The U.S. federal government first mandated the keeping of arrival lists in 1819, and lists for most ports generally date from 1820. However, those early lists typically gave little information about the immigrant's home town, and will be further discussed in a later lesson. For the purposes of this lesson, we want to focus on the lists created by the immigration act of 1891, and administered by the evolving and growing Bureau of Immigration (since 1933 known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service, or INS). These lists, which began at various dates in different ports, are called Immigration Passenger Lists to distinguish them from the earlier, and less detailed, Customs Passenger Lists.
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.
Name Changes Uncommon
Since the information had been provided by the immigrant, usually at the beginning of the voyage, this may help lay to rest the American immigration myth that U.S. officials changed the names of immigrants. While immigrants did change their names, such changes were generally very minor: typically the anglicization of a foreign name (i.e.: Schmidt to Smith), or a more English spelling (i.e.: Meijrink to Meyerink). Furthermore, these changes seldom took place at the port of arrival, but rather evolved as the immigrant became part of American society.
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 immediately regulated by federal immigration officials while, for other ports, federal officials contracted the administration to local officers. Typically any lists created under the authority of the Immigration Bureau are considered Immigration Passenger Lists, even though they may have begun at various times.
Although the National Archives has Immigration Passenger Lists for at least thirty-seven different ports, many of those lists include only a few ships over a few years, such as Panama City, Florida from 1927 to 1939. Three small Florida ports appear to have lists for one day only! Virtually all modern immigrants arrived at one of seven different ports, whose records have been acquired by the National Archives and are available on microfilm. The next page contains a table that identifies these major ports.
Other ports, with significant Immigration Passenger Lists on microfilm include Key West, FL; Providence, RI; Galveston, TX; and Portland, ME.
Immigration Passenger Lists in the National Archives
- Baltimore, MD, list years: 1891-1957, indexed years: 1897-1952
- Boston, MA, list years: 1891-1943, indexed years: 1902-1906, 1906-1920,
- , list years: none, indexed years: 1899-1940
- New Orleans, LA, list years: 1903-1945, indexed years: 1900-1952
- New York, NY, list years: 1897-1948, indexed years: 1897-1902, 1902-1948
- Philadelphia, PA, list years: 1883-1945, indexed years: 1883-1948
- San Francisco, CA, list years: 1893-1953, 1954-1957, indexed years: 1893-1934
- Seattle, WA, list years: 1890-1957, 1949-1954, indexed years: unindexed
Coverage of the Lists
Generally the passenger lists are as complete as possible for the dates indicated. Earlier years are usually covered by Customs Passenger Lists and will be discussed in a later lesson. However, on occasion, a list may be missing for a ship known to have arrived at a specific port. Lists may have been lost before the Bureau of Immigration gave them to the National Archives, or the list may have never made it to the Bureau. Sometimes transcripts, or quarterly abstracts of the lists are used as substitutes on the microfilm copy.
Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing how complete the entire collection of Immigration Passenger Lists is. Authorities differ in their opinions regarding the number of lost lists. It seems likely, however, that the greater loss would be among the earlier Customs Passenger Lists, rather than the later Immigration Passenger Lists. These later lists were maintained under better controls in fewer locations, and were turned over to the National Archives closer to their creation date than the older lists. However, researchers continue to find instances where an immigrant does not appear on the lists, even when specific immigration information is well established.
Arrangement of the Lists
Within each port, the lists are arranged chronologically by day, and each day by ship. On each ship's list, there may be a dozen names, or there may be more than a thousand. Typically, a small percentage of passengers traveled in first class and cabin class. Often these were U.S. citizens, such as tourists and merchants, returning to the states. Virtually all immigrant aliens traveled steerage class, and their names are listed in no particular order, although families are usually listed together.
Since the lists have between twenty-one and twenty-seven (by 1908) columns, the information for each immigrant stretches over two facing pages, usually with thirty lines to a page. Each page is given a "group" number (like a page number), usually stamped with large numerals. Aliens who were detained at the receiving station (often just a few hours to a couple days) or who were refused entry, are also listed on separate sheets, usually at the end of each ship's manifest.
The incredible detail on these passenger lists means that much information is crammed onto these lists, which sometimes makes them hard to read. This problem is sometimes magnified by the quality of the microfilms, many done in the 1940s. After the microfilming, the Immigration Passenger Lists were destroyed, so the microfilm is the only copy available.
Passenger Lists Indexes
Most families know very little about when their immigrant ancestor arrived, and certainly not the day of arrival. Most also do not know the ship's name. If they are lucky, they know the port of arrival, but to locate an immigrant on a ship's list, researchers almost always need an index. Fortunately, almost all Immigrant Passenger Lists have been indexed, the exception being Seattle lists, which were only located in the last 20 years or so. As previously page indicated, indexes are arranged according to the port of arrival, so that is the first step to locating an immigrant on a passenger list.
Most passenger lists indexes are card-style Soundex indexes created by the WPA. They work much like the popular census Soundexes for 1800, 1900, and 1920 -- with one significant exception: Soundex cards are generally created for each individual immigrant, not just each family (as with the census Soundex). This greatly increases the chances of locating an immigrant, if the researcher knows several family members who may have arrived together. The format on the card varies with each port, and often within the index for that port. For most ports, the card is preprinted, with blanks for the passenger's name, age, country, ship name, date of arrival, and other information. However, the cards for New York arrivals, after about 1910, have much less information: Just the name, age, gender, and reference numbers.
On all cards, where the arrival date is not given, the card will have three numbers: the volume of the passenger list, the group (like a page number) and the list number. The list number is the line (usually 1-30) where the immigrant appears in a specific group (page). Soundex cards are arranged first by the code given to the surname, such as C516 for Chambers, then most cards are arranged by the given name of the immigrant. Where many immigrants with the same code share the same given name (such as Mary), the cards may be chronological by date of arrival, or by age of the immigrant. Sometimes given names are arranged strictly by spelling, and sometimes similar names (Mary, Maria, Marie, etc.) are filed together. Be careful to examine the specific index you are using and determine how the cards are arranged. This will help you more successfully locate the immigrants you seek.
Some port indexes are alphabetical card indexes. These are generally easier to use because they are filed strictly by the spelling of the surname, and then by the given name, but this introduces a problem as well. Often the immigrant's surname was spelled differently than it is today. When using such indexes, be sure to check under all possible spellings. Sometimes, infants do not have their own index card, so be sure to look for all known family members.
With upwards of 90% of modern immigrants arriving at the New York port of Ellis Island, it is important to comment on this aspect of American immigration. In the Colonial era, Philadelphia was the most popular port for immigrants arriving in the British colonies. However, by 1840, New York had overtaken Philadelphia and all the other ports. Soon, New York was receiving more immigrants than all the other ports combined. In these early days, ships just pulled into a dock and unloaded their cargo, be it sugar, rum, cotton, or immigrants. As the tide of immigrants swelled, New York City needed a place to process the thousands of immigrants arriving each year. In 1855 they designated Castle Garden, an old fort on lower Manhattan, as an immigration station.
As the numbers of immigrants continued to grow, and Castle Garden continued to age, a new location was needed. Eventually port authorities settled on a small island between Manhattan and New Jersey. The island had been known by many names through the years, but by that time was known as Ellis Island. An immigrant receiving station was built, and on 1 January 1892, the first passengers stepped off their steamships at Ellis Island. The island and its buildings continued to grow in response to the increased immigrants, sometimes numbering a million in a year. It became the symbol to the immigrants of their hopes and dreams as they arrived in this new country.
Much has been written about Ellis Island which you can find at your local public library. For the family historian, the passenger lists, reviewed by immigration inspectors, are the key legacy of Ellis Island. Today the island is partially restored and serves as a museum for all immigration to America -- a physical reminder, as President Franklin Roosevelt said, "that all of us are sons and daughters of immigrants."
The sheer numbers of immigrants processed at Ellis Island is difficult to conceive, and the volume of lists -- including some 9,000 rolls of microfilm -- is hard to fathom. Before embarking on your quest to locate the passenger list of an Ellis Island immigrant, be sure you know enough information to recognize him among the hundreds or thousands who shared his name. This includes not only his age at immigration, but his original name, the year of immigration, and any persons who may have immigrated with him (both family and friends). The indexes after 1910, described above, offer precious little information to insure you that the card refers to your ancestor. Often you must identify several candidates in the index, and then locate them in the actual lists. Only when you find your ancestor on the list, will you really know you have found the right person. Then, amidst the joy of having found him or her, you can begin the process of interpreting the barrage of new information on the list, and trying to determine just where that new place is, now that you have found a place name.
Obtaining the Records
Of course, to do all this, you need access to the records. The great interest in, and usage of these modern Immigration Passenger Lists, is one of the reasons why the National Archives has microfilmed the lists of all major (and most minor) ports, as well as any indexes. Thus you can access these lists at any of the National Archives Regional Archives. The Family History Library has a complete set of microfilms for both the indexes and the lists. You can order and use these any Family History Center. Many other major genealogical research libraries also have these microfilms. For that matter, you can rent or purchase them from the National Archives, as well.
Well, you will not know if these records are as good as we have described if you don't use them. It may not be easy -- finding an immigrant in the indexes, and then obtaining and reading the microfilm -- but these lists are not on the Internet. You've got to go do the research yourself and experience the thrill of the hunt and the joy of success. Go to your list, pick out a modern immigrant (even if it is for a friend or a spouse), determine the port where they arrived, and search the index. Then, once you find an immigrant in the index, go to the list.
Now, as positive as this lesson has been, there are many cases where you won't be able find the immigrant in an Immigration Passenger List. Perhaps the name is too common, or the date of arrival cannot even be approximated. Maybe the name was so different, you cannot find it. Of course, some immigrants arrived through other avenues, or perhaps a list is missing. Do not despair. Other sources can help you find that immigrant. The next best source for modern immigrants is their naturalization record, and we will cover that in our next lesson.
For Further Reading
Two excellent books, designed for, and written by immigration genealogists, stand out as sources for additional information. Because of the importance of passenger lists for tracing immigrant origins, researchers should read both books (they are relatively short) to fully understand the value and use of Immigration Passenger Lists, as well as earlier lists of passengers to the United States (or the former colonies). They are John P. Colletta, They Came in Ships (revised edition, Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1993) and Michael Tepper, American Passenger Arrival Records (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1988).