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Genealogy Resources: Migration

Types of Records

What types of records track people's movements?

Passenger lists

Port of departure documents

Port of arrival documents

Naturalization records

Petitions for naturalization

Passport applications

Hotel Arrivals




Learn the Laws

Historic laws governed our ancestor's lives. Knowing what these laws were and how they were applied will help you understand what records were created & how to access those records today. We have created a brief timeline highlighting some major changes below.

1819 - The Steerage Act - Effective January 1st, 1820, this was the first law to regulate records of people arriving by sea. Among other things, this law required ship captains to report a list of passengers with their demographic information to a district controller. This created the first set of federal records on arrivals to the United States. Prior to this very few original records exist although a variety of sources are available for this early research.

1891 - The Immigration Act of 1891 - This act created the office "Superintendent of Immigration" under the U.S. Treasury Department, centralizing control of immigration. Ship masters had to list name, nationality, last residence, and destination of every alien immigrant. From 1820-1891, records are called "Customs Passenger Lists" from 1891-1957, records are called "Immigration Passenger Lists." The amount of information gathered for each passenger increased over time with the passage of additional regulations.

1922 - The Married Women's Act - Also known as the Cable Act, this law allowed women to become citizens regardless of the nationality of their husband. Prior to this law, a woman's naturalization status was derived from her husband. Between 1907 and 1922, even women who were born in the United States lost their citizenship when marring a man who was not a United States Citizen. Women can occasionally be found in records earlier than 1907, but it is rare. 

Know the Terms

There are many terms used to describe the movements of people. As you research your ancestors, remember the differences between these key terms. 

Migration Emigration Immigration
Movement from one place to another. The act of leaving one's home country to settle in another. (E for exit) The act of coming into a foreign country to live permanently. (I for incoming)


Genealogy Videos

Watch this video to learn more about Migration, Emigration, & Immigration. We have a whole series where you can learn more about Genealogy Resources. Click here to see them all.

Immigration Manifest 1891-1957

Overtime, the amount of information collected on the Immigration Manifests (1891-1957) increased. Below is a list of the questions that were required by year.


Passenger's name, Age, Sex, Occupation, Nationality


All question before plus: marital status, last residence, final destination in US, ever in US before, joining a relative, able to read and write, whether or not has a train ticket to final destination, who paid for passage, amount of cash, ever in prison/almshouse/institution for insane, if polygamist, status of health


All question before plus: race or ethnicity


All questions before plus: personal description (height, complexion, color of hair, color of eyes, identifying marks), and place of birth


All questions before plus: name and address of closet living relative in native country

Migration Resources

The Waco Genealogy Center has many resources available for researching immigration into the United States. One of the largest resources we have available are published ship passenger lists. Visit the 325 call number section in the Genealogy Center to browse resources or click here to search our catalog. 



Historic maps can be an important resource for understanding migration paths of your ancestors. The Genealogy Center has a collection of historic maps from across the United States.  Stop by the Genealogy Center to view them or browse them in our catalog by clicking here.

Ports of Entry

After 1820, there were 5 major ports of entry into the United States.

  • New York
  • Baltimore
  • Boston
  • New Orleans
  • Philadelphia

The Genealogy Center has resources to help you search records at all of these and many of the minor ports as well.