Aspects of Passenger Lists of Ships for Genealogists
Cole Bio

[From the April 1996 Newsletter]

Passenger Lists of Ships Arriving in US Ports

One of the most important records used by genealogists, the immigration Passenger List of vessels arriving in the United States ports was discussed by Brian Andersson, the Executive Director of the Ellis Island Restoration Commission and a member of Italian Genealogical Group. Records from late 19th and 20th Century are the ones most important for Italian researchers. For this time period, the Passenger Lists include much information. The amount of information found will depend on the year your ancestors came to the United States. In early years, such as mid-19th Century, the Customs Lists contained the lists of passengers and do not include much information. The Customs Bureau was interested in the cargo being shipped and not the people. The early Lists had the ship's name, its captain, tonnage, and the name, age , sex and country of origin of the passenger. Brian exhibited copies of an 1832 and 1852 Passenger List.

Passenger Lists for New York in the third quarter of the 19th Century are unindexed and almost impossible to use unless you have a specific date. However, Ira Glazier and William Filby are working on a series of books "Italians to America" beginning with 1880 and as of now ending at 1891 which indexes the names of Italians arriving in New York during that period. The first five volumes are now complete. The series will eventually go up to 1899. Brian also recommended reading Oscar Handlin "The Uprooted" which, even if written 20 years ago, is a fabulous book relating the human story of the voyage over to the United States.

After the opening of Ellis Island 1892 things changed. The Federal Government became interested in learning about the hordes of people who were coming over to the United States. The Lists now included name, age, occupation, county of citizenship, where the passengers came from and where they were born, their destination and where they were going to in the United States and if they died on the voyage. (Of course, if your parents or grandparents were listed in the last category or you wouldn't be here.)

With the passage of years more and more questions were asked such as their last residence, their final destination and to which relative they were going and their address (1907), and if they had been to the United States before and when, and a physical description. Brian also recommended reading John Colletta's book "They came in Ships" which will give you more details on the Passenger Lists. Brian stressed that these Passenger Lists were filled out in Europe and strongly refuted that "old chestnut" about names being changed at Ellis Island. As most expert genealogists will tell you, names were changed after they arrived in the United States either by choice or error. The names in the Passenger Lists are mostly accurate.

A Passenger List for one ship can contain over a thousand names. A tip from Brian - check the Detainees pages at the end of the Passenger List when you begin. If the person you are looking for is listed there, it will refer you back to the page of the original entry and therefore save you from checking all 97 pages or more of passenger names.

Brian related that in reading the Passenger Lists you can visualize stories of families, some sad and some funny, and stated that often when he finds records for people, they tell him he's wrong as family lore always told it differently. One former mayor of New York said "No, my father came with my brothers first; he didn't come ahead and send for the rest of the family".

Passenger Lists after 1897 can be searched through an alphabetical/Soundex index (not always easy to use or accurate) or else you would have to know the date of arrival and ship's name. There are ways around this sometimes brick wall and, as with most of genealogy, you have to be inventive. Brian felt that going for the Naturalization record is the most reliable way to begin. When found, it will give you the date of arrival and ship as well as other information and save you a lot of time. On final piece of advice from Brian Andersson was that if you find a copy of the Passenger List that is unclear, you can write to the National Archives in Washington and request a clear copy from their Master copy of the film.

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