Thursday, December 10, 2009

Where Can I Find US Passenger Lists?

It has been estimated that more than 30 million people immigrated to the United States between 1607 when the first of the colonies were established until the 1920s. You may be able to find the information about on which ship your ancestors came to the New Land by searching through passenger lists of those ships bringing new immigrants. If your ancestor came during the 1800s, there is the chance that you can find track down which vessel brought them to the United States. As always try to find out if any indexes have been published, either online or in book form to save you the trouble of a long search.

If you are unsure where to start, you should check for census records of your ancestors. Beginning with the 1850 US Census, which was the first to ask the birthplace of the individuals being enumerated, you will begin to figure out where to look. The problem is that these earlier census records provide sparce information about where exactly the person came from. Most people when asked where they were born would say "New York", or "Massachuesetts", or "England" or "Ireland" which makes it somewhat difficult to track them down. The later censuses provided more information about immigrants, and are more completely indexed. Don't forget about Naturalization or citizenship records, some of which start from the 1790s and could include declarations of intentions or petitions for citizenship.

The Congress of the United States enacted legislation in 1819 to regulate transportion of passengers from foreign shores to the United States. One of the requirements of this act, was that ships' captains had to provide the collector of customs in the district in which the ship arrived with a list of passengers.

These passenger lists are the main body of immigration records. The information on earlier lists is usually a bit sparce and has changed significantly over the years, but most should include the following:

  • Name

  • Age

  • Occupation

  • Place of origin

  • Destination in the United States

  • Name and type of ship

  • Port and date of departure

  • Port and date of arrival

A lot of the these lists survived the ravages of time and are now held by the National Archives in Washington D.C. and were microfilmed to preserve and protect the information on the lists as well as improve access. Back in 1977 the lists for five of the most major ports were transferred to the Balch Institute Center for Immigration Research at Temple University, Philadelphia and the center has been transcribing and publishing abstracts since that time. The major ports were:

  • Boston

  • New York

  • Philadelphia

  • Baltimore

  • New Orleans

During the colonial era, Philadelphia was the most popular of these ports for landing, however, within the first two decades of federal immigration regulation, New York City became the preferred port of arrival. By 1850, the number of immigrants who arrived in New York city outstripped all other the ports combined. One point - the early Customs Passenger Lists are indexed for all of the ports for which there are lists, but the New York index is unfortunately incomplete and has no index from 1847 til 1896

How Do I Get My Hands On Passenger Lists?

You can go the the National Archives in Washington D.C., or one of the their branches. Here is a list of US National Archives branch locations that is available on the website for the NA. Another option is to visit a Family History Center and that link will show you how to find out if there is one nearby.

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