A Quick Guide for Americans -  Exploring our Library and Archives Part 1

Come and visit the British family history experts - by Sherryl Abrahart

You’ve booked your trip to London? Yes! Beyond excited and full of plans? Oh, yes! Major events like RootsTech London sorted? Of course! Great! But make sure the Society of Genealogists is on your ‘must see’ list too, won’t you? If you’re coming from the US and are tracing your family history back to Britain or other parts of Europe, we’re an essential stop. It would be a great shame to come to London and not visit us. We’re easy to find and easy to get to by bus or tube.

We’re not going to assume that you have loads of time to prepare before you leave home. If you’re anything like us, you’re probably in a race against time just to make it to the airport. But there’s so much in our Library for you, that we thought we would suggest a plan to guide you through your visit. There are some basics before you get going. At some point, before you visit us, jot down some brief notes on family names, possible dates and potential place names. It’s difficult for us to effectively help visitors who ask ‘What do you have on my great-grandmother, Mary Ann Brown, who lived in Chicago?’

Begin at the top in the Upper Library

Start your visit on the Upper Library, and head straight for the USA section. There are almost 2,000 books in just this one section. We’ve included lots of hints and tips below on what might be the most interesting things to look at. There’s also our online catalogue that you can search before you come in or on one of the PCs at the Information Desk in the Upper Library.

The USA section has two areas: the ‘general’ area holds items that cover the whole of the country or more than one State; the other holds items relating to each of the 50 States. The books, indexes and other literature in the ‘general’ section could help you find information on migration details. Additional evidence could more clearly link people in your family tree with people that migrated from Britain or other parts of Europe.

To take just one example from this section, there is a Bristol Register (Ref 1) listing over 10,000 servants sent from Britain to ‘foreign plantations’ between 1654 and 1686. It gives you two pieces of information: the person in the US who paid for the servant and the person who migrated to take the job. One entry tells us that in 1655 Thomas Bridgeman, a merchant in Virginia, paid for John Window, a labourer, Hanna Window and Dorothy Pegler, all from Gloucester, for 6 years. Note that women are named as well as men – so it’s a real gem.

For all the 50 States there’s a huge range of resources, such as lists of early settlers, baptisms, wills, court papers and militia musters. For example, if your family settled in New York State, there are the court papers relating to guardianships from 1691 to 1815 (Ref 2). Guardians were appointed by the courts for ‘infants and lunatics’. The incredible thing is that for each entry, there’s so much background detail, giving you family relationships, ages, and dates of marriages and deaths. Again, for Rhode Island, there’s a booklet (Ref 3) listing early French families settling. It describes in great detail the original settlers from France, with their wives, children and sometimes grandchildren.

If your ancestors migrated from mainland Europe, there’s a lot to look at. Throughout the whole USA section are books and indexes covering most European countries, including Britain. Many of the books give a lot of information on migration and ships lists. And who doesn’t want to find royal ancestors on their tree? There are two volumes on migrants to the American colonies, Quebec or the US who can trace their family back to an ancestor in one of the royal families of Europe (Ref 4). In the same way, there’s another book that might help you make connections between your American family and royal Scottish families (Ref 5).

If you’re not sure about dates or how your ancestors left Europe, including Britain, the ‘Passengers Immigration Lists Index’ (Ref 6) is wonderful. It covers passengers going to the US, Canada and the West Indies from the 17th to 19th centuries. The editors have included shipping lists, convict lists and naturalisation lists. There is a supplement published every year and the Society holds the full set of all volumes.

If your ancestors left from Italy, then ‘Italians to America’ (Ref 7) covers people embarking at Italian ports and arriving at US ports between 1880 and 1902. The sources are passenger lists, transcribed by shipping agents and ships’ officers. The list is in chronological order by ship. There’s a handy index in the back, in alphabetical order. For example, if you are searching for the Grimaldi family, you’re going to be busy - there are 11 families just in Volume 1.

If your ancestors left from Germany, then ‘Germans to America’ (Ref 8) covers people embarking at Bremen and Hamburg for US ports between 1850 and 1897. It is organised in chronological order by ship. The original Bremen lists no longer exist so this is valuable source material. The list includes German territories, Switzerland and Luxembourg. There’s also an alphabetical listing at the end of each volume. Are you looking for Ernest Abrecht? We found him for you. He travelled on the ‘Canada’ from Havre to New York in 1883. You’re welcome.

If your ancestors were Irish, then ‘The Famine Immigrants’ (Ref 9) lists Irish migrants arriving at the Port of New York between 1846 and 1851. Clearly most of these people were escaping the terrible famines in Ireland. But it is an incredibly helpful listing because Irish people embarked from a huge variety of places. This listing includes 90 embarkation ports! You would expect ports such as Liverpool, Southampton, London, Londonderry, Belfast, Cork, Dublin, and Glasgow. But would you expect ports such as Havana, Haiti, Valparaiso, Prince Edward Island or Calais? Just so you know, one person, William Lees, arrived in New York from Havana on 30 March 1846 on the Adelaide. He was 38 years old and, yes, he was a merchant.

If your ancestors were Scottish, the ‘Directory of Scottish Settlers’ (Ref 10) lists migrants from Scotland between 1625 and 1825. Those who couldn’t pay their passage used an indenture system. They contracted with a sea captain or merchant skipper to serve for 5 to 7 years in the colonies. The captain then sold them on to a colonist. For example, John Adair, 45 years old, sailed as an indentured labourer with his wife Janet and 5 children from Stranraer to New York in 1775 on the Jackie. What a marvellous snippet of information! Or do you think you might have Jacobites on your family tree? One of many: John Brown, ‘a Jacobite prisoner’ was transported to Virginia on the Elizabeth and Anne, from Liverpool on 29 June, 1716 (Ref 11).

If your ancestors were Russian then ‘Migration from the Russian Empire’ covers migrants to America between 1846 and 1851. It only lists ships arriving at the Port of New York but it does list the villages that migrants came from, whenever the information is available.

If your ancestor was a soldier or a sailor, then perhaps they went to North America in the British Army to fight the French or maybe they sailed in merchant ships working in the tobacco, slave or tea trades. Our military shelves are also in the Upper Library and our staff and volunteers are waiting to help you. You should, if at all possible, have some approximate dates and the name of a regiment at the very least.

Now explore our Middle Library

If you have any English place names, perhaps a county, a village or a parish, you are going to really enjoy our Middle Library. It is packed with books for every county in Britain. There’s just shelf after shelf of wonderful information, frequently written in the last century or even in the 1800s. You can search the Library Catalogue online before you visit or on one of the PCs in the Middle Library. For example, if you have the name of a county or the parish, you can search for towns, villages and hamlets. A quick search gives you an idea of what we hold. Ask at the Information Desk on this floor if you need help, especially identifying parishes.

We hold parish registers dating from before civil registration. If you are struggling to find an ancestor online in the genealogy websites, you might find them in these transcriptions. Of course, you will need to know the area, county or parish your ancestor lived in. If you’re not sure about specific parishes, towns or villages, our staff and volunteers on the Information Desk will help.

For each county, we hold phone books, local histories and local directories all from the 19th and 20th centuries. For example, the volumes of directories for Bromley, in Kent, stretch back to 1892. They include maps, street names, householders street by street, businesses and advertisements.

We hold volumes of memorial inscriptions from churchyards in parishes. You might find extra information about ancestors in the inscriptions and establish where graveyards are located.

Here are two fascinating examples that you might not expect to find. On our Gloucestershire shelves, a local history pamphlet covers ‘Bristol and the American War of Independence’ (Ref 12). On our Scotland shelves, there are a number of books covering the Scottish and Irish migrants to North America. Volume 1 of ‘The Scotch-Irish’ includes information on ‘The Scotch-Irish and the American Revolution’ (Ref 13).

Now down to the Lower Library

Hopefully, you’ve found some really exciting leads to help you build your family tree. But you’re not done yet! The Lower Library holds loads of records that give you a chance to see if other people are also researching your family surnames. Because there’s so much to look at in the Lower Library, we’re going to tell you more in Part 2 of this blog.

Note we'll be offering free talks, library tours and use of the library for non-members before and after RootsTech London. You can find out more here


1. The Bristol Registers of Servants Sent to Foreign Plantations 1654-1686. Peter Wilson Coldham. Pub 1988

2. Records of the Chancery Court Province and State of New York. Guardianships 1691-1815. Compiler: Dr Kenneth Scott. Pub 1971

3. Early French Families in Rhode Island in Genealogies of Rhode Island Families. Rhode Island Periodicals Vol 2.

4. Royal Descents of 900 Immigrants to the American Colonies, Quebec or the US. Gary Boyd Roberts. Pub 2018

5. Scottish-American Heirs 1683-1883. David Dobson. Pub 1990

6. Passenger and Immigration Lists Index. P. William Filby & Mary K. Meyer. Multi-volume

7. Italians to America 1880-1902. Ira A. Glazier & P. William Filby. Pub 1992 18 volumes

8. Germans to America Ira P. Glazier & P. William Filby. Series 1 1850-1897; Series 2 1840-1848

9. Famine Immigrants 1846-1851 Ira A. Glazier & Michael Tapper

10. Directory of Scottish Settlers in North America 1625-1825 Vol 4. David Dobson. Pub 1985

11. A Dictionary of Scottish Emigrants to the USA. Compiler and Editor: Donald Whyte. Pub 1972

12. Bristol and the American War of Independence. A Local History pamphlet. Peter Marshall. Pub 1977

13. The Scotch-Irish Vol 1. Charles A. Hanna. Pub 1968

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