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Federal Legislation

While the U.S. federal government had passed laws dealing with immigration in 1819, 1847, 1848, and 1855, these laws had little affect on the keeping of passenger lists (other than to mandate that they be kept). When the Supreme Court decided, in 1876, that states could not tax or regulate immigration (since issues of foreign commerce are reserved to the federal government), interest in federal legislation grew. Immigration and Passenger Acts in 1882 provided the foundation for the later, more detailed lists. Indeed, even the 1882 passenger act called for lists to include, in addition to the name, ages, sex, and occupation of passengers, also their native country and intended destination. Previous lists had only recorded the country of allegiance, which is not always the same as native country.

As pressures grew to restrict or, at least, to regulate immigration, a major new piece of legislation emerged -- the Immigration Act of 1891. This act established the Superintendent of Immigration (at first under the Department of Treasury) and that required lists be kept to also report the last residence of each alien. Two years later, another act, designed to improve enforcement of the existing law, required more than twice as much information from the passenger. Hence, the number of columns on the ship's manifest had increased from the five or six on the older Customs Lists, to twenty-one in 1893.

Some of the important additions included:

  • last residence
  • if joining a relative, that person's name, address, and relationship
  • immigrant's ability to read and write
  • who paid for passage
  • state of immigrant's health

These acts had established "Immigrant Receiving Stations" with inspectors who were to have "in his hands a written record of the immigrant he was inspecting and, asking the same questions over again, could compare the oral statements with it." Thus the lists were generally filled out by the steamship lines, on forms provided by the Bureau of Immigration, and provided to the inspectors at the receiving stations.

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