Plunge Into Passenger Lists
Few achievements in family history research are as fulfilling as discovering your ancestor's name on a passenger list — often the first tangible evidence of their existence in America. If you've done your research on your immigrant ancestor, locating the actual manifest may tell you nothing new. But just seeing her name listed alongside those of her fellow passengers, and identifying the name of the ship she came over on, is a satisfying experience. And sometimes, especially with twentieth-century immigrants, the passenger list may provide that one clue you need to untangle your immigrant ancestor's story.
Most immigrants to the United States enter through a port city or border-crossing checkpoint. If they entered legally and under normal circumstances, some type of paperwork was generally completed to document their entry. The content and thoroughness of this information varies by time period, and the immigration records that were generated can be classified into several broad categories.
Passenger Arrivals Prior to 1820
From early colonial times through 1819, documentation of passenger arrivals was under the jurisdiction of the colonies (and later, states). The primary concern of these entities was the taxation of goods, not the transport of passengers, and ships' captains were not always required to maintain passenger lists. Documentation of passengers from this time period may come from a variety of sources, including: (1) a listing on the ship's cargo manifest, (2) notation of passengers in the ship's log, (3) publication of passenger arrivals in the local newspaper, and (4) lists created upon departure from the country of origin. In addition, names of ship passengers may be noted in private journals, in the archives of immigrant-sponsoring societies or organizations, or even attached to medical reports for ships quarantined due to onboard disease.
Pennsylvania offers one notable exception to the lack of required passenger documentation prior to 1820. Beginning in 1727, Pennsylvania required that all non-British immigrants be identified and take an oath of allegiance. Generally only adult male passengers over the age of sixteen were recorded, although some of the later lists also include women and children. These early Pennsylvania lists, totaling about 65,000 passengers of primarily German and Swiss descent, were originally compiled in 1962 by Ralph B. Strassburger and William J. Hinke. The three-volume series of books titled Pennsylvania German Pioneers has since been reprinted. Some of the passenger lists from this series have been transcribed and made available online at Pennsylvania German Pioneers Passenger Lists (
There is no central repository for pre-1820 passenger records, and many of them have been lost or destroyed. Those that remain are scattered in libraries, historical societies, archives, museums, and private hands. The majority of the known pre-1820 records have been published in books and journals. Two excellent bibliographic reference works detail many of these pre-1820 passenger records: Harold Lancour's A Bibliography of Ship Passenger Lists, 1583–1825, third edition, and William P. Filby's Passenger and Immigration Lists Bibliography, 1538–1825, second edition.
William Filby has also indexed many of these published pre-1820 passenger lists in his Passenger and Immigration Lists Index. This work, originally published in three volumes and supplemented annually, names about 2.25 million pre-1820 immigrants. It can be consulted in many major libraries and is also available online as part of the Immigration Collection at the subscription site
Another online resource for early passenger lists is
Could my ancestor's name have been changed at Ellis Island?
Many immigrants arriving in America did ultimately change their names, to avoid prejudice or to better assimilate into society. This name change most likely did not occur upon their arrival in the United States, however. It wasn't the job of Ellis Island and other port officials to write down names. Instead, they checked the immigrant's paperwork against the passenger list created by the shipping company at the port of departure, not the port of arrival.
Customs Passenger Lists, 1820–1891
The federal government did not begin keeping a record of passenger arrivals until 1820, after Congress passed the Steerage Act of 1819. This act regulated the transport of passengers from foreign ports to the United States, and required ships' captains to submit a list of their ship's passengers to the customs collector at the port of entry. From January 1, 1820, to approximately 1891, these passenger lists were kept by the U.S. Customs Service and are thus often referred to as customs lists or customs passenger manifests. They generally provide a minimum amount of information on the immigrant, including:
Name of the ship and its master
Port of embarkation
Date and port of arrival
The U.S. Immigration Service Assumes Control in 1891
The number of immigrants entering the United States grew so quickly that Congress passed the first federal law regulating immigration in 1882. Nine years later, the Immigration Act of 1891 moved jurisdiction of the immigration process to the federal government, under the new Superintendent of Immigration (which became the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization in 1906). This office was responsible for processing, admitting, and rejecting all immigrants seeking admission to the United States and for implementing national immigration policy.
As part of this implementation, “immigrant inspectors” were stationed at major American ports of entry for the purpose of collecting and reviewing the arrival manifests, referred to as immigration manifests or immigration passenger lists. These lists began about 1891 and continued until 1957, the exception being the port of Philadelphia, whose immigration passenger lists began in 1882. Although “Customs Passenger Lists” became “Immigration Passenger Lists,” the information included on the two lists is virtually identical until 1893. Beginning that year, the federal government issued new standard forms with sixteen additional columns of information. Later revisions added even more information. These post-1892 passenger lists include the same information found on the earlier lists, along with the following additional details:
Last town of residence
Final destination in the United States, often including name of relative or friend
Whether the passenger could read and write
Amount of money the passenger was carrying
Passenger's state of health
Race (from 1903)
Place of birth (from 1906)
Personal description (from 1906)
Name and address of nearest friend or relative in the old country (from 1907)
As with almost any rule, there are a few exceptions. One French immigrant's arrival in the United States is recorded on a 1946 passenger list, but the list itself provides none of the information you might expect for an immigrant at that time — listing only her name, age, and an application number. This is because she is listed along with more than 800 other women and their children on that ship as “applying for admission to the United States under the Act of December 28, 1945.” The War Brides Act, which helped facilitate admission into the United States for foreign-born spouses of U.S. soldiers who married overseas during World War II, is just one of many such exceptions that may impact the information you'll find recorded on a passenger list.
Keep in mind as you research that passenger records are not always available for all ports during all time periods. The port of Galveston, Texas, for example, lost the majority of its immigration records from the years 1871 to 1894 in the great Galveston Hurricane of 1900. The National Archives holds a few extant passenger lists for San Francisco, but the official lists for that port were destroyed by fire in 1851 and 1940. Don't let this keep you from searching, however! Sometimes you'll find your ancestor immigrating through a port other than the one you expect, or you may find an alternate resource (such as an outbound passenger list from the departure city) that lists your ancestor. Online immigration indexes make searching much easier than it used to be, often allowing you to search across records of multiple ports in one step.
Locate Passenger Records Online
The National Archives is the primary repository for immigration records for passengers arriving from foreign ports between approximately 1820 and 1982. Microfilm copies of passenger lists up to about 1960 are available at the National Archives building in Washington, D.C. Some are also available at NARA's regional branch facilities, and most of the microfilms can be borrowed through your local Family History Center. Just a few years ago, this was the only feasible method for doing research in passenger lists. Now, however, the majority of U.S. passenger records prior to about 1960 are also available for online research through a variety of sources.
Be sure when looking at online ship passenger manifests to click through to the next page in case the passenger information extends over more than one page (which it does for most post-1892 manifests). Click through to the end of the manifest as well — you may find a list of individuals who died during the voyage, or who were detained for health or other reasons, such as “likely to become a public charge” (fairly common for young children or women traveling solo with no visible means of support).
One of the first large collections of passenger records to go online was the Ellis Island database (
The “other” major New York port, Castle Garden, served as America's first official immigrant receiving station from 1855 through 1890, before being succeeded by Ellis Island in 1892. The Castle Garden website (
The subscription-based U.S. Immigration Collection at
Passenger lists often include a variety of handwritten annotations — numbers, symbols, crossed-out names, and so on — that were added by immigration officials at the time of the ship's arrival, or later as part of a verification check. Sometimes these annotations may provide a clue to additional records, such as a naturalization certificate or warrant of arrest. Find explanations of these annotations online in “A Guide to Interpreting Passenger List Annotations” hosted at Jewish-Gen (
Some of the other immigration databases and passenger lists that can be found online include:
Immigrant Ship Transcribers Guild (
National Archives (
Galveston Immigration Database (
Immigrant Servants Database (
Many individuals who were ultimately bound for the United States first immigrated into Canada. There are many immigration lists and databases available online for entry into Canadian ports, including those at inGeneas (
Emigration (Outbound) Lists
Your ancestor most likely also left records behind in the old country when he came to the United States. These emigrant records created in the country of departure might include outbound passenger lists, visa or passport applications, or police emigrant records.
UK Outbound Passenger Lists 1890–1960 (
The UK National Archives in association with
Hamburg Passenger Lists 1850–1934 (
Between 1850 and 1939, Hamburg, Germany, served as the “Gateway to the World” for about 5 million European emigrants. An index to the existing Hamburg lists from 1890 to 1912 was initially created and placed online by the Hamburg State Archives, but was later moved to the subscription-based site
Bremen Passenger Lists 1920–1939 (
The majority of the passenger lists from the port of Bremen, Germany, were lost during World War II. This database offers access to the 3,017 passenger records that survived.
Danish Emigration Database (
Emigration lists compiled by the Copenhagen Police from 1869 to 1908 have been transcribed and included in this free, searchable database. Information includes the name, last residence, age, year of emigration, and first destination of the emigrant from Denmark.
Norwegian Emigration Lists (
Click on English and then Database Selector to find data on emigrants that National Archives of Norway extracted from ships' lists, police emigration records, and other sources, including digital images. Norway Heritage (
Border-Crossing Records — Canada and Mexico
Keeping records on alien arrivals at U.S. land borders was not required by early immigration acts. It wasn't until 1895 for Canada and about 1906 for Mexico that immigration authorities began to collect information on immigrants arriving in this manner. Separate card manifests were created for each individual that contain virtually the same information as that collected on a traditional ship passenger arrival manifest. These border-crossing records have been microfilmed and can be requested through any Family History Center. Online,
The National Archives and Records Administration is currently processing microfilmed immigration records for individuals who crossed the U.S.-Mexican border between about 1903 and 1955 at land border ports in Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas. These are available for research through National Archives locations. Digital images of these records, along with a searchable index, are available online to subscribers at
No discussion of immigration research on the web is complete without mentioning Steve Morse and his one-step search tools. These search forms (