Researching Your Cultural Roots and Family History

As we celebrate the Immigrant Experience as part of Silicon Valley Reads, I want to point out that the library is a great place to research your own cultural roots and family history. My family comes from a very diverse background and I have been able to locate resources from other states as well as international records from such diverse places as Istanbul, Turkey or Corleone, Sicily.

A few things to keep in mind as you begin your cultural roots and family history research:

Immigrants View The Statue Of Liberty
Colonial era to 1820: In these early periods of immigration, passenger lists were fairly spare. They did not record a great deal of information about immigrants. A good place to check are libraries and societies specialized in colonial genealogy. A good book to consult is William Philby’s Passenger and Immigration Lists Index, 1500-1990.
1820-1880: More manifests exist from this time period, and many were preserved and microfilmed by the National Archive.
1880-1957: For this period, detailed manifests exist for most U.S. commercial and free websites. 

Woman waving American flagNaturalization Records: 

Naturalization is the legal process whereby immigrants become citizens. The naturalization process changed over time in the U.S.
Colonial Period: Naturalization was uncommon in this period. British subjects did not need to naturalize when coming to the American colonies. Some non-British immigrants did take an oath of allegiance to the British crown, and scattered records of those oaths exists.

Suffragists paradeWomen:

Prior to 1923, women did not take out naturalization in their own right. Women received naturalization by right of marriage. By an act of Congress in 1920, women finally received the right to vote. With the passing of another law in 1922, women were allowed naturalization in their own right. 

Immigrant takes a test at Ellis Island in 1905Men:

Prior to 1923, normally, it was a man who applied and received naturalization. A man could apply for naturalization anywhere including through:
  • Any court level
  • Military service
  • Homestead
  • Before a Post Master
  • Before a Voter Registrar

Pre-1916 Naturalization: 

•    City or County Superior level
•    State Court level
•    Federal Court level
After 1982, all naturalization had to be done at the Federal Court level.
After 1996, all naturalizations are to be done through the Immigration Service.
A good book to check out is Christina Schafer’s Guide to Naturalization Records of the United States

Below are some resources to help you jumpstart your own family tree.


Step 1: Basic research strategies:

  • Get organized and fill out a pedigree chart.
  • Review old photos, letters, address books, old recipes, and other family memorabilia.
  • Talk to family members.
  • Use Google or Yahoo to search for a single name, or family name.

Step 2: Search the large genealogy databases: 

Ancestry Library (in-library use only) offers the following resources:
  • Census Records (1790-1940)
  • Immigration Records (Passenger Lists, Naturalization Records, Immigration Documents)
  • Military Records (Service Records, Draft Registration Cards, Casualty Lists)
  • Vital Records (Birth, Marriage, and Death Records)
Heritage Quest, which is accessible remotely with a library card & PIN offers 6 collections:
  • US. Federal Census 1790-1940 (digitized)
  • Family and local history books
  • Revolutionary War Records including pension and bounty-land warrant application files.
  • Vital Records for African-American research (Freedman’s Bank 1865-1874)
  • U.S. Congress documents e.g. memorials, petitions, private relief actions
  • Periodical Source Index (PERSI) – find information about people and places mentioned in genealogy and local history periodicals.
USGen Web offers free web resources for each county and state of the United States. This is a great starting point for locating local birth, marriage and death records.
Cyndi’s List is an ever growing index of resources. Check out the categories page and U.S. Vital Records page as good starting points.  
Family Search, which is part of the LDS site has been actively gathering, preserving, and sharing genealogical records worldwide. Patrons can freely access family history records online, or through family history centers located worldwide, including the renowned Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Death Indexes & Records is a directory of links to websites with online death indexes, listed by state and county. Included are death records, death certificate indexes, death notices and registers, obituaries, probate indexes, and cemetery and burial records.

Step 3: Check these gateways for cultural roots:

Good places to start are:
  • Cindy’s List, which offers free access points to records worldwide. 
  • Family Search, which offers digitized records from all around the world. Also try looking at their catalog. In the search box, type the name of a place in order to see what records available on microfilm can be shipped to one of their Family History Centers.
  • Worldcat, which helps locate items cataloged in the collections of more than 10,000 libraries worldwide. Find church histories and records, cemetery records, town histories, directories, oral histories, diaries and journals, vital records, family bibles, and much more. Check out their quick reference guide. You may place an interlibrary loan request (fee charged) for items to be delivered to an SCCLD library.
To get the best results with your WorldCat search, use quotation marks and follow these tips. 
  • Family names: Enter the family name followed by the word “family,” e.g., “marsh family.” 
  • Specific person: Enter the person’s full name, e.g., “ andrew jackson.” 
  • Organizations: Enter terms to describe the organization, e.g., “ presbyterian.” 
  • Geographic locations: For place names within the US, search the place name in combination with the abbreviated and full state name, e.g., “union springs ny” and "union springs new york."

Narrow your search results by:
  • Returning to the main search page and entering more specific search terms, e.g., “marsh family bible”; or
  • Including multiple search terms in one search, e.g., “presbyterian and baltimore md.”

Immigration Research at National Archive: For post 1820 era, researchers can see the original passenger arrival lists on microfilm. The National Archive website lists what records are available on microfilm. Major port of arrivals include: New York, New Orleans, Boston, Philadelphia and San Francisco.
To begin your search you must know:
  • Your ancestor’s full, real name
  • Approximate age at arrival
  • Approximate date of arrival
  • Port of arrival
  • Ethnic Group
Immigration Research at Ancestry Library (in-house use only):
Ancestry Library has been aggressively digitzing the microfilmed passenger lists from the National Archive, covering the period of 1820-1957. These records are similar to those included in the Ellis Island database, but also cover other ports such as New Orleans, Boston, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. 
Castle Garden and Ellis Island were arrival stations for international passengers traveling to New York City. Castle Garden was active from 1855-1890, and Ellis Island serviced from 1892 to 1954.
Good luck with your research. Don’t be surprised by what you may find. As we're celebrating our cultural roots here today, your ancestors are there – somewhere in the records...


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