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Overheard in GenForum: Ports of Arrival Before 1879
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.

August 02, 2001
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: I am looking for ports of arrival for immigrants from the 1870's. Ellis Island starts at 1892 and I need sites to search for other ports of arrival into the US. Can anyone point me in the right direction? thanks so much. -- Lisa

A: For some reason when we think of an immigrant, we always think of Ellis Island. When an ancestor arrived before 1892 then we are unsure of where they may have arrived. Some people automatically assume that if it was a time that Ellis Island wasn't in existence, that the immigrant could not have come through New York City.

While immigrants have been coming to the United States and before that, the American colonies, since the seventeenth century, passenger lists exist only from 1820 forward. Prior to that you must resort to published lists, usually based on other records.

Immigrants arrived before Ellis Island.

Ports from 1820 to 1891

Passenger lists are divided into two groups. The first is that from 1820 to about 1891. These are known as Customs Passenger Lists. From 1891 to 1954 are known as Immigration Passenger Lists.

Customs Passenger Lists take their name from the Bureau of Customs. An act was passed by Congress in 1819 that required a list of passengers be kept by the captains of any vessels arriving in one of the U.S. ports from a foreign country. This list was turned over to the Collector of Customs at the port of entry. This all fell under the responsibility of the Bureau of Customs.

The Customs Passenger Lists fall under Record Group 36, which is part of the U.S. Customs Service. Some of these records have been indexed, and they are all available on microfilm. The following list includes the ports that have records from 1820.

  • Atlantic, Gulf, and Great Lakes Ports: 1820 - 1874 (this excludes New York City)
  • Baltimore, Maryland: 1820-1897
  • Boston, Massachusetts: 1820-1891
  • New Orleans, Louisiana: 1820-1902
  • New York, New York: 1820-1897
  • Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: 1800-1882

Many of these ports also have indexes available on microfilm. The big exception, and the one that may affect you is New York. There is a fifty year gap in the index for the passenger lists for this port. It begins in 1846 and goes up through 1896, which includes the time period you are seeking.

Before Ellis Island, immigrants arriving in New York came through Castle Garden. Though if you don't have an exact date of arrival, you will find it hard to search through these records as there are so many of them.

With your research, you will want to eliminate those ports with indexes for the time period in question before moving on to the port of New York City. The indexes are available on microfilm.

Accessing the Records

The best place to access the passenger lists is on microfilm. You will want to see what your local genealogy library has already. Some public libraries with large genealogy departments have some passenger lists films.

Your local Family History Center is another way to gain access to the passenger lists. While the Family History Centers do not have the microfilms right there, you can order the necessary ones from the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. It usually takes about three to four weeks for the films to arrive, and then you will have a month to view them.

More and more information is making its way to the Internet. This is true of passenger lists. There are a number of ongoing transcription projects that deal with passenger lists for all time periods. It is possible that you might find your ancestor through one of these projects.

Here is a list to get you started:

In Conclusion

While there is much available online, you may find that you will have to return to the traditional method in finding your ancestor's arrival. This may require narrowing down the date of arrival through naturalization records, obituaries, or biographical write ups if you find you must search the unindexed years for the port of New York City.

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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