Passenger Ship Records

When researching an individual’s immigration, genealogists access passenger ship records and immigration records for a wealth of information. Passenger ship lists, which the U.S. government began maintaining in 1820, consist of the a variety of demographic information depending on the contemporary laws with more recent lists providing increasingly more detailed information. For example, passenger lists prior to 1880s rarely provided the immigrant’s hometown. Most lists were created in the United States rather than the port of origin. By the late 1800s, the government added strict restrictions: passengers had to be disease-free, and no polygamists or socialists were allowed. Captains conducted questionnaires to interview passengers at the port of departure. As time passed, more information was added to the questionnaire. The ship captain listed the passengers’ personal information, which was asked in the passengers’ native languages.

The list contains

  • Sex
  • Age
  • Occupation
  • Birth place
  • Last residence
  • Contact in the U.S. and in the home country
  • Amount of money on the person
  • Hair and eye color

Extant records exist for Baltimore, Boston, New Orleans, New York, and Philadelphia and some minor ports on the Atlantic, Great Lakes, and Gulf Coast. The original passenger lists are housed at the National Archives and are also on microfilm. The National Archives published Immigration and Passenger Arrivals: A Select Catalog of National Archives Microfilms as an index; however, many genealogical organizations have transcribed the originals. Books about the migratory patterns of specific ethnicities and nationalities exist. Contextualizing an individual’s immigration by learning these trends is useful technique for determining additional resources. The National Archives maintains a website about its relevant resources at and a list of available passenger lists at

Researchers seeking alternative sources for an immigrant’s birthplace may find success in death certificates or naturalization papers.

Reading handwriting can be difficult particularly because previous generations used different symbols than are currently used. The library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill maintains a Writing Guide for researchers reading documents dating from the 18th century forward. For those researching European handwriting styles, Great Britain’s National Archives has “Palaeography: Reading Old Handwriting, 1500 - 1800: A Practical Online Tutorial” and Brigham Young University maintains Script Tutorials for Dutch, English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish.

For more reading

Szucs, Loretto Dennis and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking. The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy. Provo, UT: Ancestry, 2006. (App Coll CS 49.S65)