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Overheard on the Message Boards: Posen to New York City, prior to Ellis Island
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 16, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: Does anyone have any suggestions on how to locate an index for ship's passengers prior to what could be found on the Ellis Island site? I am researching Anton and Mary (ZELINSKI) LASKOWSKI, who immigrated to New York City from "Posen" (listed in the 1920 census as "Pr-Ger" which I presume would mean Prussia-Germany, although this is a Polish family). According to the 1920 census, Anton arrived in New York in 1887, while Mary and child Sophie arrived in 1889. I am trying to find any other family names that may have traveled with them, either siblings or children. This is before Ellis Island site index and I haven't been able to find information in passenger list books or from the Immigrant Ships Transcribers Guild. I am actually trying to locate information on their other children, if any, as well as village (rather than just region) of origin. This family continues to elude me, does anyone have any other suggestions for me?. -- Jacqi

A: Many researchers turn expectantly to passenger lists in search of the elusive information that will allow them to continue the research on an immigrant ancestor — the town of birth. This is a natural research practice and it proves beneficial in some instances. Unfortunately, many genealogists have been disappointed in their research of passenger lists when they find the family that they're looking for but don't learn where the family came from or where an ancestor was born.

Most of this frustration and disappointment can be avoided by understanding the changes the passenger lists have made over time and knowing what to expect of the manifest given the date of arrival for the immigrant. Disappointment can also be waylaid by understanding the other records that may exist that could supply the needed information.

Passenger lists don't always tell where our immigrant came from.

Passenger List Growing Pains

Passenger lists have gone through a number of metamorphoses since first begun in 1820. Some of the changes have been the result of the body that had responsibility for recording and preserving these records. Other changes to passenger lists have been the result of a need for information, sometimes to quell fears or concerns after major events.

When originally begun in 1820, passenger lists were under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Customs. Immigration issues would be separated from customs issues until 1891. There are times when you will see the pre-1891 lists referred to as Customs Passenger Lists and those after 1891 as Immigration Passenger Lists. This is to differentiate between the responsible parties. This is also a demarcation line of sorts when it comes to the information asked about each passenger.

Before 1893, the passenger lists requested the following on each passenger: name, age, sex, occupation, and nationality. In 1893 additional columns were added for questions about last destination, where the person was going in the United States, and whether or not they were going to join a relative, along with the relative's name, address, and relationship. There were more columns included, but these are some of the ones that are of the most interest to genealogists. By 1906, the all important question of place of birth was finally added and in 1907 a column was added that listed the name, relationship and address of a relative left behind in the old country.

As you can see, it is unlikely that the passenger list will help you discover your immigrant ancestor's place of birth. However, in searching for potential other family members, you may be able to establish such a connection by seeing the names together in a pattern.

The Unindexed Zone

When researching with passenger lists, it is important to know what types of information you'll find and which records have been indexed and which have not. At the present time there is no card index for the Port of New York for the years from 1847 to 1897. As you have discovered, the Immigrant Ships Transcribers Guild has been working on some of these passenger lists, among others. Also, the Ellis Island Web site has cut into that unindexed period as well by beginning their online database with the passenger lists of 1892, the year that Ellis Island officially opened as the entry point in New York City.

As you have discovered there isn't a published index to help you find the people you are looking for. However, this does not mean that you cannot sufficiently narrow your arrival date down to a given day or couple of days, allowing you to then search the microfilmed passenger lists.

Of course, remember, if your highest priority in finding the passenger list is to discover the place of birth of Anton and Mary, then you will want to look elsewhere to find this information. Biographies on the individual in question may offer help. Obituaries are another source that may indicate place of birth. Death certificates usually only mention the region or country so, while they should be sought out, they are usually not going to give you the information you are looking for.

Naturalization Records

By far the most useful record in your search for where the immigrants were born would be naturalization records. You did not indicate if Anton was naturalized in the 1920 census. If he was, then you will want to determine when he was naturalized and then locate those records. Many are available on microfilm, still others must be ordered from the National Archives or through the Immigration and Naturalization Services. If you haven't done so yet, you may want to visit the INS Web site.

You will also want to look at the Family History Library Catalog to see what naturalization records are available through the Family History Library on microfilm. Most of the latter 19th century into the 20th century naturalization records are pretty good and you should find something about where your ancestor was born, along with when they arrived, and the ship they arrived on, when they came to the United States.

In Conclusion

While the passenger records you seek have not yet been indexed, there are other ways to find the family in the passenger records. Some of those records may also supply you with the information on where the family was born as well.

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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