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ship passenger lists Why are Ships Passenger Lists Are Important To Genealogists? : Ship passenger lists help genealogists determine what native country from which their ancestors came to the United States. Luckily for family historians, ship captains documented the cargo and passengers on their ships for many centuries. These valuable genealogy documents became more commonplace as the enforcement of immigration laws developed as a high priority in America. Subsequently, all ship captains were document their passengers, of which the documents submitted to port authorities gradually became more uniform and extensive in nature.
Eventually the forms not only counted the passengers, but also included demographic details about each human passenger. Whenever naturalization records are not available, genealogists must search ship passenger lists to find their immigrant ancestor to where from and when the ancestor made the voyage to America. On the other hand, the research gleaned from these passenger lists also helps verify the information extracted from other genealogy documents, such as naturalization and birth records.

Before you begin search : You will need the name of the ancestor and approximate date of arrival. You can narrow the date down with a birth and death date. With these pieces of information, you can search indexes created for the lists that are grouped by nationality or port of arrival.

Keep in mind :
  • Passenger lists were handwritten, which allowed for a variety of spellings.
  • If your ancestor arrived before 1891, the passenger list may have been lost.
  • There are five major ports in the United States, but many other smaller points still exist
  • Once the Federal Government took over the documentation of immigrants, the National Archives began storing the information.
  • Not until recent years were immigrants crossing through Mexico and Canada even documented
  • Best to look at ports of entry that predominately greeted your ancestor's nationality when you do not know where to look first.



  • The 5 Major Ports of Entry in the United States
    The five major ports of entry for immigrants in the United States include New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New Orleans. Although a large portion of the immigrants entering the United States sailed through these ports, many more ports speckle the United States borders. Until the 21st century, immigrations records were documented for immigrants entering the United states through Canada and Mexico.

    New York, New York
    From 1830-1892, Castle Garden stored the immigration data for immigrates entering the New York port. Castle Garden was replaced in 1892 by Ellis Island, the most famous federal immigration center in America. The primary nationality that came through Ellis Island was German and Irish. Ellis Island ceased processing immigrants in 1954, but continues to inivite tourists to tour museum filled with extraordinary exhibits detailing its rich immigration history.

    Find Passenger Lists for New York
  • 1892-1924 New York Passenger Lists at Ellis Island
  • 1830-1892 New York Passenger Lists at Castle Garden (Index only)


  • Boston, Massachusetts
    The Massachusetts government officials filed the ships manifestos from January 1848-July 1891. Over 1 million immigrants, mostly Irish born, entered America by sailing into the Boston harbor. The National archives holds the passenger lists for the remaining time period through to today.

    Passenger Lists for Boston
  • 1848-1891 Massachusetts Archives


  • Baltimore, Maryland
    In the mid 1600s, many English immigrants arrived as indentured servants or prisons. In the mid 1700s, immigrants from other countries like Germany flooded the Baltimore harbor and settled in the state of Maryland. Officials in Baltimore began filing Customs Passenger lists in 1820, but many are missing. The Family History Centre Catalogue contains Customs Passenger Lists dating from 1840-1891 on microfilm.

    Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
    The Home Port Philadelphia exhibit at the Independence Seaport Museum shows a wealth of knowledge about the sea port including a way for visitors to learn first hand how to sail across the Atlantic as steerage in the 19th century. Many of the immigrants that entered this port were German. The first colony settled in Pennsylvania was called Germantown.

    New Orleans, Louisiana
    Praised as a principle sea port, the town of New Orleans served as a popular port of entry for the slave trade. The hugely profitable slave trade put this southern port on the map and made many of its citizen extremely wealthy. Many free blacks from Haiti entered at this port in the early 1800. Ironically, 90% of the people who migrated through this port, except slaves, remained in New Orleans.


    Immigration Legislation Timeline
    1882 - US Passenger Act
    This law required all ship captains to list the each passengers riding on their vessels. Many captains already were doing this, but this law made it mandatory for everyone. Therefore, before this date, you may not find a ship passenger list for the vessel your ancestor sailed on. At this time, the states were required to maintain this information, so the national archives may not have the passenger list you are seeking either.

    1891 - World Law Passed



    1820-1891 - Customs Passenger List
      The ship's captain was required to file a list of passengers with the customs official at the port of entry. Previously, most of the emmigrating passengers traveled the voyage below the main deck, called the between deck. These passengers were listed as steerage and not considered anything more than cargo. Customs Passenger Lists documented all passengers, even the steerage passengers.

    1891- Immigration Passenger Lists
    The list of passengers changed its name, but also included more personal information about each passengers. New information included : personal description, exact town of birth, the contact information of the nearest living relative left in the native country, and the amount of money the passengers is carrying.

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