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Overheard in GenForum: Ships from Cuba in 1919-1920
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

March 02, 2000
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: My father came to the U.S. from Spain via Havana, Cuba in 1919 or 1920. I would like to know where to go to try to find what ship he came on and when and where he would have arrived in the U.S. All I currently know is that is was likely in New York or Boston. -- Mike

A: When working with any immigrant who arrived after 1820, there are two record types that should always be first on the list to check; naturalization records and passenger lists. Over the years both have changed in regard to the amount of useful information to aid genealogists in tracing the family back to the home country. Fortunately, the time period you are working in is one of the better ones when it comes to these record types.

The downside to the time period you are working with is that you do not have the ability to use the census records to know whether or when your father was naturalized. It may be that you know this information from family sources that you already have in your possession.

Passenger lists and naturalization records are excellent resources for 20th century immigrant research.

Naturalization Records

From 1906, naturalization records are found at the federal level. That is the good news. Of course it is still important to have as much information about the individual as possible. You will need to contact the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 425 Eye St., N.W., Washington, DC 20536. They have a duplicate set of all naturalizations that took place after 27 September 1906.

When you first contact them, while you can request the file on your father, it is likely that they will simply send you the appropriate form they require when requesting naturalization records. While you may be wondering why you must fill out such a form, I find that when we supply the correct information to the government it helps to better guarantee that you will receive the records you want.

Most government requests do take some time. Do not expect to send off the form one week and receive a copy of the naturalization records the next week. Patience when requesting these records is very important.

Passenger Lists

Passenger lists after 1898 are extremely informative. They began to ask questions about how much money the immigrant had with them, where they were going, who paid for their ticket, and where they were born.

Because so many people were entering the country by the 1920s, you can imagine how many microfilms you would have to search if you do not have an exact date of entry. Fortunately, both Boston and New York are indexed for the time period in question. These indexes are available on microfilm. You can access them via your local Family History Center, where you can borrow the correct films from the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. In the Family History Library Catalog, you will need to look under the the city name and then under Emigration and Immigration.

Records in Spain

Another angle to search when dealing with any immigrant is from the country they were leaving. Emigration records can sometimes offer indexes or details that help you in narrowing the arrival date or finding the name of the ship. Both of these issues are important when dealing with the unindexed passenger lists.

For most of Spain there are apparently no existing passenger lists for those leaving Spain. Most of the emigration passenger lists are prior to 1790. The early 1800s did not see a lot of migration from Spain, however this did change about the mid-1800s and a number of records were generated to determine who was migrating.

Those records include:

  • Provincial passport
  • A bond
  • Good conduct statement from the local mayor
  • Contract for payment of passage
  • Permission of parents of spouse
  • Boarding contract

Finding these records is the tricky part. Some of them (the boarding contract and passage payment contract) can often be found in the notarial records in the port city. The others are more apt to be found in the home city. Of course, finding out both of these cities can be difficult. In your case, the passenger lists should supply you with this information.

In Conclusion

Begin by looking in the passenger lists. Then turn your attention to the records generated in Spain. It may be necessary to write letters to Spain to get some of these records as they may not have been microfilmed for the cities in question.

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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