Monday, May 11, 2009

Search Strategies for Finding Ship Passenger Lists 1820-1940s

This article was updated on 8 April 2014.

Here are some suggestions for finding your immigrant ancestors on a ship passenger list (or manifest) for their arrival in the United States from 1820 to the 1940s (1950s for some ports).

Search Tips
  • Clues in the Census: the 1900, 1910, 1920 and 1930 US federal censuses have a column for year of arrival for immigrants. This can help narrow down the search. Be careful as census records may contain errors.
  • Naturalization Records: Naturalization records created September 27, 1906 and later will usually give the name of the ship, port and date of arrival. Naturalization records before that usually do not give this information (although some might). You may sometimes find errors in these records.
  • Be sure to try alternate spellings of names when searching online databases or other indexes.
Ancestry.com's Immigration Records Collection
Ancestry has digitized and indexed microfilm of National Archives passenger records for the major ports (New York, Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New Orleans) as well as many smaller ports. These can be searched online if you have an Ancestry subscription (fee required). This can be a good place to start your search because they have so many records in one place. And you don't need to know the name of the port where your ancestor arrived, or the date of arrival.

Port by Port Search
If you're having difficulty finding your ancestor's passenger list you might try a more specific search at each port. If you don't know the arrival port or don't know where to start, you can find some ideas at: Tips for Determining Your Ancestor's Probable Port of Arrival
Indexes for Various Ethnic Groups: Germans to America, Italians to America, Irish Immigrants, etc.
Some ship passenger indexes have been created for various ethnic groups and these may be helpful as alternate resources if you can't find your immigrant ancestor in other indexes.
Passenger Lists and Indexes on Microfilm Although many of the National Archives publications of ship passenger lists have been digitized and put online, you may still want to use these microfilms in your search. A little old school genealogy can sometimes go a long way... Disclaimer: you might not find the person you're looking for in any of the indexes or records listed here; these are merely suggestions.

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