Crossing the Border

Author: Mark W. Swarthout
Published on: June 1, 2004

Okay, we have to face it; the overwhelming majority of our families did not originate on this continent. According the US Census Bureau, over eighty percent of the 2002 population came from the countries of Europe, another thirteen percent from Africa and four percent from Asia. At some point, these people had to migrate to the North American continent. Some came directly here from the lands of their ancestors, others moved more slowly, searching for a final home. And someplace, on some date, they crossed a border.

That border crossing can be the source of important data. The information available may be as little as the date of arrival at a port of entry. For decades, Ellis Island was the key gateway into the United States for those coming from Europe. Fortunately, they have kept pretty good records on the immigrants coming through their offices. This provides a great place to start looking for the ancestors. The Ellis Island organization is a good starting place. Records often include such things as ages and port of embarkation.

Ship’s records are a great place to start, but it really helps to have a general idea of the years that a person entered the country. While New York City was one of the main ports of entry, any port on the east coast was fair game. A good starting point for these records is Immigrant Ships Transcribers Guild a group of volunteers that have been entering passenger manifests for years. Another source is the National Archives.

The largest unguarded border in the world is considered to be the one dividing the United States and Canada. Except for a couple of short periods of unpleasantness during the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, there hasn’t been much of a need. Though the crossing today is much more restrictive, there is still plenty of opportunity to cross without being detected and even to cross without any need to actually record the name.

Even up to the time of the Civil War, it was fairly common for families to move across the border between the two countries without much concern for the citizenship or immigration requirements. Families in the northeastern US would head west, and they would run into Canada long before hitting many of the Northern states. Water transportation was an easy alternative to spending weeks in wagons. And since Lake Erie had Canada on one side and the US on the other, the final landing place was not too critical.

Since these early ancestors where not native to the country, most of them were not considered citizens. They would often work to become naturalized citizens, learning English and learning the requirements of history and law in order to become a citizen of their new homeland. To do so requires appearing before a judge and swearing an oath, something that was recorded for their records.

According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, “INS naturalization certificate files, known as C-Files, include a duplicate copy of all naturalization records dated after September 26, 1906. All C-Files contain at least a copy of the Declaration of Intention to become a US Citizen (to 1952), Petition for Naturalization, and Certificate of Naturalization. Occasional files contain additional documents or correspondence.” Prior to that date there was no INS, but the National Archives may have records of the court appearances. Their web site on Naturalization is full of information of finding the place to start looking for these US files. Many of the earlier records were recorded in the courthouses where the petitions were made and their availability will be dependant on the records keeping, archive procedures and the lack of fires and floods!

For Canada the web site for Library and Archives Canada contains information on the records available there going back to 1854. Though the original documents were destroyed for those records from 1854 through 1917, there are index cards with some information available.

There were often special rules put in place for members of the armed forces to allow them to accelerate the normal process. More information on those rules is available on the US and the Canadian web sites. There was also the ability for the legislative body to grant citizenship for special reason, either to honor an individual, or to assist them in getting it completed prior to specific dates. In that case you can find the records in the Congressional Record.

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Updated on 10/25/2005