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Research Tip 13: Finding Ancestors in Passenger Lists

by Raymond S. Wright III, Ph.D., AG

Interested in finding information about your immigrant ancestors? You're not alone. Passenger lists are the most popular sources you can turn to in your efforts to discover more facts about your immigrant forebears.

Several kinds of passenger lists exist: those created by officials at the port of embarkation and at the port of arrival, and passenger lists created by shipping companies. Often the same list, prepared by the ship's crew, served the needs of port officials and shipping merchants.

Police and customs officials in ports of embarkation were required by law to identify everyone leaving the port; passenger lists simplified their work. Ships' owners, who sold space on board their ships, wanted to ensure that only ticketed passengers were on their vessels. Officials in the ports to which emigrant ships sailed wanted to admit only immigrants who qualified under their immigration laws. These government agents required that lists of passengers be filed with them before passengers were allowed to disembark.

The keeping of passenger lists at United States ports of entry began in 1820. Names of immigrants have been extracted from many of these records and published in passenger lists' indexes. Such indexes normally identify passengers by name, age, origin and ship.

The best-known indexing project is the Balch Institute-Temple University Immigrant Archives in Philadelphia. Under the direction of Professor Ira Glazier, Temple University students have extracted data from original United States' customs and immigration passenger lists to produce several indexes.

The Famine Immigrants (Ira Glazier, ed., Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing, 1983) provides researchers with names of emigrants from Ireland during the years of the potato famine, 1846-1851. The German Emigrants (Ira Glazier, P. William Filby, eds. Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 1988-) is the largest index, with over 50 volumes of emigrants who arrived after 1849. Italians to America, covering immigrants arriving after 1879, (Ira Glazier, P. William Filby, eds. Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 1992-) and Migration from the Russian Empire (Ira Glazier, ed., Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing, 1995) are newer series indexing immigrant arrivals in the United States.

The Dutch emigration to the United States has been carefully documented by Professor Robert P. Swieringa: Dutch Immigrants in U.S. Ship Passenger Manifests, 1820-1880 (Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 1983).

What about indexes to passenger lists for the period prior to 1820? P. William Filby, retired director of the Maryland State Historical Society, has compiled a bibliography of the published passenger lists he has discovered. You can find this under the title of Passenger and Immigration Lists Bibliography, 1538-1900 (Detroit: Gale Research, 1984-).

Mr. Filby has indexed many of these lists in his Passenger and Immigration Lists Index (Detroit: Gale Research, 1981) and Supplements (Detroit: Gale Research, 1982-), which name about two and a quarter million pre-1820 immigrants. For early immigrants arriving at the port of Philidelphia, Mr. Filby has also published the index Philadelphia Naturalization Records: An Index to Records of Aliens' Declarations of Intention and/or Oaths of Allegiance, 1789-1880 (Detroit: Gale Research, 1982).


About the Author
Raymond S. Wright III is a professor at Brigham Young University (Provo, Utah), where he has taught courses in family history and genealogy since 1990. He received his M.A. and Ph.D. in history from the University of Utah. An Accredited Genealogist of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, Wright was manager of library operations there from 1979-1990. During his employment, Wright did numerous research assignments in archives and libraries in the United States and many foreign countries. He is a specialist on genealogical records in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Wright has served twice as chairman of the American Library Association's Genealogy Committee. He is also author of The Genealogist's Handbook: Modern Methods for Researching Family History.

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