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.
A few dates stand out in the history of United States passenger arrival lists. In 1819 Congress passed legislation requiring ships' masters to file a list of arriving passengers with U.S. Customs officers at U.S. ports of entry. These early lists normally included the passenger's name, age, occupation, country of origin, and destination country. Names of people who were born, married, or who died during the voyage were also reported. U.S. legislation in 1882 required separate passenger lists for immigrants, but it was not until 1893 that standardized forms called for ships' masters to add each immigrant's marital status, last place of residence, destination city, and names and addresses of relatives they planned to meet in the U.S.
Each immigrant's race was added in 1903, and in 1906 their physical description. The names and addresses of immigrants' nearest kin in the home country became part of immigration passenger arrival lists in 1907.
Customs passenger arrival lists dating from 1820 to 1891 are available on National Archives microfilms for most Atlantic and Gulf Coast ports. Microfilm copies of immigration passenger arrival lists from 1891 to 1957 are available for major Atlantic, Gulf Coast, and Pacific ports. Most ports have indices covering these time periods. New York arrivals, containing probably 60% of America's immigrants, are indexed from 1820 through 1846 and 1897 to 1943.
Where do family historians find these National Archives microfilms? They are available through local LDS Family History Centers, many public libraries and state and local historical societies. Each of the regional offices of the National Archives has a complete set of passenger arrival lists.
Overcoming the lack of arrival lists indexes for the port of New York is not difficult. If you know an immigrant's arrival date in the United States, you can search the microfilms containing the arrival lists for the year in question. If the arrival year is unknown, a survey of the decennial U.S. censuses in search of the immigrant ancestor may provide an arrival year. If a census entry can be found in 1900, 1910, or 1920, it will normally contain the year of arrival in the United States.
Ancestors not found in these censuses may turn up in earlier censuses. Each census prior to the immigrant's death should be searched. Eventually you will discover the earliest census in which the immigrant was recorded.
Next, determine if city or county directories exist for the locality listed as the home of the immigrant in their earliest census entry. Search these annual directories from the date of the first census entry for the ancestor back in time until the name is no longer found in the directory. The first year in which no entry for the ancestor appears in the local directory can be recorded as the approximate year of immigration. Now search in New York arrival lists, beginning with the first year in which the immigrant is missing in his or her local city or county directory.
Noting ages and places of birth recorded in the census for the children of immigrants may also point to an immigration year. If one child was born in 1863 in England and the next in 1865 in the United States, the years 1863-1865 become the target dates for searching New York arrival lists.
There were a number of lists generated when a European emigrated to the US.
Lists made at the original port of embarkation
- If the ship stopped at another port along the way, lists may have been prepared. For example: First stop NYC then on to Philadelphia to disembark more passengers etc. Or they could have taken a train from NYC to Philadelphia, etc. Lots of folks went to Canada because it was cheaper. They then walked down into their chosen area of the USA. (Does any of this sound familiar? Viet Nam, prescription drugs, surgery, etc.)
- Lists at the port of arrival in the US (Ships Passenger Lists).
- Newspapers would list the ships arriving and departing and generally describe what it was carrying.
- Information in the Ship's manifests and Ships logs can be important for the pre-1820 period where few passenger lists remain.
Other lists may have been generated, such as if the immigrants voyage was arranged by some organization (e.g. an emigrant aid society), or if the ship was quarantined when it arrived in the U.S. Also, Passport Applications and Naturalization papers are also useful in locating the origin of your ancestor. All of these lists may be of help in finding the origin of your ancestor as well as other historical information.
Ships Passenger Lists
Most of our immigrant ancestors came to the United States on ships. Every one of these ships had a passenger list or manifest and many of these lists have survived. However, the amount of information and the availability of the information on these lists varies with different time periods. Therefore, let's consider three time period groups as follows:
- Pre 1820 — There was no standardization or controls over immigration and these lists have generally become lost or scattered.
- 1820 to 1893 — Controls on immigration were begun and limited useful information for genealogical research is available
- Post 1893 — The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) was established and the required amount of information on the ships passenger lists was greatly increased. Much useful genealogical information may be available
Canada and Nantucket, Boston, New Orleans were the most common ports during 1849-1853. There are lists available for these major ports:
- Baltimore: 1820-1957
- Boston: 1820-1943
- New Orleans: 1820-1952
- New York: 1820-1957
- Philadelphia: 1800-1948
- San Francisco: 1893-1957
You will find microfilmed copies of passenger lists at the National Archives and its regional centers, public and private libraries, and at the LDS Family History Library and its thousands of local Family History Centers.
Don't overlook lists of people who entered the country via land rather than sea. A helpful tool here is the collection of arrival indices and manifests for persons crossing the border between the United States and Canada. These records, which begin in 1895 and end in 1954, are often listed as records of the St. Albans District, but the collection is not limited to just St. Albans, Vermont. The St. Albans district encompassed most of the U.S.- Canadian border. Look for "St. Albans District Manifest Records of Aliens Arriving from Foreign Contiguous Territory" in your branch of the National Archives. At the LDS Family History Center look for Soundex Index to Canadian Border Entries through the St. Albans, VT. District, 1895-1924 (M1461). These microfilms are wonderful sources of information as they include personal data found on U.S. Immigration forms as well as that of immigrants crossing the border on trains.
If you have problems locating this group of microfilms on the Family History Center Catalogue CD-ROM, you can just enter this number - 1472801, and it will bring information up on the screen regarding availability of these and related border-crossing microfilms for other time periods. By first obtaining information on the Soundex films you can then readily find a microfilmed copy of the original ship manifest showing all passengers on that particular voyage including the captain's signature. Soundex microfilms are conveniently arranged so that all the travelers with the same surname (or similar) are included on one or two films.
Typically, the Soundex films give month, year, port of arrival, names of other family members, country of origin and the name of the ship. They often include individual's last address before immigrating and names and addresses of other relatives in that country, as well as the names and addresses of family or friends at the intended destination. Other personal data such as height, weight, color of hair and eyes, health status and any scars may also be found.
Passenger List Websites
GenSearch - Ports
This is 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 here under the state of Vermont (even though the actual border crossing may have taken place elsewhere). Mexican border crossing records are also listed here for California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. The rest are for ship passenger arrival records.
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.
These are lists of ships' passenger lists available, and do not contain names of individual passengers. The two best groupings of lists are:
- Filby, P. William, ed. Passenger and Immigration Lists Bibliography, 1538-1900. Second Edition. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1988 [Connecticut State Library call number HistRef Z 5313 .U5 F54 1988]. A good general description of each list. It is a revised and enlarged version of the following item:
- Lancour, Harold, comp. A Bibliography of Ship Passenger Lists, 1538-1825; Being a Guide to Published Lists of Early Immigrants to North America. Third Edition. New York: New York Public Library, 1978 [Connecticut State Library call number HistRef Z 7164 .I3 L2 1978].
This bibliography was for many years the principal reference work on published ship passenger lists, citing sources of lists in books and periodicals. Most of the items cited may be found in larger public and university libraries. The need to track down the periodical sources cited in Lancour has been largely eliminated by the work of two energetic compilers, Carl Boyer and Michael Tepper. Each of these men has published lists in separate collections.
Do give another look at Passenger Lists. Keep in mind the people your ancestors traveled with, too. Some may be family or future family. We discuss this more fully in "Cluster Genealogy Research."