how to effectively search for your ancestors in Immigration Passenger
By Terry and Jim Willard
While "give me your tired" would definitely apply to
a genealogist after a long day of research, it is actually a famous
passage from the 1883 poem "The New Colossus," by Emma
Lazarus. The poem was written as part of a project to raise funds
for a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty, a gift to the United
States from the people of France. The funds were raised, the base
built, and the statue erected. Since then, the statue has become
a symbol of the United States as well as a tribute to the millions
of immigrants who have entered the country. It is to these immigrants,
and the paper trail they left behind, that we turn in this article.
Genealogists are very fortunate that the people
of the past left a paper trail. Unfortunately, this trail may
be somewhat erratic, difficult to locate, and even incomplete,
especially when compared to the trail we are leaving for our descendants
to follow. However, a trail does exist.
Virtually every American can trace his or her
family history back to an ancestor (or a group of ancestors) who
entered this country as an immigrant. Estimates place the total
number of immigrants to this country (1607 to the present) between
35 and 50 million. These immigrants generally entered through
one of the port cities of the United States. If they entered legally
and under normal circumstances, some type of paperwork was completed
to document their entry.
Federal and State Records
The records are divided into two time periods that are identified
by the level of government that kept the records. From the earliest
Colonial period until approximately 1820, immigration records
were kept by the colony or state where the port was located. The
federal government did not require ship captains to present a
list to port authorities. The colonies (and later, states) had
requirements for the captains, and it is these records that exist
for the time period. Approximately 1 million people entered the
United States during this period, and the immigration records
that exist can be found in either the port city or in the archives
for that state, usually located in the state’s capital.
An excellent general reference that details these
records is A Bibliography of Ship Passenger
Lists, 1583-1825 (New York: New York Public Library), third
edition, 1978, by Harold Lancour. You may find this book at your
local library or any major research library.
Since 1820, the federal government has kept immigration
records in the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Copies of
some of these records are also located in the regional branches
of the National Archives. It is always a good idea to call any
branch of the archives to learn exactly which records can be found
at that location. To find the regional archive nearest you, consult
your local library.
Two types of federal immigration records have
been kept since 1820:
lists were kept by the U.S. Customs Service and cover the years
from 1820 until approximately 1891.
passenger lists—These lists were kept by the
U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). They begin
in 1906 and continue until 1957.
Each of these lists provides valuable information
about our immigrant ancestors. From the customs passenger lists
we can learn:
addition to these categories, the immigration passenger lists
may offer place of birth, last place of residence, and name and
address of a relative in the immigrant’s native country,
depending on the year.
Since the vast majority of our ancestors entered
this country after 1820, the obvious problem is locating information
on the one person being traced. Fortunately, many of the passenger
lists have been indexed and are available on microfilm through
the National Archives and in major research libraries. Designated
copies can be ordered from the Family History Library for use
in one of the hundreds of family history centers located throughout
the United States. These indexes offer the best starting point
for researching existing ships’ passenger
There are several ways new genealogists can begin
their immigrant ancestor research. First, gather as much information
as possible on the immigrant ancestor. The absolute minimum information
needed to use immigration records is:
individual’s complete name. This should include first,
middle, last, and any variations that might exist for each part.
Try to experiment with spelling variations as well.
The approximate year the individual entered the United States.
port city where the immigrant entered.
Any other relevant information you have been able
to gather, such as the ship’s name, a port of embarkation,
or a hometown in Europe, will prove invaluable. Hopefully you
have been able to learn some of these facts from other sources,
such as documents in your family’s possession or from family
In order to get the most from passenger lists,
it is important to know the year your ancestor entered the country
and, if possible, the name of the ship that person entered on.
The best approach is to start with a good general reference book,
which can be found at any major genealogical research library.
Perhaps the best of these sources is Passenger and Immigration
Lists Index: A Guide to Published Arrival Records of Passengers
Who Came to the United States and Canada in the Seventeenth, Eighteenth,
and Nineteenth Centuries, edited by William P. Filby (Detroit:
Gale Research Co., 1981-). This three-volume series is updated
Another potential source is the Internet. Every
day additional lists are finding their way onto various Web sites,
and it is a source that cannot be overlooked. However, remember
there is no substitute for old-fashioned legwork, and locating
immigration information requires a great deal of this.
Also, don’t forget to check publications
that focus on specific ethnic groups that entered the country.
Several books presented as alphabetical lists have been published
dealing with ethnic groups such as German, Polish, Italian, and
We are often asked how to learn something—such
as the date an immigrant entered the country—if that information
is not a part of family lore. Simply start with the 1920 Census.
Column 13 of the 1920 Census asks for the year of immigration
to the United States. This information, while not always accurate,
yields one of those key pieces of data to pursue ships’
passenger lists. Then, coupled with an educated guess as to the
port of entry, you are ready to consult the various indexes available
from NARA. If you do not live near a major research library or
an archive where these indexes are available, you may write to
the National Archives. The following contact information is taken
from the NARA Web site:
copies of immigration records can be ordered by mail using one
NATF Form 81 for each person or family group traveling together.
can obtain the NATF Form 81 by providing your name and mailing
address to firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to specify Form 81 and
the number of forms you need.
can also obtain the NATF Form 81 by writing to: National Archives
and Records Administration, Attn: NWCTB, 700 Pennsylvania Avenue,
NW, Washington, D.C. 20408-0001.
Any discussion of immigrant records would not be complete without
reference to Ellis Island, one of
America’s most revered historical sites. Between 1892 and
1954 approximately 12 million people were processed in the facilities.
It is estimated that today forty percent of all Americans can
trace their roots to at least one person who passed through the
Due to the constant interest people exhibit toward
their immigrant ancestor(s), the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island
Foundation has begun computerizing the immigration records of
the people who passed through the center between 1892 and 1924.
Thus, Ellis Island will become the starting point for someone
whose ancestors entered the United States at this port.
The first phase of the database project will be
available in late 2000, and Internet access to the information
will be available shortly thereafter. The data will cover eleven
fields, including the person’s given name, surname, sex,
age, marital status, ship they arrived on, port of origin, departure
date from that port, nationality, and last residence. If a researcher
discovers information on his or her family, a printout of the
information will be available for a small fee, as will a scanned
image of the original ship’s manifest and a picture of the
ship. The project at Ellis Island represents some of the best
technology for genealogists and will serve as a model for other
One of the most rewarding aspects of genealogical
research is the contact we have with the lives of our ancestors
through the records they left behind. Did they ever question the
paper trail they left behind?
was the experience like for the steerage passengers who arrived
at Ellis Island? Were they inspired by the beautiful statue that
stood before them? Regardless of our ancestors’ thoughts
during the stressful days of immigration, genealogists today benefit
from the documents they routinely filled out. It is through these
records that we learn to understand a bit more their courage and
hope in the unforeseen future.
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