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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Passengers Prior to 1820
by Rhonda R. McClure

March 02, 2000
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

When it comes to passenger lists, the year 1820 is a major milestone. It was in 1820 that the United States government began to keep lists of individuals disembarking in the United States. Over the years, from 1820 to the present, those lists have undergone major changes, with the more recent ones having more information of use to genealogists. However, what do you do if your ancestor arrived prior to 1820?

Prior to 1820, over 1 million immigrants had already entered the United States (and the American colonies prior to the American Revolution). Finding out exactly where they came from can be especially difficult. When doing any research, it is important not to overlook important steps trying to jump across the pond. This is especially true when working with the earliest of our immigrants.

Many people do not understand how to search for their pre-1820 immigrants.

Learning the History

While it is always important to know what the history was that affected our ancestors, when working with pre-1820 immigrants, that history can help you in determining where your ancestor was from, based on when they immigrate. For instance, did you know that in 1718 the Scots-Irish emigrated because of the land system that was forced upon them by the English? The high rents and short leases played a major role in many of them settling in the New England states, Maryland and Pennsylvania.

Finding out what might have made your ancestor emigrate may help to determine just where they came from. And in most research, it becomes necessary to know the town or parish from which the family previously lived before you can continue your research of that line. So determining a more narrow locality than the country, based on when they immigrated and where they settled, can be beneficial to that process.

Limitations of Naturalization

If your ancestor immigrated prior to the American Revolution, then you will not be able to rely on clues from naturalization records. However, it is important to find all the records you can from the time they got off the boat to their death. You will be surprised what clues you will find. For those ancestors that might have fought in the American Revolution, you will want to search for pension records. Many times they include when and where they were born and when and where they were married or copies of Bible records.

One possible way to determine where your ancestor came from is to turn to the International Genealogical Index (IGI) available at your local Family History Center. This index, while certainly not a complete listing of all those who lived in the world, can often times supply you with clues. Look for those surnames and given names in the region that is appropriate to you. Keep in mind though that the IGI is merely a tool. Any information you find it should be verified and supported with other research and other sources.

Additional Resources

Another valuable resource is the multi-volumed Passenger and Immigration Lists Index: 1999 Edition, 1538-1940 which is compiled by P. William Filby. Begun in 1982, it is continually being added to. It is available in book format at many libraries with a genealogy section. In 1998 it was made available on CD by Broderbund, and it was updated again in 1999.

Some additional information on passenger lists in general can be found by reading these articles on

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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