Ancestor Searching Newsletter, Volume 3, # 10

Information Available from Passenger Lists: Probably more time is spent hunting for our ancestors on ship passenger lists than any other type of research. Many assume these records will reveal exactly where in the "old country" ancestors came from. It is not always that simple. Depending on when immigrant ancestors arrived, American ship passenger lists may or may not provide this information. In some instances determining the ancestral home can be discovered by tracking down naturalization papers, rather than ship passenger lists.

While there is nothing that can match finding ancestors on ship passenger lists, be prepared to do some serious digging. There are three major time frames important to researching American ship passenger lists. They are: 1891-1954, 1820-1890 and pre-1820. The two major repositories for these microfilmed records are the National Archives and the LDS (Mormon) Family History Library (FHL).

If ancestors arrived between 1891 and 1954, Immigration Passenger Lists are valuable. Immigrants were asked to provide information such as:

  • Marital status
  • Last residence
  • Final destination in the U.S.
  • If ever in the U.S. before, when, where and for how long.
  • If going to join a relative, the relative's name, address and relationship

In 1906 and 1907 more questions were added to the above list, including:

  • Personal description: height, complexion, color of hair and eyes, identifying marks
  • Place of birth — the exact city, town or village.
  • Name and address of closest living relative in native country.

However, if ancestors landed between 1820 and 1890, a search of what's known as Customs Passenger Lists will be necessary. These contain only the following data:

  • Name of ship
  • Name of its master
  • Port of embarkation
  • Date and port of its arrival
  • Each passenger's name, age, sex, occupation and nationality.

Contrary to popular belief, the National Archives does not have copies of all ship passenger lists. It does have a microfilm copy of the passenger lists that were turned over to it by the Customs Service and the Immigration and Naturalization Service when this federal repository was established in 1935. Inbound federal ship passenger arrival records at the National Archives date back to 1820 for most East Coast and Gulf Coast ports and a few lists dating back to 1800 for Philadelphia. The archives staff will search available indexed lists for you (first request NATF Form 81 from Reference Services Branch (NNIR), National Archives, 8th and Pennsylvania Ave., NW., Washington, DC 20408). You also can search indices and passenger lists through the Family History Library system and

When requesting a search by the National Archives, be sure to supply the following information on NATF Form 81:

  • Full name of the passenger
  • Port of entry
  • Approximate date of arrival

Major indices exist for the ports of:

  • Baltimore, 1820-1952
  • Boston 1848-91, 1902-20
  • New Orleans 1853-1952
  • New York City, 1820-46, 1897-1943
  • Philadelphia 1800-1948
  • Minor ports, 1820-74 and 1890-1924

Genealogy Workshop

Fact: There were no federal laws requiring ship passenger lists be recorded prior to 1820. However, some lists exist and have appeared in print in various publications. The best source for these pre-1820 records is the multi-volume series, edited by P. William Filby, entitled Passenger and Immigration Lists Index — which can usually be found available in public and academic libraries. These volumes give information about passenger lists which appear in books and periodicals, and a librarian can help locate such references.

Tip: Passenger List Websites

  • GenSearch - Ports
    Contains a list of nearly every port in the United States that has published immigration records (passenger arrival lists) 1820-1957, organized by state. Included are Canadian border crossing records, which are called "St. Albans Lists" and are listed under the state of Vermont (even though the actual border crossing may have taken place elsewhere). Mexican border crossing records are also listed for California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. The rest are for ship passenger arrival records.
  • Immigrant Ships  
    A group of volunteers dedicated to making ancestors' immigration records easy and convenient to find. Their mission is to make ships' passenger lists available online, at no cost to the researcher. Traditional methods of research in immigration records are time-consuming and expensive, so they created the Immigrant Ships Transcribers Guild to provide a forum for volunteers to present transcriptions of passenger lists and related materials. So far they have transcribed more than 5,000 ships' passenger lists, citing over 1/2 million passenger arrivals.

Genealogy News working in conjunction with the National Archives is making digitized images of original historical documents available online. The database is the newest library addition for historical and genealogical researchers. Beginning in April, a new computer class offering will be available to researchers. The class will be a one-hour presentation on maneuvering around the site. Be sure to watch for the April Computer Class schedule later this spring for the exact date and time. NOTE: The database is only available in-house (library locations).