-CS87-YKZ3 : accessed 9 October 2023), image 28 of 1623).