How to look for records of... North American ancestors – an overview

How can I view the records covered in this guide?

How many are online?

  • Some

This guide provides an overview of records held at The National Archives that can help you to trace ancestors from North America. The focus is on people who emigrated from Britain to its former colonies in the United States and Canada. We also cover records of non-British settler emigration and slavery in North America though there are far fewer of these. It is an introduction to the sorts of records we hold, with links to more specialist guides where you will find detailed advice on how to find the records in our collection.

This guide does not cover the Caribbean. See our separate guide to Caribbean ancestors.

The records held at The National Archives

As with all documents held here, the records we hold of people from North America are historical records of the UK central government. Most of these records relate to British North America, encompassing the British colonial territories in the United States and Canada before their independence.

In general, we do not hold the internal administrative records from North America, such as registers of births, marriages and deaths or land ownership, which would have remained in place after independence. However, this guide does provide some advice on where to find these records as well as a relatively small number of other post-independence records which may be of use.

Quite often record titles, descriptions, and the documents themselves use language that is now out of date and sometimes offensive, but once records are transferred to us, we don’t alter them. The terminology used by the people that created the records are part of the story they tell.

How to get a search for records started

The search for records held at Kew begins by using keywords and dates to search our online catalogue. The catalogue contains short descriptions of the records and a document reference for each – you will need the document reference to see the record itself or to request copies. For more guidance on searching or browsing our catalogue, visit our Discovery help pages.

Before you begin a search, you should see if there is a guide to the records you are looking for. This guide is designed to help you do that. Throughout this guide you will find links to the more detailed advice you will need to search a specific set of records.

Records are arranged by the government department that created them, then by the type of record, such as passenger lists or military service records, and by date.

There are no ‘case files’ containing all the information about a single person. For any individual, there may be several different types of records which relate to them, each of which will have to be searched for separately.

The documents themselves may be in different formats, from handwritten registers, printed lists, or large sheets of parchment, each representing one aspect of a distinct set of records.

How to view records

This guide provides links to many other guides. Each of these guides will indicate whether the records they cover have been made available online (charges usually apply). The online copies are accessed either directly from our website or from the websites of our commercial partners, including Ancestry and Findmypast.

Many records have no online version and to see these you will need to consult them at our building in Kew or pay for copies to be made and sent to you.

Records of migration to North America

Travel documents and records of arrival

Records of emigrants can be split into two very broad sets of records:

  • Records of the journey
  • Records created following arrival

Names, ages, occupations, and reasons for migrating to North America are usually included in these records. Our guide to records of emigration and emigrants contains the details.

Child migrants traveling from Britain to Canada, c1860-c1930

Tens of thousands of children from the UK were dispatched to Canada during the 1860s up to the 1920s. You can find information on how to search these records in Section 10 of our guide to emigration and emigrants.

Records of non-British migration to the United States and Canada during the colonial era

Records of non-British settlers in British colonial America and Canada are rare among our records but applications for land grants and correspondence to the Colonial Office and Foreign Office from settlers or settler communities do exist. It is only in exceptional cases, such as disputes over land, that details of individuals are likely to appear.

Section 6 of our guide to emigrants and emigration contains some guidance on  tracing these kinds of records, particularly those from the 17th to 19th centuries, but records held in US and Canadian archives are generally a better bet.

North American birth, marriage, and death records

United States and Canadian birth, marriage and death records were generally administered locally. These records can be found at state, county, and city or town level. You can, however, search for some records online through subscription services such as  and (charges apply).

The National Archives holds a few registers of British citizens who were born, married or died in the United States, listed in our guide to births, marriages and deaths at sea and abroad.

Census records from North America

Any surviving formal census for North America will have been preserved in the archives of the respective countries and states within North America. The National Archives holds some partial sets of census records specific to emigration to North America.

The records are primarily lists and directories of people who emigrated from Britain to North America. These records tend to give a person’s name, age, occupation, reason for leaving the country, last place of residence, date of departure, and destination.

For information on how to access these records, consult section 6 of our guide to emigrants and emigration.

Records of indigenous people in North America

The National Archives holds records relating to colonial interaction with the indigenous peoples of North America but, in general, it is very difficult to use these records to trace individuals, except chiefs or community leaders. However, the records offer some scope for researchers to trace the histories of indigenous communities over time, through colonial military action against indigenous peoples, treaties with European settlers, legal proceedings, maps, and notices in government gazettes. There are a few instances of censuses of indigenous peoples (see the section on census records above).

Searching for the names of individuals or tribes in our online catalogue will often require multiple search attempts and variant spellings and the chances of success are slim. In most cases, to pinpoint individual names in the records you will need to come to our reading rooms and leaf through original paper records.

In common with most of our colonial records, our catalogue reproduces the historical language of the records themselves, even where that language is considered offensive. Identifying records relating to indigenous and First Nation peoples will often require the use of the terms ‘Indian’, ‘Native’ or ‘Squaw’, for example. It also requires a creative approach to the spelling of names and place names. For more advice on searching using alternative spellings, consult our Discovery help pages.

These records tend to be found in political, administrative, or military records and are largely held within records of American and West Indian colonies before 1782 and America and the West Indies in the Calendar of State Papers Colonial 1573–1739, and in records of British Army operations before 1913 and Royal Navy operations and correspondence 1660–1914.

For records of indigenous people who served in colonial militias and the British armed forces, please see the section on ‘Military and maritime cecords’ below.

Military and maritime records, 17th to 20th centuries

Individuals born in the territories that became the United States and Canada may have been involved in conflicts related to the British in several ways. The British armed forces were called upon to fight against indigenous peoples in North America during multiple colonial and frontier wars from first contact into the 19th century.

British armed forces were also involved in conflicts against other European powers in North America, notably the French, Spanish and Dutch. The British fought settler American forces during the American Revolution. Finally, Canadian, and American forces were allied with Britain in several wars during the late-19th century (including the Crimea and the South African Wars) and the 20th century (particularly the First and Second World Wars and Korean War).

As this history is complex, individuals may have served in/with British armed forces in multiple ways and it is helpful to try to identify as much detail as possible about the units/forces that an individual enlisted in.

Members of the armed forces born in the United States

We have very few records for members of armed forces who were born in the United States. Most remaining records will be held in archives in the United States itself. There were some exceptions though:

  • American born members of the British Army. We have some records of members of the British Army in North America prior to and during the American Revolution. These can be located via our guide to British Army soldiers up to 1913. See also our guide to the American Revolution which provides some advice on locating records of American loyalist compensation claims.
  • Colonial American militias soldiers. We have pension records for some American loyalist militias such as the Plymouth Invalids or New Jersey Volunteers. See our guide to Militia records for more details.
  • Other records of members of armed forces born in the United States. We have some records of prisoners of war from the Second World War who are listed as members of the United States Army. See our guide to British and Commonwealth prisoners of war of the Second World War and the Korean War for more details.

Members of the armed forces born in Canada

Members of the armed forces who were born in Canada may have enlisted locally in Canada, or they may have travelled to the United Kingdom to enlist there If an individual travelled to the UK to enlist (whether in the British Army, Royal Navy, Royal Air Force or other armed services), then their records will have been treated in the same way as those of British nationals.

If an individual enlisted locally in Canada, then there may be related records in our collections depending on the time period and other factors.  There are some records of Canadian militia (troops raised locally in Canada such as the Fencibles, or Canadian Mounted Rifles) up until the First World War in our collections. From the First World War onwards, they are more likely to be in Canada. However, this is not a hard and fast rule and there are notable exceptions:

Canadian militia soldiers (and later the Canadian Army)

Soldiers who joined Canadian militia in the 18th and 19th centuries may be mentioned in records in our collections such as muster books, medal registers and pension records. See the guide to records of Militia for more details.

Members of Canadian militia who served in the First World War or Second World War may be mentioned in casualty records, or records of the award of medals. See our guides to British Army soldiers of the First World War for more details of how to search for these. Please note we do not have service records for members of the Canadian militia for this period; these are held in Canada.

Most records relating to soldiers in Canadian militia from the start of the First World War onwards will be held in Canada with the following key exceptions:

Canadian members of naval services

If you are looking for records of Canadian members of the British Royal Navy you should start with the our guides to our naval records. Canadians may have joined the British Royal Navy at any time up to the present.

The Canadian Naval Service was formed in 1911 and any records of those who served in this (or later in the Royal Canadian Navy) will be held in Canada (with exceptions relating to medals and prisoners of war records as noted above).

Canadian members of air services

If you are looking for records of Canadian members of the Royal Flying Corps, Royal Air Force or Royal Naval Air Service, you should start with our guides to the RAF and other air services. Canadians may have joined British air services at any time up to the present.

The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) was formed in 1924 and any personnel records of those who served in this will be held in Canada (with exceptions relating to medals and prisoners of war records as noted above). The activities of RCAF squadrons and individuals in the Second World War can be found in operational records. See our guide to researching Royal Air Force operations for more details.

Records of enslaved people in North American

Before 1780, all 13 British-American colonies participated in the slave trade, and identifying an African American ancestor who was enslaved often requires tracing the slave owner’s family records. In general, these records remain in the United States and can be found in regional state archives and libraries.

Consult our guide to slavery and the British transatlantic slave trade for an overview of records held at The National Archives. These are administrative records which span the 16th to 19th centuries. The subject matter includes the transportation of enslaved people and campaigns for the abolition of the slave trade and there are also records of related court cases.

Historians estimate over 20,000 runaway slaves joined the British during the American Revolution, representing the largest exodus of North American enslaved people.  The National Archives holds the ‘Book of Negroes’ – a list of some 3,000 men, women and children bound for Nova Scotia on British ships after the American War of Independence. A searchable online copy is available to browse from the Nova Scotia archives.

Records of private land ownership in North America

Records of land ownership usually include the names of individuals, most commonly of the owners themselves. In early colonial America, Britain claimed land as Crown property, as it had been settled by its subjects. The Crown also granted land to companies for settlement and sometimes to individuals for services.

In general, most land grants were recorded in the respective country and may be accessible in American and Canadian archives. The National Archives holds some partial sets of records which relate to land ownership in North America.

Records such as the West New Jersey Society’s records (1675-1921) detail land tracts in West and East New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New England, and other regions, included in original correspondence, registers, deeds, and claims. These records include names of individuals. For advice searching these records, consult section 6 of our guide to emigrants and emigration.

Consult our guides to American and West Indian colonies before 1782 and Colonies and dependencies from 1782 for more search advice on records of land ownership in North America.