What You'll Learn from Passenger Lists

by Myra Vanderpool Gormley, CG

Probably more time is spent hunting for our ancestors on ship passenger lists than any other type of research. In our naiveté we assume these records will reveal exactly where in the "old country" our ancestors came from. It is not always that simple. Depending on when your immigrant ancestors arrived, American ship passenger lists may or may not provide this information. In some instances determining the ancestral home can be discovered by tracking down naturalization papers, rather than ship passenger lists.

To be sure there is nothing quite like finding your ancestor on a ship passenger list. But be prepared to do some serious digging. There are three major time frames important to researching American ship passenger lists. They are: 1891-1954, 1820-1890 and pre-1820. The two major repositories for these microfilmed records are the National Archives and the LDS (Mormon) Family History Library (FHL).

If your ancestors arrived between 1891 and 1954, Immigration Passenger Lists are valuable. Immigrants were asked to provide information such as:

  • Marital status
  • Last residence
  • Final destination in the U.S.
  • If ever in the U.S. before, when, where and for how long.
  • If going to join a relative, the relative's name, address and relationship
In 1906 and 1907 more questions were added to the above list, including:
  • Personal description: height, complexion, color of hair and eyes, identifying marks
  • Place of birth — the exact city, town or village.
  • Name and address of closest living relative in native country.
However, if your ancestors landed between 1820 and 1890, you will need to search what's known as Customs Passenger Lists. These contain only the following data:
  • Name of ship
  • Name of its master
  • Port of embarkation
  • Date and port of its arrival
  • Each passenger's name, age, sex, occupation and nationality.

Contrary to popular belief, the National Archives does not have copies of all ship passenger lists. It does have a microfilm copy of the passenger lists that were turned over to it by the Customs Service and the Immigration and Naturalization Service when this federal repository was established in 1935. Inbound federal ship passenger arrival records at the National Archives date back to 1820 for most East Coast and Gulf Coast ports and a few lists dating back to 1800 for Philadelphia. The archives staff will search available indexed lists for you (first request NATF Form 81 from Reference Services Branch (NNIR), National Archives, 8th and Pennsylvania Ave., NW., Washington, DC 20408). You also can search indices and passenger lists yourself through the Family History Library system.

When requesting a search by the National Archives you must supply the following information on NATF Form 81:

  • Full name of the passenger
  • Port of entry
  • Approximate date of arrival
Major indices exist for the ports of: There were no federal laws requiring ship passenger lists be recorded prior to 1820. However, some lists exist and have appeared in print in various publications. The best source for these pre-1820 records is the multi-volume series, edited by P. William Filby, entitled Passenger and Immigration Lists Index — widely available in public and academic libraries. These volumes give information about passenger lists which appear in books and periodicals, and your librarian can help you locate such references.

About the Author
Myra Vanderpool Gormley is a syndicated columnist and feature writer for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate. Additionally, she writes articles on the subject of genealogy for Colonial Homes magazine. She is the co-editor of Missing Links and RootsWeb Review, two weekly e-zine genealogy newsletters. A certified genealogist, she has written three books, Prima's Official Companion to Family Tree Maker, Family Diseases: Are You at Risk? and Cherokee Connections. In her spare time she searches for her own elusive ancestors.

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