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Overheard in GenForum: 1890 Scotland to USA
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.

May 03, 2001
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: I am looking for any information on my great grandfather John Renwick Todd. He came to the U.S. in 1890 (according to census information). I believe he came to Maryland first then to Germantown, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania by 1895. I would love to know what part of Scotland he came from or what ship he came over on. I would also like to know what port (county) in Maryland he arrived. -- Lisa

A: As we research an immigrant ancestor, we often hope that locating a person on a passenger list will hold clues as to where that person came from in the old country. This does not always happen though.

This should not discourage you from looking in the passenger lists, as finding your ancestor there gives you one more record. It gives you one more tangible piece of your ancestor's life. If it doesn't supply you with the place of birth or last residence, there may still be other records that will give you that information.

Passenger lists are tangible proof of an ancestor's existence.

What Port?

Your information suggests that your great-grandfather, John Renwick Todd, arrived first in Maryland. If this is true, then it is most likely that John Renwick Todd arrived through the port of Baltimore.

The good news for this port is that the year in question, 1890, has been indexed. The National Archives has microfilmed the Index to Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at Baltimore, MD 1820-1897. This index is found on micropublication M327 on 171 rolls of 16mm microfilm. This would be the first index to use when looking for a passenger list on John.

Since you have indicated that John was near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania by 1895, you will also want to investigate the passenger lists for Philadelphia. The Index to Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at Philadelphia, PA 1800-1906. This index is found on micropublication M360 on 151 rolls of 16mm microfilm.

Both of these indexes are available in local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints family history centers. You will want to order the roll that includes the Todd surname. In the Baltimore index, which is based on Soundex, this will require converting the surname to a Soundex code. For more information on the Soundex, see Soundex: what it is and how to use it.

What You Will Find

Once you have located John Renwick Todd in the index, you will then need to order the appropriate microfilm of the actual passenger list. While these lists may include information about John's place of last residence, they will not include his place of birth.

The place of birth for immigrants was not recorded on passenger lists until 1907. However, it is possible that through the questions asked on the list, you may be able to narrow your research in Scotland. And of course, you don't want to overlook naturalization records.

Naturalization Records

It is possible that the census record that supplied you with the year of immigration for John Renwick Todd also supplied you with his citizenship status. The information that you can learn about John's naturalization varies depending on which census you located him in.

  • 1900 - Year of immigration to the United States; Number of years in the United States; and Naturalization.
  • 1910 - Year of immigration to the United States; Whether naturalized or alien
  • 1920 - Year of immigration to the United States; Whether naturalized or alien; Year of naturalization

Armed with this information, you should then begin a search of the naturalization records. Depending on when he was naturalized, you may find this research takes you to the county level (prior to 1906) or the federal level (1906 and after).

In the Naturalization Records

The records you are looking for that will be of the most help will be the Declaration of Intent. This record, just one of the three papers generated during the naturalization process, often asks questions pertaining to the date of arrival and the ship upon which the individual traveled. It also sometimes includes the place of birth, more likely in the later 1800s and early 1900s than for those researching an immigrant that arrived in the United States in the mid 1800s.

When looking for naturalization records on the county level, it was possible to file one set of papers in one county, the next set of papers in another county, and the third set of papers in yet still another county. If your ancestor moved frequently this is the scenario you are most apt to find, as immigrants generally filed the next set of papers in whatever county they were living in at the time.

In Conclusion

Finding our immigrants on passenger lists offers a record of their immigration to the United States. It may not hold the much coveted piece of information; the place of birth. To find this, you may need to look elsewhere, like the naturalization records.

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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