Records and Laws

As part of the Immigrant Ancestors Project, sponsored by the Center for Family History and Genealogy at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, students and faculty identify records produced in Europe that document the emigration experience and provide the place of birth of the emigrant. This research has revealed a mosaic of laws, regulations and practical applications that produced a wide variety of records documenting the emigration experience of individual emigrants as they worked through requirements imposed on them before they could emigrate. These laws and processes and the records they generated not only tell the emigrant story, but reflect on the cultures of the countries that generated them. Even the differences between the lack of emigration controls and programs of forced emigration in the British Isles and the tightly controlled police approval procedures of Continental European countries such as Germany, Italy and Spain await further studies that will be possible using data gathered in the Immigrant Ancestors Project Database.

Types of European Emigration Records

Departure and Pre-Departure Records

Records dealing with emigrant departure have been located in municipal, provincial, state and national government archives, as well as in university and private archives in Germany, Spain, Italy, France, the Netherlands, Portugal and the United Kingdom. These records can be classified based on their functions in the departure process:

Passenger Lists, Passports, Passengers-in-transit lists, Health records, Passenger contracts, Records of Approval to emigrate before departure, Published Announcements

Passenger Lists

Just as passengers were recorded in most ports as they disembarked, so they were often listed as they sailed from the ports of Europe. In all five of the largest mass emigration ports lists were maintained: Hamburg, Bremen, Liverpool, Le Havre and Naples. Sadly only those of Hamburg have survived the ravages of war and bureaucratic archival cleansing. The Hamburg records have been microfilmed and indexed.

Existing passenger lists have been found for smaller ports, such as Lisbon and Porto, Portugal; Llanes, Spain; and Bordeaux and La Rochelle, France, and even for scattered years before mass migration, in Naples. Some such as found in Bordeaux, Nantes and Bayonne, France, even go back as far as the late seventeenth century. The information in these records varies from only the name, age and port of destination to more detailed descriptions of passengers including their places of birth. At this time, practically none of these have been indexed and many have only been recently identified and have not been the subject of academic study. Finding others that may exist will require further visits to municipal and provincial archives in port cities in each European country.

Other Port of Departure Records

Passenger lists often do not answer the challenge to locate the birthplaces of immigrant ancestors. Of the millions of Europeans who migrated between 1820 and 1920 less than 15 percent appear in passenger lists --arrival or departure-- that tell their birthplace. Practically none of the 17 million who went to Latin America appear on such records. Emigration records in the home country are the best source to reveal an unknown birthplace.

Passenger lists were only one approach to controlling passenger departures. Other types of records found at the port of departure included:

  • Passports. Often prepared on printed forms or in register books, these show that the emigrant received a passport, often identifying the specific ship of departure. The forms include the emigrant's name, destination, profession, birthplace, age, and physical description. These collections often precede or are merged into the passports issued by provincial authorities, as described below. Passport books found in Genoa, Italy, are of this type.
  • Passengers in transit. In many cases ships stopped to pick up passengers at intermediate ports before sailing for the Americas. Ships captains may have been required to file a list of such passengers, as was the case in Lisbon and Porto, Portugal, and Naples Italy, in the mid 1880s.
  • Health records. In some ports the only requirement or one significant requirement was a health check performed by a port physician or by one provided by the shipping company. These checks may have resulted in a single- page certificate of good health, that is to say, free from diseases such as tuberculosis or glaucoma, the same as were checked by United States port authorities before admitting immigrants.
  • Passenger contracts. A unique record so far located only in Spain was the contract between the ship's captain or owners and the passengers. Beginning in 1853 a royal order stipulated that each of these contracts had to lay out exactly the quality of transportation to be provided, including exact quantity and quality of food and water rations, as well as the destination of the ship and what the payment terms were for each passenger. These had to be written before a notary and approved by the subgobernador. Unfortunately they did not have to be placed in the notary's register, although many were. Each company was required to keep a copy, as was the local provincial government and a copy was sent with the ship to be filed upon arrival. While scattered examples are found in notarial registers in port cities, in most cases the companies kept these in their own archives. The Transatlantic Company, by far the largest providing passenger service, kept its contracts filed in its central archive in Madrid. Much of that archive, including all of the contracts, was "lost" during a transfer of company headquarters in the 1970s.

Approval to emigrate before departure

Governments for paternalistic reasons and/or for control of population movement enacted procedures to regulate emigration. Requirements to emigrate that existed in most, if not all, countries at some time included: 1. that the emigrant have completed military responsibilities, 2. that he or she was not wanted for criminal offences or trying to flee any authority, 3. that he or she was not trying to abandon his family, and 4. that he or she, if under age, had permission from father or other family authority. The gathering of this documentation was handled by the port authorities, the local provincial governments or by a provincial-level police authority such as the Questura or Prefetura in Italy or the Prefeture in France.

The key difference from the passports required for movement internally in most countries as well as those issued at the port for population movement control was the preparation of documentation that proved that the emigrant met the requirements discussed above. To accomplish this, a file was created for each emigrant or emigrant family often with several documents from this list:

  1. Certificate of Personal Identification. This is similar to our Identification cards today, including a description of the emigrant, his address of residence, his birthplace, age and other identifying information.
  2. Parent/Spouse Authorization. Each emigrant may have been required to show authorization from his/her spouse if married and from his/her parent if single and under age of majority, usually 25 or 30 years.
  3. Baptismal record or Certification of Freedom to Emigrate. The baptismal record might only be required if the emigrant was under a certain age and those over could simply have an authorized statement of eligibility to emigrate.
  4. Statement Concerning Criminal Record. In most cases the emigrant needed a document certified by a judge, police or civil authority of his home or last residence district that certified that he clarified the nature of his criminal record or the lack thereof. Work with Spanish, Neapolitan and German records has revealed that, while some countries did not allow those with a criminal record to emigrate, others merely wanted the local police to evaluate that record before authorizing emigration.
  5. Certificate of Completion of Military Service. A man was required to have a statement by a judge, police or civil authority of his home district that certified that he had met his military obligation, by service or by having stood for the draft and not been taken.

Often these passport records come in two parts, a register book of all passports issued (or applied for) and a collection of individual files, one for each applicant or applicant family, containing the documentation discussed above. In some places only the register books survive, but certainly researchers should try to find if a file exists and not stop at the register book, even when it gives the place of birth. The file will contain the most interesting material about the emigrant, often including statements as to reasons for emigrating. Records of this type have thus far been found in Germany, France, Spain and Italy, but were likely required at least at some period in all continental European countries.

Published Announcements

At certain time periods, the way in which municipal authorities were able to or required to ascertain that the proposed emigrant was qualified to emigrate was to publish a notice of the intended emigration in the official provincial government bulletin. In Spain and Italy, where some of these have been found, the bulletins were issued weekly or more frequently. Again, the period during which this procedure was used is limited and their use not fully studied.

British and Irish Pre-Departure Records

In the British Isles the attitude toward emigration was different from that in the rest of Europe. Aside from passenger lists, other forms of emigration control used on the continent do not appear among British records. Rather than attempting to prevent the departure of those with criminal records or who were in debt, the authorities in these countries encouraged emigration as a way of dealing with the poor. Vestry minutes and estate records exist that identify those whose passage was paid as a means of meeting local obligations imposed by the poor laws. Transportation to colonies appears regularly in quarter sessions records as a sentence for criminal activity. A variety of records exist relating to indentured servitude and other similar ways of acquiring passage. For these reasons the search for emigration records in the British Isles offers a series of challenges and potential solutions not found in the rest of Europe.

After Arrival Records

Even after arrival in their recipient countries, many immigrants maintained contact with their countries of origin. Those contacts appear in records generated in both the originating and recipient countries.

Consular Records, Home Town Censuses and Emigrant Lists, Military Service and/or Failure to Report for Service Records

Consular Records

All European countries maintained consulates working to meet the needs and often to protect the interests of their citizens. Many of these consulates kept records of transactions taken by their citizens residing in the destination countries. Most commonly these appear to record requests for passports, identification proofs, registration of births, or assistance with an inheritance or other legal problem in the country of origin. On occasion the consul appears to go beyond this to an effort to identify all emigrants. In either case these records identify emigrants and provide more of the story of the emigration process than found in immigration records.

Home Town Censuses and Emigrant Lists

Even after emigration the emigrants were still considered residents of their home towns. As such they are often listed in local censuses, with an annotation as to where they are living and the date of emigration. Some municipalities also kept register books of those who had emigrated. Little has been done to identify these types of records and less to extract the information that they contain.

Military Service and/or Failure to Report for Service Records

Both youth of the age for military service and local authorities responsible for the draft recognized that emigration was a means of avoiding military service. Although little study has been done of illegal emigration during this period, the largest group of illegal emigrants was most likely young men of conscription age. In Italy, provincial conscription lists often identify missing youth as having emigrated. In Spain, lists of those who did not report for draft registration were published in the provincial bulletins discussed above which identified the countries where the men were thought to have gone or that they were thought to be in a port city such as Cadiz, apparently a euphemism for indicating that they had emigrated or were likely trying to do so.

Illegal and Extralegal Emigration

Recognition must be made that there were those who went without meeting legal requirements or registering on the passenger lists and therefore do not appear in many or most departure records. The number of draft age youths who are identified in military records as having emigrated may be indicative of this problem. Likewise in port authority or police records there are discussions of actions such as unscheduled ship inspections taken to identify illegal emigrants who were on board. Another manifestation of this problem are ship crew members who deserted upon arrival in the Americas. Few studies have been made of this phenomenon, in part because it is difficult to determine the numbers who emigrated illegally. Estimates for the Spanish colonial period range from twenty to eighty percent. The major challenge to historians is a lack of data from records in both the originating and recipient countries that can be compared. To really be effective this comparison must involve correlating lists of individuals generated on both sides to determine the nature and extent of illegal emigration. Allowance must also be made for extralegal migration, such as military and government officials and their families and servants who were exempt from emigration requirements.