Research Your Scottish Ancestry

RObert WilbanksEmigration, Immigration and Naturalization

by Robert M. Wilbanks IV, B.A.
Chief Genealogist & Historian, C.S.A.

One of the more difficult problems faced by genealogists is finding the place of origin of an ancestor. There are a variety of records which help to determine where an ancestor came from and when. Here, however, I will discuss types of records which are most directly and specifically a result of the process of leaving the "Old World", coming to America, and becoming an American.

Scottish history is filled with the ongoing emigration of the people of Scotland. For several centuries, large numbers of Scots forcibly or voluntarily left Scotland for the far reaches of the globe. America and Canada are just a couple of the many places that the Scots had gone to in great numbers.

I use the term "forcibly" in a variety of contexts. The most familiar example being the many Scots who opposed British rule who were, as a result, shipped as political-prisoners or convicts, or escaped on their own, to the many British colonies around the world. Economics was another factor which forced many to leave Scotland. The size of Scotland with its rural based economy, combined with its harsh mountainous land and weather, limited the population that Scotland could support. Meanwhile, at times Scotland was forced to export its resources to Great Britain, leaving little left for the Scottish. Early British rule made it difficult, if not impossible, to own land, or businesses, or otherwise support themselves and their families; even after Unification. Many had to leave Scotland in the hopes of finding a better way of life.

The population of Scotland nearly tripled from 1800 to 1870. As a result, things would come to a climax and have a dramatic effect on the land and people of Scotland. The infamous Famine of Ireland (1845-1856) was also a little known event in Scotland. The Highland Potato Famine of 1846 to 1856 was a horrific result of a combination of Scotland’s population explosion, British rule, and nature. The Potato, introduced into Ireland and Scotland in the late 1500s, had become an inexpensive staple of the masses. It was the only resource left by the British in sufficient quantity to support Scotland’s population. When the potato blight hit Ireland in the fall of 1845, and the Highlands of Scotland in 1846, it was the beginning of years of starvation and disease. Relief was impossible, and over a million deaths occurred during this period. Over a million more emigrated, many coming to America.

The term "voluntarily" is used in respect to Scottish adventurers. Many Scots left to travel the world, see new sights, and to fight as soldiers of fortune in the different European Armies. With the discovery of new untamed continents and their colonization, more Scottish adventurers left Scotland to build new lives, own land or seek fortune in a variety of other ways. They often became merchants, promoting trade, setting up military outposts and way stations for merchant ships, etc.

In beginning Scottish Genealogy, several basic questions can help direct your research. The most significant question is "Where did my family come from in Scotland?" Knowing the town or civil or ecclesiastical parish is significantly beneficial, but knowing the county may still be useful. It is necessary to know at least the county in Scotland where the family came from before beginning your research there. If unknown, then you must begin in American records, searching for documents that will identify the origin of your Scottish ancestor.

As discussed in a previous article, census records can lead to a time and place for birth, death and marriage records, occupational records, city directories, etc., which together can provide significant information including possibly where your ancestor came from and when. The 1900 U.S. census is the earliest which began to specifically inquire as to citizenship status of each individual, including year of immigration to America and whether naturalized, thus leading you to the American records most directly associated with emigration, immigration and naturalization.

The U.S. immigration and naturalization process creates an extensive series of records which can help identify when your ancestor came to America and, most importantly, a county or township of origin in Scotland. The stages that these records were created begin in Scotland or England with such records as Letters of Manumission, Letters of Recommendation, Permits to Emigrate, Indentures, Travel Documents, Customs Records and Passenger Lists from the point of departure, though it can be rare for these records to be extant. Upon arrival in America the next stage of records include Passenger Lists, Customs Records, Oaths of Allegiance, Declaration of Intent, and Health, Hospital and Newspaper records at the port of entry. The settling stage, in America, can include records of Immigrant Aid Societies, Churches and Newspapers. The final stage, Naturalization, includes Alien Registration, Oath of Allegiance, Declaration of Intention, Petition for Naturalization, and finally the Certificate of Naturalization.

Clearly, you can’t necessarily start searching these records in Scotland, where the process of emigration, immigration and naturalization begins. The strategy is to start with the variety of naturalization records, the final stage, here in America, and backtrack your ancestor through the stages of records as identified above.

After 1906, U.S. naturalization records are found at the Federal level. Prior to that date they appear in Federal, State or County Courts, dependent upon residency of the immigrant. America’s Passenger Lists weren’t begun until 1820 and are fairly complete through 1945 at the National Archives. Today, they are fairly readily accessible on websites previously discussed, such as FamilySearch, MyHeritage or FindMyPast. With New York as a major port of entry from Europe, is a website of the most notable historic entry point for 11 million immigrants from 1820 to 1892 with a significant index. As a new facility, picks up from 1892 to 1957 with 51 million immigrants.

With regard to Scotland’s Emigration records, a wide variety of databases are noted and links are provided on the FamilySearch Scotland Emigration and Immigration wiki-page:  including ships to America or Canada, and British Records of Emigration; links provided are Free sites or Pay sites.

Emigration, immigration and naturalization records are a significant resource and historic aspect of any family history. Knowing types of records created, if extant, and if available and accessible for use, can be key to taking your family back to the ancestral homeland.

This is another of a series of articles in which I show you the basics of searching for your family history, discussing the use of family records, public records, and online resources nationally and internationally, etc. The previous articles are now available on the Genealogy Section of this website.   See “Genealogy” in the menu options at the top of the web page.