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Research Tip 14: Searching for Ancestors in U.S. Passenger Lists

by Raymond S. Wright III, Ph.D., AG
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What You'll Find in Passenger Lists
Did you know that not all passenger lists recorded the same information? If your ancestor arrived in 1819 you'll learn their age, occupation and destination but in 1906 you could learn their that information plus a physical description. Find out what can be learned from different passenger lists and how to research your family in a list that isn't indexed.
Several dates stand out in the history of United States passenger arrival lists. In 1819 Congress passed legislation requiring ships' masters to file a list of arriving passengers with U.S. customs officers at U.S. ports of entry. These early lists normally included the passenger's name, age, occupation, country of origin, and destination country. The names of persons who were born, married, or who died during the voyage were also reported.

Federal legislation in 1882 required separate passenger lists for immigrants, but it was not until 1893 that standardized forms called for ships' masters to add each immigrant's marital status, last place of residence, destination city, and names and addresses of relatives they planned to meet in the U.S.

In 1903 each immigrant's race was added, and in 1906 their physical description. The names and addresses of immigrants' nearest kin in the home country became part of immigration passenger arrival lists in 1907.

Customs passenger arrival lists dating from 1820 to 1891 are available on National Archives microfilms for most Atlantic and Gulf Coast ports. Microfilm copies of immigration passenger arrival lists from 1891 to 1957 are available for major Atlantic, Gulf Coast, and Pacific ports. Most ports have indexes covering these time periods. New York arrivals, containing probably 60% of America's immigrants, are indexed from 1820 through 1846 and 1897 to 1943.

Where do family historians find these National Archives microfilms? They are available through local LDS Family History Centers, many public libraries and state and local historical societies. Each of the regional offices of the National Archives has a complete set of passenger arrival lists.

Overcoming the lack of arrival lists indexes for the port of New York is not difficult. If a researcher knows an immigrant's arrival date in the United States, he or she need only search the microfilms containing the arrival lists for the year in question. If the arrival year is unknown, a survey of the decennial U.S. censuses in search of the immigrant ancestor may provide an arrival year. If a census entry can be found in 1900, 1910, or 1920, it will normally contain the year of arrival in the United States.

Ancestors not found in these censuses may turn up in earlier censuses. Each census prior to the immigrant's death should be searched. Eventually the historian will discover the earliest census in which the immigrant was recorded.

The next step is to determine if city or county directories exist for the locality listed as the home of the immigrant in their earliest census entry. These annual directories should be searched from the date of the first census entry for the ancestor back in time until the name is no longer found in the directory. The first year in which no entry for the ancestor appears in the local directory can be recorded as the approximate year of immigration. Now the genealogist can search in New York arrival lists, beginning with the first year in which the immigrant is missing in his or her local city or county directory.

Noting ages and places of birth recorded in the census for the children of immigrants may also point to an immigration year. If one child was born in 1863 in England and the next in 1865 in the United States, the years 1863-1865 become the target dates for searching New York arrival lists.

About the Author
Raymond S. Wright III is a professor at Brigham Young University (Provo, Utah), where he has taught courses in family history and genealogy since 1990. He received his M.A. and Ph.D. in history from the University of Utah. An Accredited Genealogist of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, Wright was manager of library operations there from 1979-1990. During his employment, Wright did numerous research assignments in archives and libraries in the United States and many foreign countries. He is a specialist on genealogical records in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Wright has served twice as chairman of the American Library Association's Genealogy Committee. He is also author of The Genealogist's Handbook: Modern Methods for Researching Family History.

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