Genealogy Immigration/Migration: Using ship’s passenger lists in researching immigrant ancestors

10-15-2014 8-57-22 AMBy Barry J. Ewell

The following are records and resources that genealogists find extremely helpful and full of clues to find immigrant ancestors. The information is designed to provide a quick reference and direction of where to find and search for records as probable places to find information.

Your ancestors most likely came to America in a ship. Every ship had a record of its passengers—a passenger list or manifest. There are good chances that you will be able to find these records. The information found on these records varies over time. Below is an outline of information you can find in a ship’s passenger lists from different time periods.

Prior to 1820
Most sailing ships were cargo ships, and the passenger list may be found among the ship’s cargo manifest. Ships sailed only when the cargo hold was full. There is no consistency to the type and amount of information that exists. The manifests were normally deposited at the port of arrival and were originally kept at these colonial ports. Many of these early records have been lost or destroyed. If they exist, you will find them distributed among libraries, historical societies, museums, and private holders. If you are fortunate enough to find them, the type of information you may find includes the following:

  • Country of origin (possibly province, or exact town)
  • Date of arrival in the United States
  • Family members or others who immigrated on the same ship
  • Destination in the United States
  • Occupation, age, and sex
  • Information about the ship—its name, master, port of embarkation, and port of arrival

Between 1820 and about 1891
After immigration to America increased, ships were being built especially for passenger traffic; companies had regularly scheduled sailing dates. After the 1840s, trans-oceanic, steam-powered ships started to replace the sailing vessels, which reduced the travel time from one or two months (or longer) to about two weeks.

Customs passenger lists were prepared by the ship’s captain and were filed with the collector of customs at the port of arrival. These lists were initially meant to serve for statistical purposes. Except for a few ports, most of these passenger lists have survived. Information that may be found includes the following:

  • Country, province, or exact town of origin (About 10 percent of the lists may have an exact town listed)
  • Date of arrival in the United States
  • Family members or others who immigrated on the same ship
  • Destination in the United States
  • Occupation, age, and sex of immigrant

About 1891 to 1957
In 1892, Congress passed the first federal law regulating immigration. This was followed in 1891 with the Superintendent of Immigration being established, which became the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization in 1906. The records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) are called Immigration Passenger Lists. The 1891 list consisted of one page of information. Further information was added in following years and the list became two pages in 1906. Information found on these lists includes the following:

  • Ship’s name and date of arrival in America
  • Family members or others who immigrated on the same ship
  • If going to join a relative, the relative’s name, address, and relationship
  • Birthplace, including country and city (added in 1906)
  • Name and address of the immigrant’s nearest relative in the country from which they came (added in 1907)

Look closely for notes marked on the passenger lists. For example, some annotations indicate the passenger was naturalized (possibly leading you to find the naturalization record), other notes indicate they were detained. (Note: The detained passengers—with the reason for detention and other information—are generally listed on the last sheet of the ship’s manifest.)

Available Immigration Passenger Lists
The implementation of the new forms depended on many factors, including who was in charge of the port. Some ports were regulated by federal immigration officials while, for other ports, federal officials contracted the administration to local officers. Usually any lists created under the authority of the Immigration Bureau are considered Immigration Passenger Lists. The following table identifies these major ports. Other ports with significant Immigration Passenger Lists on microfilm include Key West, FL, and Providence, RI.

Immigration Passenger Lists in the National Archives
Baltimore, MD1891-19571897-1952
Boston, MA1891-19431902-1906, 1906-1920,
New Orleans, LA1897-19481900-1952
New York, NY1883-19451897-1902, 1902-1948
Philadelphia, PA1893-1953, 1954-19571883-1948
San Francisco, CA1890-1957, 1949-19541893-1934
Seattle, WAUn-indexed

How to Use Passenger Lists
You can use ships passenger lists to do the following:

  • Discover when your ancestor arrived in the United States
  • Find out which country your ancestor was from
  • Learn roughly when he or she was born
  • Find the occupation of your ancestor
  • Uncover family relationships
  • Find evidence of chain migration
  • Perhaps find the name of a county, town, or other place more specific than a country
  • Learn the dividing time period of when to focus your research in the United States and when to focus on the country of origin
  • Learn marital status
  • Learn place of origin in the “old country”
  • Find names and addresses of other family members
  • Find clues to initial (perhaps temporary) settling places in the United States
  • Learn of previous stays in the United States (leading to other arrival records)
  • Determine literacy
  • Get a feel for economic status
  • Help reconstruct the immigrant journey and experience
  • Seek clues for motivation of emigration (poverty, possibly avoiding draft in home country)
  • Learn of health problems
  • Learn of family members who may have been turned back or who died before formally entering the United States (at sea or in a hospital)
  • Learn of ancestors born at sea
  • Discover an ancestor’s physical appearance
  • Learn the birth place
  • Learn of other places the ancestor may have lived before emigrating
  • Obtain information to lead to emigration records

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