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Researching Passenger Arrival in the United States

Of all the US documents genealogical researcher search for, the Passenger Arrival document, is probably the most sought after and valuable. It is the bridge that helps us cross from America to Europe because it can tell us from where our ancestors came. To find the document you must search the paper trail left by your ancestor working BACKWARDS through the many US documents they left. Although not mandated by governments, the Master of the Vessel, or Captain, kept a ship's manifest for hundreds of years listing its cargo and passengers. It wasn't until 1 January 1820 that the US federal government first started to regulate immigration by keeping track of incoming ship passengers. In 1882 the US Passenger Act was passed requiring all captains to keep a list of their passengers. Each arriving ship was required to submit a passenger list (manifest). A world law was finally passed in 1891 requiring the captains of every vessel to make a list of their passengers.

US passenger arrival documents are available for most ports from 1820 to 1954. They can be found on microfilm at the National Archives and from the Latter- Day Saints Family History Center Library. Some large libraries, such as the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana, have collections of passenger arrival on microfilms.

There is a catalog available from the National Archives, which provides a description of the publications (microfilms) for all ports it is called Immigration and Passenger Arrivals: A Select Catalog of National Archives Microfilms (#200012). It covers the period from 1820-1954. You can order it for about $2.00 by writing to:

National Archives Trust Fund
Dept 510
P.O. Box 100793
Atlanta, GA 30384

The Document

Over the years there have been as many as seven different forms used for the passenger arrival document. With each new form, the information provided became more detailed. From 1820 to 1891 these documents were known as Customs Passenger Lists, and from 1891-1954 they were known as Immigration Passenger Lists. Here we will refer to them as Passenger Arrival Documents.

In 1820 for arrivals to the US, a Captain was required to keep a list, which included only the passenger's name, age, their occupation, and Native County. Before 1880, the town of origin was rarely asked for. The ship's name, date of departure and arrival, and the Captain's name were also provided on the list.

With the passage of the 1882 law, a Captain was now required to keep a Passenger Arrival document with the following information:

For Steerage Passengers information was kept on the passenger's name, age, race, sex, marital status, occupation, literacy, native country, who was the sponsor in the US, final destination, and if ever in the US before and when.

By 1906 more information was required on the passenger:

Finding the Document

You must have approximate information to even begin your search for the passenger arrival document; a surname, age, and an idea of the year of arrival and to what port.

A family interview is always one of the best places to start. Maybe a relative remembers being told a story about grandpa's arrival that could provide you with the clue you need to start your search. "Grandpa said when he arrived to New York there was a big snow storm!" Two clues, New York and winter!

Ask for family documents. Maybe someone has an old passport, or ship's ticket, or even a newspaper obituary that states when Uncle Joe arrived, and you know that Grandpa came just after him. More clues!

The Federal Census records, 1900, 1910, and 1920 asked for the year of immigration, how many years in the US, as well as citizenship status. Many State Census records also asked these questions. A census record is a great source to help you determine the year of arrival, research them! City directories can help narrow down a year. Don't over look them.

A death certificate and even marriage records often give the length of time in the US. Check these records for clues to your ancestor's arrival.

Naturalization document are a good source for finding the passenger arrival document, as well as where your ancestor was born. The Declaration of Intention or Petition for Naturalization can provide you with the exact birthplace, and the ship, date, and port of arrival. Most of this information was provided on the documents from after 1906, but some of the earlier documents have this information and should be researched.

A passport record, US or foreign, can provide you with date and place of birth for your ancestor. The US application can give you the information on date of arrival. Information for US Passports obtained between 1906-1925 are in the custody of the Civil Reference Branch, Textual Reference Division, National Archives and Records Administration, Suitland, MD 20409. The FHC has microfilms for passport applications from 1795-1920 and indexes for years 1830-1831, 1850-1852, and 1860-1925.> Information for US Passports issued from 1925 are in the custody of the Passport Office, Department of State, Washington, DC 20520. You must provide death certificate or letter from applicant.

Land records many times contain information on immigration. The Homestead Act of 1862 allowed free land from the government to all. Applications were taken and information kept in a file. These files are at the National Archives.

The Big Myth

"My family's surname was changed when they arrived to Ellis Island." Probably not true!

The Passenger Arrival document, which contains a spelling of your ancestor's name, was actually completed by the Steamship Companies at the PORT OF EMBARKMENT (departure) most before the ship even sailed, others while on board. The passenger was asked for his name and it was then written on the document. The spelling error occurred for many reasons. A shipping officer at a German port translates a Russian name with the way he heard and understood it using his German alphabet, or using Latin letters. These unfamiliar names were spelled as best as the officer could by phonetically. Many of our ancestor's could not read and write these Latin languages and therefore could not correct the spellings. When the passenger arrived at the US port, the US Immigration Officers only verified the information that was already provided on the document by the shipping companies.

So when looking for your ancestor's surname on arrival documents, or any document for that matter, keep in mind various spellings. It is also important to know that women often used their maiden names even if they were married.


Once you have a basic idea of the spelling of your ancestor's name, his age, port of arrival, and an approximate year of arrival, you can begin a search for the passenger arrival document. Use the many Indexes available. They are arranged by port, period, surname, ship's name, and even ethnic groups. Knowing the approximate age of your ancestor at the time of arrival is important because most Indexes are arrange by spelling first and age second. Age will help you determine your Grandpa from someone else's, and a father from a son.

Europeans arrived through many ports in the US. Most ports have an index to help you find your ancestor, but be aware that not all years are indexed so you will have to work around this. If you do not know the port, you might take a guess and search the busiest ones used, such as New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, and New Orleans.

Baltimore City has a list from 1833-1866 with a Soundex Index. Other lists for Baltimore that are indexed are for years 1820-1897, 1897-1952, 1954-1957. They are all available on microfilm from the LDS.

Passenger Arrivals for Philadelphia, Penn are available for 1800-1906 on LDS#0419424, 1906-1926, 1883-1948 all are Indexed on National Archive microfilm #T526 LDS#1380256.

Here is an example of some of the Indexes available for New York:

Register of Vessels arriving 1789-1919 is found on microfilm at the LDS FHC Library and on National Archive group M1066. Arranged in chronological order then alphabetical by vessel or owner.

New York Arrivals for 1820-1846 can be found in an alphabetical Index at your local Latter-day Saints Family History Library, or at the National Archives, Washington, DC or the Regional Division of the National Archives in New York City in National Archive group M261.

Passenger Lists of Vessels 1820-1897 by Dates on microfilm at the LDS FHC Library and in National Archive group M237.

If your ancestor arrived to New York between 1897-1902, you can look for the arrival information in the Alphabetical Index at your local LDS FHC Library and the National Archives group T519 all on microfilm.

Index for 1897 - 1957 arranged by Dates found on microfilm at the LDS FHC Library and in National Archive group T715.

The New York Passenger Arrivals are arranged by Soundex for the years 1902-1943. You will need to Soundex your surname with the Code, which is found at LDS FHC Library or the National Archives. Then order the microfilm for that code. If your ancestor's surname is in the Soundex, it will tell you the date and ship your ancestor arrived on. You can then either order the microfilm for this date at the LDS FHC Library, or order it directly from the National Archives in Washington, DC in group T621.

1906 - 1942 Index is an alphabetical index arranged by shipping line then chronologically by date of arrival on microfilm at the LDS FHC Library and in National Archives group T612.

Index 1944-1948 Soundex for passengers on microfilm at the LDS FHC Library and in National Archives group M1417.

If you use the LDS FHC Library, you will be ordering the microfilm from their main library in Salt Lake City, Utah. The microfilms will cost about $3.25 - $3.75 depending on your library. They will keep the films at the local library for about 6 weeks (leave a postcard with them).

There is no index for New York for 1847-1896. The WPA program that President Roosevelt started in the 1930s ran out of money to Index these years.

When there is no Index, you will have to use other methods to locate the arrival document and information. Look for Naturalization Records. You might have to search a whole year on microfilm or a shipping company in the time period. Use publications such as the William P. Filby Passenger and Immigration Lists Index. Ira A. Glazier's Migration from the Russian Empire: Lists of Passengers Arriving at the Port of New York. There are many ways to work around not having an Index of names.

Patience and time are required with all methods. And be aware that there are error and omissions in any index. Handwriting can be illegible, ages incorrect, spellings wrong, children omitted, and illegal entries not mentioned.

Ports of Departure

You might be able to find your ancestor's arrival using an Index for the Port of Departure. Some do exist. Unfortunately for the busiest port, Bremen Germany, all the records were destroyed during WWII. But there is a card file that was microfilmed by the LDS based on the Bremen Lists. It is the Namenskartei aus den Bremer Schiffslisten 1904-1914 card index arranged by country. It is not complete, but just might have your ancestor's name on it.

Hamburg Germany was the second busiest port of departure and the passenger records are available on microfilm at the LDS indexed for 1850-1934. The records are divided into to groups, Direct (passengers going directly to their destination without a stop over port) and Indirect (passengers stopping at a European or British port before going to the US).

If you don't find them on the LDS microfilm, you could write for a search in Germany. Passenger lists for Hamburg are held in the "Steamship Werner", The Museum of Hamburg History, and can be searched for 1850-1914.

Write to:

Bei den St. Pauli
2000 Hamburg 4,
Cost:$30.00 first year, $10.00 each additional year (1995 costs).

For other European ports with departure or passport application lists, check The Source, A Guidebook of American Genealogy. The Morton Allen Directory has information on vessels arriving at New York for 1890-1930. Only the name of the ship and date of arrival are given no passenger names. The same information is available for the ports of Baltimore, Boston, and Philadelphia for the years 1904-1926. Check fiche #6046854 in your local Family History Center Library for the Morton Allen Directory. Tony Cimorelli has retyped the entire Morton Allan directory of ship arrivals on line for the port of New York 1890-1930. You can find it at http://www.cimorelli.com/pie/nara/selldate.htm.

For information on ships and passenger lists, you can subscribe to the Ships List Server by sending email to: TheShipsList-L-REQUEST@rootsweb.com, put SUBSCRIBE in the Subject area, or put just the word SUBSCRIBE in the main message area. The list provided questions and answers related to Ships and Arrival Documents. Mailing Lists--The Ship's List--by date http://www.chignecto.net/TheShipsList.

Once you find your ancestor and the date and ship, you will want to get a copy of the document. If your local LDS FHC has a microfilm-copying machine, and you have rented the film for the ship's list, you can copy the page at the center. Or you might want to receive the document from the National Archives. The send it in a large, readable form of two pages for $10.00.
To Write for Passenger Arrival Document from the National Archives, use NA Form 81 (Ship Passenger Arrival Records) and send to:

General Reference Branch
National Archives and Records Administration
7th and Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, D.C. 20408

You must know the arrival date, port, and ship.

You can order forms from the National Archives by email. To request forms just send email to inquire@arch2.nara.gov In the Subject put in Form, in the body of the message put in your mailing address (not email), the number of the form, and number of forms needed.

If you know the ship your ancestor arrived on, you can get a picture and info about it by writing to:

The Mariners' Museum Library,
100 Museum Drive
Newport News, VA 23606-3759
Phone: (804) 596-2222 Fax: (804)591-7310

Steamship History Society, University of Baltimore Library
1420 Maryland Ave, Baltimore, MD 21201 Phone (410) 837-4334
Cost: $10.00 for photo & history of ship

Peabody Maritime Museum in Mass
Peabody Essex Museum
East India Square
Salem. MA (zip?)

The information give above is just a small amount of what is available for Passenger Arrival documents. It would take a book to give details on everything out there.

Web Sites

Passenger and Ship Web Sites

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Originally Composed: Sunday Oct 3rd, 1999.
Date last modified: Sunday Jan 16th, 2000.