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Overheard in GenForum: Looking for Passenger Lists
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.

November 02, 2000
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: I am looking for 1847 passenger ship lists for vessels arriving at New York City from Germany (sometimes they sailed from Antwerp, Belgium I have found) also sometimes Rotterdam, Netherlands since they were close to Netherland's border. If you know or could direct me to the right place to look I would appreciate it. -- Sheila

A: Genealogists are always looking for some record, and for those with immigrant ancestors it is the passenger list. Many think it will be much like the Holy Grail, supplying them with all the needed answers to where their ancestor came from in the old country.

Passenger lists can sometimes supply needed information. However, the type of information found on a passenger list varies. The questions required were based on who was responsible for acquiring the information. The passenger lists can be divided into two different time periods when it comes to the type of information found on the passenger lists.

Over the years, the information recorded on passenger lists has varied.


Prior to 1820, passenger lists were not required to be recorded with the federal government. In 1820 a law was passed requiring the recording of passenger lists. This responsibility was to fall under the Bureau of Customs. Often you will find the passenger lists in this time period referred to as the Customs Passenger Lists.

The law at this time did not require much information be recorded for each passenger. In fact, there are usually only five columns found on these pages. The columns asked the following information:

  • Passenger's name
  • Passenger's age
  • Passenger's gender
  • Passenger's occupation
  • Passenger's nationality

These records are available on microfilm. The years available vary from port to port.


By 1891 immigration and the individuals in charged of immigrants was separated from the customs office. However, it wasn't until 1906 that the Immigration and Naturalization Services was created.

It was at this time that additional columns began to be added to the passenger lists. In 1893 the total number of columns went up to 21 and added such items as marital status, last residence, final destination in the United States, and amount of money on them.

In 1903 a column for race of people was added to track ethnic groups. In 1906 additional columns were added to list a personal description, and the place of birth. In 1907 they added a place to record the name and address of a relative still living in the old country.

It is easy to see that these later passenger lists are more informative and useful to the genealogist in their quest for a connection to the old country. If that is the goal, then it is these latter passenger lists that can supply such answers.

Accessing the Lists

While there are a few lists online at the Immigrant Ships Transcribers Guild, the majority of your work is likely to require accessing the microfilmed versions of these records.

The Family History Library is the most obvious place to find the microfilm unless you have access to the films through a genealogy department at your local public library. If you haven't checked the microfilm holdings of the genealogy department of your local public library, you will want to make it a point the next time you are there. It may surprise you what they have available.

What to Do

Unfortunately your research falls in that unindexed period for New York City. It will be necessary to narrow down your research to a specific time of that year. One way to do this is through naturalization records. Another would be to look at the lists from the old country and see if you can pick up your trail on that end. Many of these records are also available on microfilm.

You will find that while there are some passenger lists from the point of emigration, there are often more records that pertain to an exit visa or request to leave. However, they may supply you with the date of emigration and the name of the ship. This would be enough to help you in locating the correct list upon entry in New York.

However, keep in mind the limited information for those lists of 1847. If you were hoping to locate the place of birth, then you will be disappointed, especially when you consider the effort needed to pin down this specific record.

For more information on researching an immigrant ancestor, you will want to read the genealogy classes available through

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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