This is Part I of a two part series on Researching in Passenger Lists.
When I started my genealogy quest, there was no one living who remembered my great- grandmother or her family. My mother told me that her grandmother was a German immigrant and that was all I knew.
Naturally I wanted to know where she came from, when she came, and with whom. I sent for her death certificate, which confirmed that she had been born in Germany. What did I do next? I started looking for the passenger list. I thought it would answer all my questions. Bad move. Because of my inexperience, I wasted a lot of time and effort. Why? Because I needed to have more information than a name and country to find her on a passenger list. I did finally find her, but it took me over 10 years. Eventually I went back and started over from the beginning.
My experience is common among family history researchers. Most Americans descend from at least one ancestor who traveled to America aboard a ship. More time is spent in the pursuit of finding that immigrant ancestor’s name on a passenger list than on any other type of genealogy research. Usually, the results are less than expected since passenger lists before the 20th century give little personal information. Why do we continue to hunt for these names on the lists? They are the LINK. The connection that completes the chain between the old country and the new.
There is some basic information that is needed before looking for a passenger list. Full name (remember to consider variant spellings of both surname and given name also that many Europeans used their middle name instead of first name), age at arrival (important to separate your ancestor from others with the same name), approximate date of arrival, and port of arrival are all necessary to begin the search for a person on a passenger list. Other information is name of the ship, port of embarkation, country of origin (province or area of that country), and name of possible companions or family members who may have traveled with the ancestor.
Where can you find this information? Family records such as bibles, diaries, obituaries, interviews and letters can give you many of the answers. 1900 through 1930 census records give information on immigration and naturalization years. Also naturalization records can contain dates of immigration and port of entry.
Even if you know the required information from something that is passed down in the family, it is best to support that information with other records such as naturalization records, census and other sources. Having correct information before you begin searching will save time and frustration in the long run. Many dates, places and names are mixed up as they get passed down over the years.
Passenger Lists that are available are generally divided into three different categories: Pre- 1820, Custom Passenger Lists 1820-1891, and Immigration Passenger Lists 1891-1957. Pre-1820
During the colonial period of this country, there was no orderly system of record keeping for arriving passengers. Some of these lists have been lost while others have been published. The lists for this time period are generally only available in printed form. If an original list does exist, it will be found in state archives, museums, and libraries. Passenger lists for this time period can not be found at the National Archives with the exception of New Orleans 1813-1819 and Philadelphia 1800-1819. A good place to start when working in this time period is a series of books by P. William Filby, 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. This is available at Denver Public Library and is also available on CD- ROM.
Custom Passenger Lists 1820-1891
The Customs Act of March 2, 1819, required the captain of a ship arriving in the U.S. from a foreign port to submit a list of passengers to the Collection of Customs. These lists were kept mainly for statistical purposes. There was no official form that was required so the shipping companies bought forms from many private companies. This meant there was no uniformity. These records have been microfilmed by the National Archives in Record Group 36 and are available at their facilities. Sometimes it was required that more than one copy be made, one for customs and one for the local government. The copies on microfilm at the National Archives are a combination of the Customs’ copies and the local government copies.
There are some indexes for these records, depending on the port, in both book and microfilm card form. There are also special indexes focusing on particular ethnic groups, such as the Germans to America series.
Information that you can expect to find on a Customs Passenger List is name, country of origin, occupation, age and sex, date of arrival, ship’s name, master, port of embarkation and port of arrival, and possibly other family members.
This brings to mind an important point. When looking at a Passenger List, copy and study the entire list. Look for collateral surnames, same origins and destinations. When I was looking for my husband’s great-grandfather, George Balk on the S.S. Nector from Bremen on January 31, 1880, I found more than I expected. I found George Balk, passenger #153, age 18, country of origin Germany. This was the person I was looking for. In studying the rest of the Passenger List, I came across another George Balk, passenger #130, age 45, from Iowa. This was the young George Balk’s uncle who was returning to America after a visit to Germany. Which brings up another point. Passenger lists can also contain visitors to the United States as well as U.S. citizens returning from a trip. You can miss a lot of good information if you focus on only one person. Remember that there were many people on the ship and your ancestor probably had a connection to at least one other person.
Passenger Lists will be continued next month.