Whether they came over by choice (opportunity seekers and adventurers) or by force (slaves or persecuted religious groups), the fact is that few U.S. citizens are actually native to this land. The same concept goes for many other areas of the world, of course. Immigration research can be fairly complex, so it's important to be patient and creative when wading through records. One great starting point is to conduct a passenger search at the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation. Immigration records and ship manifests stored with National Archives can also provide valuable details about ancestor nationality, date of birth, country of origin, name of ship, cosmetic details, profession and even names and addresses of family members already located in the U.S.
Most other countries have their own national archives, so if you know where your people came from, you can do an online search to find out what websites and/or places you can visit to get more information.
People descended from slaves face extra challenges when tracing genealogy, thanks to often numerous name changes upon arrival and when sold or willed to a new owner. Many slave owners did keep detailed records, however, which can prove valuable as long you know where to find them.
"I have made it a point to collaborate with African-American genealogists online and in numerous forums and share my records," Burnley explains. "Just maybe our histories connect at some point and that information will knock down a brick wall for them." Cyndi's List has a directory of websites you can visit for information about African-American ancestors (among the listings are the Freedmen's Bureau which has marriage and medical records of former slaves from 1865-1872).
If you get to the point where you're truly stumped you can always consult an expert genealogist or pay a service that specializes in international research, like WorldGenWeb Project or World Vital Records.