Along Those Lines
  George G. Morgan – 7/12/2002

Taking the Plunge on Ships' Passenger Lists

There was a time when I thought that undertaking a search for my ancestors on ships' passenger lists would be as perilous as the journey they took to cross the ocean. I'll be the first to admit that I was a coward, intimidated by what I thought was certain to be a hopeless waste of time. Most of my ancestors arrived prior to the American Revolution, you see, and I had been told that passenger lists from that time had been maintained in the port of entry, and that most of them had probably been lost or destroyed. Boy, how is that for discouraging news!

What I have learned over the years, though, is that there really is a huge collection of passenger lists available. Most of the records have not been digitized and placed online on the Internet or in databases, but there certainly are indices that can help you locate where to search for the originals, or for microfilm and scanned images. In "Along Those Lines . . ." this week, I want to provide a high level overview to help dispel some myths, and to point you to some excellent resources to begin your own search for those invaluable passenger records.

Why Should I Look for Ship's Passenger Lists?
Ships' passenger lists can provide important clues to locating your ancestors' places of origin on the other side of an ocean. At some point, you will probably exhaust the number of resources you want to examine in the U.S. for your ancestors, and you will be driven to know just where they came from and when. It is important, though, that you DO invest as much time and energy investigating and verifying your ancestors' life facts here in the U.S. because it is essential to have as many details as possible about them in order to locate the right ancestor at the right time on the right ship. Otherwise, you risk heading down a completely incorrect research path tracing an ancestral line that isn't even yours!

Background on Ship's Passenger Lists
If you ask the average American to name the point of entry for his or her immigrant ancestors, they will probably say Ellis Island. The truth is that there have been scores of points of entry in what became the U.S. and Canada, and that Ellis Island was only one site—and it was only in operation from the 1892 until 1954.

Research on passenger lists can be divided roughly into two eras: before 1820, and between 1820 and the 1950s. What separates these two time periods is an act of Congress in 1819 that regulated the number of passengers who could be transported on a vessel, and that number was determined by the total tonnage of the ship. The idea was to help improve the conditions for the huge numbers of immigrants while also trying to mandate maintaining lists of arrivals in this country. The law required that six pieces of information be listed on a passenger list. These included the passenger's name, age, sex, occupation, nationality, and the intended destination country. With the passage of this law, we have the basis for extraordinary research.

While there were other acts passed in the 1800s, the 1882 Passenger Act added some additional informational requirements. Perhaps the most important was the inclusion of the passenger's native country. This is important because vast numbers of people often traveled from a non-coastal country to one with seaports in order to embark on their emigrant journey. Therefore, this piece of information is a vital link for many researchers.

In 1891, there was great national concern about the influx of immigrants. Congress, as a result, passed another piece of legislation. This one established the U.S. Bureau of Immigration under the Treasury Department. Its functions included establishing consistent controls over the entry of immigrants at all U.S. ports, standardizing the immigration processes and paperwork, exclusion of undesirable persons, and centralizing immigration paperwork. At this time, even more information was required on passenger lists.

Over time, the National Archives and Records Administration acquired a wealth of passenger lists. Some may have been lost prior to this time, but there are nowhere as many 'lost' lists as some of us may have assumed. NARA has organized and microfilmed passenger lists and these are as complete a record as possible for the dates 1820-1954 and for some periods before 1820 as well.

What you will need in order to conduct your research is the passenger's name, the approximate date of arrival, and his or her approximate age at the date of arrival. Any additional information you have will be a bonus, including nationality, the name of the ship, the port of departure, the port of arrival, and names of other people with whom they were traveling. Any and all of these can help narrow your search, but be prepared for family stories to provided inaccurate details. Be flexible in your willingness to broaden your search.

For passenger arrivals prior to 1820, there may or may not be passenger lists. You will find some index resources listed below which can help you locate your ancestor in the older extant lists. Where they don't exist or are more difficult to locate, you may have success locating other, alternate records in the place where your ancestor settled to help you determine their place of origin. These include Bibles, diaries, church records, naturalization records in the courts, and a host of other sources.

For passenger arrivals after 1820, microfilmed records at NARA will generally be your best bet. However, there are a number of books that have been published which may help you locate immigrants in specific geographical areas. The massive "Passenger and Immigration Lists Index" series and supplements by P. William Filby are the definitive reference for most of the passenger lists, with other local-focused books providing additional assistance.

Reference Books
There are some wonderful reference books available to help you in your research. These include the Filby index series listed above, as well as his Germans to America. Among the very best references are those listed in the following bibliography:

Colletta, John Philip. They Came in Ships: A Guide to Finding Your Immigrant Ancestor's Arrival Record. 2nd ed. Salt Lake City, UT: Ancestry. 1993.
NOTE: A new edition of this book is due out in a few weeks.

Szucs, Loretto Dennis and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking. The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Salt Lake City, UT: Ancestry, Incorporated. 1997.
NOTE: Chapter 13 provides a detailed exploration of available records and research methodology.

Szucs, Loretto Dennis. They Became Americans: Finding Naturalization Records and Ethnic Origins. Salt Lake City, UT: Ancestry, Incorporated. 1998.

Meyerink, Kory L. Printed Sources: A Guide to Published Genealogical Records. Salt Lake City, UT: Ancestry, Incorporated. 1998. NOTE: Chapter 14 covers printed resources for literally millions of immigrants.

Internet Resources
There is a growing set of resources on the Internet for learning more about ships' passenger lists and researching them, as well as a number of online indexes. One place I always check for "how-to" materials is the Library at It contains scores of articles about this subject.

In addition, there are a number of online resources, which include:
  • The Immigrant Ships Transcribers Guild at
  • The American Family Immigration Center at Ellis Island
  • Cyndi's List's
  • Passenger Lists on the Internet
  • Immigration And Ships Passenger Lists Research Guide

    In addition, there are a number of CD-ROM products published by companies around the world that may be of help to your research

    Making the Connection
    What you will find in this age of online genealogical resources is that the search for your immigrant ancestors' passenger list records isn't necessarily a few keystrokes away. It requires some old- fashioned research, using books, indexes, and microfilm records. However, don't make the assumption that it is an impossible task. Yes, it takes work but there are literally millions of records out there for you. You just need to approach the search in an orderly fashion, exercise some patience, and enjoy the thrill of the chase. The rewards can be staggering because, once you make the leap across the ocean, a whole new world of old world records may open up to you.

    Happy Hunting!

    George G. Morgan would like to hear from you at but, due to the volume of e-mail received, he is unable to answer every e-mail message received. Please note that he cannot assist you with your individual research. Visit George's website at for information about speaking engagements.

    Copyright 2002, All rights reserved.
    This article may be reproduced in whole or in part for noncommercial purposes provided that proper attribution (including author name) and copyright notices are included.