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Sunday, September 13, 2015

Find Your Immigrant Ancestors -- Border Crossings and other Records

"Boundary Marker No.1 Point Roberts" by JeanPassepartout - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
As genealogical researchers, we commonly come to the issue of our ancestors' arrival in a new country. For those immigrants coming to America, there is the inevitable border crossing. Of course, since we commonly hear references to "illegal aliens" (now through political correctness called undocumented aliens) we know that a substantial number of people crossed into the United States without going through formal border crossing procedures. If we go back in time, we eventually reach a time when there were no records kept of any border crossings at all. In other countries, during different political times, border crossings have also been an issue and records of the crossings may be available.

The United States has two major borders: Canada and Mexico. Those who come into the United States legally, would have arrived by coming through one of the many ports of entry. If the immigrant arrived by boat, it is possible that they came to one of the many oceanside ports of entry, but that is another topic for another post. In this post, I am concentrating on arrivals that came either from Canada or Mexico. If you want to take the standpoint of a Native American, all European entries into the Americas were by illegal aliens. But the practical reality is that during the early history of America, there were no controls on either entry or exit from the Colonies or later from the newly formed United States of America.

The border between the United States and Canada was established through a series of treaties:
  • The Treaty of Paris (1783)
  • The Jay Treaty (1794)
  • The London Convention (1818)
  • The Ashburton Treaty (1842)
  • The Oregon Treaty (1846)
  • The Northwest Boundary Survey (1857-61)
  • The Alaska Boundary Dispute (1903)
Controversy over the boundary continued and in 1925, the two countries formed the International Boundary Commission

Just from this very brief historical review, you can probably tell that finding an ancestor's boundary crossing record would likely be a matter of chance. I have also found that many of my ancestors crossed international boundaries with Canada and Mexico many times on business or for vacations or to see relatives. Other of my relatives likely crossed international boundaries on church business. For genealogists, this is one of those types of records that help identify your ancestors, but often leave more questions than answers.

The border between the United States and Mexico is more complicated than that with Canada. Mexico and the United States fought a war over the issue between the years of 1846 and 1848. Many of the soldiers and military leaders of that war become prominent in the subsequent U.S. Civil War. The Mexican-American War (1846 - 1848) is sometimes confused with the Mexican Border Conflict that lasted from 1910 to 1919. This conflict was also called the The Bandit War. See Wikipedia: Border War (1910-19). My Tanner Grandfather fought in the Border Conflict. If you listen to some of the politicians today, you might think that this border conflict is still being fought.

The reasons for the Mexican-American War (1846 -1848) are complex on both sides of the dispute. Part of the dispute came because of the Mexican War of Independence from Spain that ended in 1821. The initial border between the United States and Mexico was established by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 that established much of the U.S. border at the Rio Grande and added the states of California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, most of Arizona and Colorado and parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Wyoming. The southern portion of Arizona and New Mexico was added later through the Gadsden Purchase of 1853. Until well into the 20th Century, the border between the United States and Mexico was ill-defined. See Wikipedia: Mexican-American War.

The first U.S. Federal law on immigration was passed in 1882. Arrivals at the Canadian border were first kept in 1895 and at the Mexican border about 1906. See Mexican Border Crossing Records from the U.S. National Archives. Here is a quote from the National Archives website:
Beginning in 1895, immigrants who arrived at Canadian seaports with the declared intention of proceeding to the United States were recorded and included in the immigration statistics. Other alien arrivals at land borders began to be reported in 1906, and reporting was fully established in 1908 under authority of an act of February 20, 1907 (34 Stat. 898).
Not all aliens entering via the Canadian and Mexican borders were necessarily counted for inclusion in the immigration statistics. Before approximately 1930, no count was made of residents of Canada, Newfoundland, or Mexico who had lived in those countries for a year or more if they planned to enter the United States for less than 6 months. However, from about 1930 to 1945, the following classes of aliens entering via the land borders were included in immigration statistics:
  1. Those who had not been in the U.S. within 6 months, who came to stay more than 6 months;
  2. Those for whom straight head tax was a prerequisite to admission, or for whom head tax was specially deposited and subsequently converted to a straight head tax account;
  3. Those required by law or regulation to present an immigration visa or reentry permit, and those who surrendered either, regardless of whether they were required by law or regulation to do so;
  4. Those announcing an intention to depart from a seaport in the United States for Hawaii or other insular possession of the U.S. or for a foreign country, except arrivals from Canada intending to return there by water; and
  5. Those announcing an intention to depart across the other land boundary.
You can probably guess that, as I mentioned above, that finding a record of a border crossing would be a hit or miss situation. I suggest the following databases:
You might try the following books and publications also:

Garza, Moises. Mexican Genealogy Research Online: A Guide to Help You Discover Your Ancestry, 2014.

Ontario Genealogical Society, and Seminar. Ontario Genealogical Society Seminar 2005 Syllabus: Cross Border Heritage. Toronto: Ontario Genealogical Society, 2005.

Ontario Genealogical Society, Seminar, Tom Mountain, and Ontario Genealogical Society, eds. Seminar 2005 Syllabus: Cross Border Heritage. Toronto, Ont.: Ontario Genealogical Society, 2005.

United States, and National Archives and Records Administration. Mexican Border Crossing Records. [Washington, D.C.?]: National Archives and Records Administration, 2001.

United States, National Archives and Records Administration, Anne Bruner Eales, and Robert M Kvasnicka. Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives of the United States. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 2000.

Zaleski, Jan Steven, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Family History Library. Guide to Records of Border Crossings between the United States & Canada 1895-1954. Detroit: The Author, 1996.


  1. Referring to someone as an "illegal" alien implies that their particular case has already been adjudicated. Until a judge or administrative hearing officer hears that case, it is not factually known whether an undocumented alien is also an illegal alien.

    1. Of course you are technically right, but the term "illegal alien" was commonly and is still commonly used in the general sense to mean someone who does not have permission to be in the country. I spent a couple of years defending undocumented aliens in the Federal Court system.