Immigration Paths in America

Tracing the path your family took from the port where your immigrant ancestors arrived and migrated to your birthplace is an essential part of your family history.

In Colonial America, ports developed where colonists had developed goods for exports such as tobacco, dried fish, timber, and flax. Shipping routes between Europe and America developed primarily to take American exports to Europe. The ships made the Atlantic passage to pick up raw materials in the American colonies. For the return voyage to America, the ships carried finished goods ordered by colonial merchants and also people — typically new immigrants. Some immigrants freely determined their destination and paid their passage to one of these ports. However, colonial governors or land speculators recruited many others to settle in specific colonies. The colonies needed immigrants to settle and clear land and make money for those who the British government granted land charters. The indentured immigrants arrived at the ports determined by what group paid the captain. After our ancestors landed, they moved away from the seaport seeking available land. Late arrivals moved further west, pushing against the frontier and Indian territory. They also turned south down the Great Valley Road into the Shenandoah Valley and further into the Piedmont of North and South Carolina.

Colonial roads usually developed over already established Indian trails. As settlements developed, roads expanded to handle carts and wagons, and more immigrants came. The Forbes and Braddock’s Roads were two exceptions because British soldiers built them over previous Indian trails to handle cannons and wagons during the French and Indian Wars of the 1750s. After the Revolutionary War, settlers pushed westward through the Appalachian Mountains to find new land in western New York, Ohio, and Kentucky. They used and expanded Daniel Boone’s Wilderness Road through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky and Tennessee. They followed the Indian trail along the New and Kanawha Rivers to the Ohio River and Kentucky. Forbes and Braddock’s Roads transformed from a military road to a westward migration road as settlers pushed to Pittsburgh and the Ohio River, which became a major natural highway to new lands in Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Settlers in the Northeast used the Mohawk and Catskill Turnpikes to push into western New York and then Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan. After completion, the Erie Canal supplanted these two turnpikes and acted similar to the shipping routes on the Atlantic.

Use land transactions, tax records, and probate records to determine where your ancestors settled in colonial history and the early 1800s. Census records after 1850 can also make tracing the migration path much easier. If they arrived in the late 1800s or early 1900s, find the train route they took from the port to where they found work. Identify why their friends or relatives came there — they were your ancestors’ destination.

Map the route, find accounts of life in these areas when your ancestors lived there. Did any historical events happen around and affect them?

Find their story, write about it, and save it for your future generations.

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