“I found your father!”
“Well,” my wife said, nowhere nearly as excited, “he’s been dead and buried for twenty-two years.”
“No, I mean, I found his immigration records. Now we know when he first came, where he was going—not to Columbia, but to Boston—and we know the names of his parents. And, best of all, we know what he looked like as a young man.”
Over 250,000 people who entered the United States through San Francisco or Honolulu left records of their entry. These “investigation case files” are stored in the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) branch at San Bruno, CA. NARA has made an index to these records—the Early Arrivals Records Search (EARS)—available on the web, in conjunction with the Bancroft Library, at http://vm154.lib.berkeley.edu:3001/searchcase/search. Since 2002, volunteers at NARA have expanded this on-line index to include the records of over 91,000 people and researchers can now save their search as an excel file. It is a helpful, free resource for doing research on immigrants and immigration history.
I used the expanded index to solve a long-standing puzzle in our family: When did my father-in-law, Dr. Koyee S.M. Ling, first come to the United States? We thought it was around 1917, when he entered a PhD program at Columbia University, but he was a private man and told us little. I searched the new index on the last name “Ling” and several possible first names….and there he was! Back then, he was apparently known as Ling Sze Moo. The database provided his investigation case file number, 20498/001-02, which records his 1921 arrival on the SS Buckeye State returning from a conference in Honolulu. From that record, I was able to trace the very first time he came to the United States, which was in 1917 aboard the China Mail’s steamer SS China.
During the period of the Chinese Exclusion Act and its successors (1882-1943), the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) investigated or interrogated most non-whites arriving or departing through the ports of San Francisco and Honolulu. A typical investigation case file contains the individual's name, place and date of birth, appearance, occupation, names and relationships of other family members, and family history. Specific INS proceedings are also documented. Because of the nature of INS investigations, case files also provide links to file numbers for related cases, including those of other family members.
The files may contain certificates of identity and residency; correspondence; coaching materials used by "paper sons;" INS findings, recommendations, and decisions; maps of immigrant family residences and villages in China; original marriage certificates; individual and family photographs; verbatim transcripts of INS interrogations and boards of special inquiry; and witnesses' statements and affidavits. One of the most voluminous—and dramatic—files was that of Quock Shee, detained for 22 months.
While most of the files concern arrivals from China, Hong Kong and Japan, there are files on people from over 80 countries. There are now indexes to 66,000 case files for people who entered through San Francisco 1884-1939, and 25,500 case files for Honolulu 1904-1952. Note that scans of the actual case files are not accessible on this website; for that, one has to travel to the NARA office in San Bruno. But the website will show whether NARA has a case file for a particular person, a bit of information about that person, and—the essential piece of information needed to retrieve the file—the case file number.
While case file information is still being incorporated to the database, and there is no guarantee that all names will be present, the EARS website is a helpful starting point for family history research. Using it could lead to discoveries that are important for you.
Robert Barde, retired Deputy Director of the Institute of Business and Economic Research, University of California, Berkeley, initiated the project to make the index to the EARS casefiles searchable. He is author of Immigration at the Golden Gate (Praeger, 2008) and co-author of the “International Migration” chapter in Historical Statistics of the United States, Millennial Edition (Cambridge University Press, 2005).