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Overheard in GenForum: Passenger List Inquiry
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 7, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: Have never requested info from National Archives re: Passenger List info and was a little shocked to see $17.25 fee. I was wondering if the info that I would receive from them is worth it. In once instance, I have to check out two different ships because two names and ages match very closely the person that I am seeking and I just wanted to know that if I am going to spend $34.50 for the both of them just to find out that one of them is the correct guy. What other kind of info might I learn from one of these copies. Quite timid about this....Any advice? -- Carolyn

A: Passenger lists have changed over the years. As the government felt that additional information was necessary, they increased the number of questions asked and the amount of information collected on the passenger lists. Before spending your money you will want to see the difference in questions asked over the years.

You may be able to gain access to the passenger lists in question through another resource at a cheaper price. Many passenger lists have been microfilmed and are available at a number of repositories, one may be near you.

Passenger records have changed over the years.

Passenger List Primer

While people have been immigrating to the American Colonies and then the United States since the early 1600s, passenger lists were not recorded in America until 1820. The table outlines the major changes in the information collected on passenger lists since 1820.

Passenger List Changes
Questions Asked
Bureau of Customs passenger's name, age, sex, occupation, nationality
Dept. of Treasury then Dept. of Commerce then Dept. of Justice passenger's name, age, sex, occupation, nationality, marital status, last residence, final destination in US, ever in US before, joining a relative, able to read and write, whether or not has a train ticket to final destination, who paid for passage, amount of money passenger is carrying, if passenger was ever in prison, almshouse, institution for insane, or was a polygamist, status of health
probably Dept. of Justice all questions asked before plus race or ethnicity
Immigration and Naturalization Service all questions asked before plus, personal description (height, complexion, color of hair, color of eyes, identifying marks), and place of birth
Immigration and Naturalization Service all questions asked before plus name and address of closest living relative in native country

As you can see the amount of information recorded on immigrants arriving after 1906 was thorough, allowing you to learn a lot about your immigrant ancestor. This should help you determine if the information is worth the cost. You might be interested to learn, however, that it may be possible to get this information through another source.

Other Resources of Passenger Records

As was mentioned, passenger lists have been microfilmed. These microfilms are available in a number of different places. In addition to the National Archives in Washington, D.C., these microfilms may also be available at your local National Archives branch. Each branch is responsible for a given region of the country. The records held by each branch reflect the states in that region, including passenger lists. You may want to see if your local public or genealogical library has The Archives by Loretto Denis Szucs and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, this helpful book looks at holdings by record type and repository for the branches of the National Archives.

Many public libraries with large genealogical collections also have microfilmed passenger lists. You may want to ask the genealogical department of your closest library what passenger lists they may have in their collection.

By far, one of the easiest ways to gain access to the passenger lists is through your local Family History Center. Family History Centers (FHCs) are found in local chapels of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While they are run by LDS members, they are open to the public and I encourage all researchers to find their local FHC. Since these centers can borrow microfilm from the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, this is your connection to the more than 2 million rolls of microfilm from all over the world.

Borrowing films from the Family History Library to your local FHC does have a minimal cost to cover the expense of duplicating and mailing the microfilm to the local FHC. At present that fee is around $3.50 and you are allowed to keep the film at your local FHC for approximately 30 days. You can pay an additional fee to extend that time to an additional 60 days. If you find yourself using the same films over and over, you may want to consider borrowing on indefinite loan. That way, each time you go to your FHC the film is there.

In Conclusion

Some passenger records offer much information for us in our search for an immigrant ancestor. You'll usually find the most information on those immigrants who arrived in the United States after 1905. For those who arrived in the mid-1800s, you may already know everything that the passenger record would tell you.

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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