March 30th, 2017
Before the days of airplane travel, emigrants typically left their countries of origin on ships and braved long and difficult journeys across the ocean. Finding evidence of an ancestor's journey to a new world through passenger lists and ship manifests can be a thrilling experience for anyone who is interested in their family history. Such valuable documents, kept by most shipping companies across the world, can be incredibly difficult to search, however, leading genealogists to spend countless hours in fruitless inquiry. Many of the lists, for instance, have not been put into indexes and lay moldering in some obscure or unreachable archive. At other times, even when genealogists do find their ancestors on a ship manifest, only their name and country of departure are listed; no other exciting information, such as birth date, country of origin, or occupation, is included. Such warnings aside, however, there are ways genealogists can increase their chance of success in finding their ancestors on passenger lists.
First, remember that your ancestors may have been included on a number of lists, not just the ones made upon arrival in their new country. Lists were made when they first got on the ship and whenever they stopped along the way. Newspapers and organizations that may have paid for their journey, such as aid societies, would also have kept lists. Even passport applications and naturalization papers can provide valuable clues to your ancestor's journey.
After becoming aware of the variety of places in which you can look for your ancestors, try and keep the time period in which they arrived in consideration. Passenger lists made for immigrants arriving in America before 1820, for example, are particularly difficult to search for because they were not standardized or carefully preserved and either do not exist anymore or are extremely difficult to find. The search for immigrants arriving between 1820 and 1891 is slightly less difficult but information is still limited. Finally, in 1891, the Immigration and Naturalization Service came into existence in the United States, and passenger lists were greatly improved, becoming more reliable, informative and well-preserved.
Before you begin searching passenger lists, you need to know your ancestor's complete and original name, the date of his arrival in America, and the port at which he arrived. It is also helpful to know his age; the port from which he departed; his country of origin; his ultimate destination in the United States; and the names of his ship or of any fellow travelers. You can find this information through a piece memorabilia, such as a letter or ticket; through previously researched family history; through census records, which are available on the internet and on purchasable computer programs; through naturalization records, which are actually more informative than passenger lists for immigrants arriving after 1906; and through passport records, if your ancestor applied for one to visit his country of origin.
If you discover that your ancestor arrived before 1820, there is no centralized place to search for passenger lists. Many ships did keep lists, which they left at the ports of arrival, but since the government did not require these lists to be kept or saved, they were lost, destroyed, or scattered in different libraries or private collections. Many of the surviving lists have been published on the web or in books, so these are the best places to search. Newspapers from the time which have been microfilmed are also valuable resources. Finally, the government does have records in the national archives for arrivals in New York from 1789 to 1919, in New Orleans from 1813 to 1819, and in Philadelphia from 1800 to 1819.
If your ancestor arrived after 1820, then your main job will be in consulting the variety of resources available. Customs Passenger Lists, compiled by ship captains from 1820 to around 1891 and indexes for these lists can be found at the National Archives; in libraries, including the comprehensive genealogical archives of the Church of Latter Day Saints; online in images, transcripts, and indexes; on purchasable CD-ROMs; and in books. The archives and other resources contain notable gaps in information and errors, so it is best to search in a variety of indexes.
Beginning around 1891, Immigration Passenger Lists replaced Customs Passenger Lists due to the flood of immigrants to the United States and the establishment of a Superintendent of Immigration. Immigration Passenger Lists are much more detailed and two pages long by 1906. They can be found in the National Archives, in the Latter Day Saints library, on the Ellis Island on-line database, and on other on-line sites. Once again, errors were made in microfilming lists and a variety of resources should be consulted. In the end, genealogy is like a scavenger hunt where you must use the clues provided to you and search in a variety of places before you find what you are looking for