Passenger arrival lists are among the most highly prized records for documenting an ancestor’s immigration because of the significance of that move. Lists were not kept for every ship and some have been lost, but those that survive are becoming increasingly available online and new indexes afford us much better access to them. Because the forms used for passenger arrival records for the most part weren’t standardized until the twentieth century, earlier records will vary in content, but even the earliest records have a story to tell when you put them in the context of history, your family, and the journey itself.
Early passenger lists typically include the name of the ship, the names of passengers, ages, ports of arrival and departure, date, country of origin, and occupation.
20th century lists include even more details, giving the town or county of origin, and the names of other family members, destination, physical description, and more. Passenger lists are typically used by family historians to document their immigrant ancestor’s trip to their new country, but don’t overlook the possibility of finding ancestors who were visiting relatives, traveling for business, or for pleasure.
- Search for your ancestors by name, narrowing the search with their age, dates of arrival, ports of departure or arrival, or country of origin.
- Keep in mind that your immigrant ancestor may not have used the English version of his or her given name and that the surname may also have ethnic variants. Learn the ethnic equivalents and try searches in the immigrant’s native language.
- Learn about pronunciation in your immigrant ancestor’s native language. In some cases clerks may have recorded the name as they heard it.
- Try searching for other variations of your ancestor’s name in case it was spelled incorrectly. Wildcards can be used to search for name variants.
- Click here to learn more about wildcards.
- Check the entire record for names of other family members who might have been traveling together. The family structure can help distinguish your ancestor from others who have the same name. Remember though that the family may not have traveled together. It was not uncommon for one or two members to come over first and then send for the rest of the family once they had secured work and a place to live.
- Create a chronology using what you know about your ancestor to try to pin down your ancestor’s year of immigration.
- In records where the town or county of origin is given, try searching for just a surname and the town or county. You may find other family members that came over at various times.
- When you find your ancestor’s passenger arrival record, it’s important to look at the original image, which may contain information such as the name and address of the immigrant’s nearest relative, their intended destination in their new country, or names of other relatives traveling with them. If you find a record in an index collection or a transcription, check the database description and accompanying articles for information on how to find out how to order the original record, provided it still exists.
- Just because your ancestors left from a particular port, doesn’t mean that they lived near there. Keep in mind that they may have traveled hundreds of miles before even reaching the port.
- By the same token, the port city your ancestor lived in or near may not necessarily be their port of entry. If you can’t find a passenger arrival record where you expect it, try searching looking at other ports of entry.
- Check for multiple arrivals. Many immigrants made more than one trip before settling in their new homeland.
- For some US immigrants, you may find that they arrived in North America through a Canadian port. For many years, it was cheaper to travel to Canada than the U.S. and you’ll want to search for him or her in Canadian Passenger Arrivals, 1865-1935, Canada, Ocean Arrivals (Form 30A), 1919-1924, and Border Crossings: From Canada to U.S., 1895-1956.
- Some immigrants that were destined for Canada arrived in US ports.
- Look for them in a Census or Directory.