Passenger lists document who was on a ship, where they came from and more. Make sure to keep your search broad since immigrants didn’t always depart from their homeland. These records can also help uncover your ancestors’ ultimate destination in the U.S., leading you to passport applications and naturalization records.
Didn’t find them in passenger lists? Try searching border crossings instead.
We all like New York in June … or September. But what would the voyage have been like for ships arriving in a particularly stormy March?
To save time, inspectors often used terms like “above,” “same,” “ditto” or even an abbreviation of “do” to indicate a repeated entry.
Pay attention to handwriting – it may reveal information about your ancestor that wasn’t required to pass inspection or that clarifies an answer given.
Want to know what the ship looked like? Check the Passenger Ships and Images database at Ancestry.com.
Country of departure isn’t always the same as the last residence. Use location details on the passenger list to help you determine how far your ancestor had to travel before getting on the boat.
Look for details about the travel class at the top of passenger arrival lists – in this case it was “Steerage,” a.k.a. third class. Not clearly marked? If most travelers on the page had little cash and were designated “laborers,” they’re likely in steerage.
International databases at Ancestry.com and experts available via the Hire an Expert tab can help you discover more about your ancestor in his or her former homeland or place of birth.
Passenger lists aren’t the only place you may find a physical description of your ancestor. Look for similar information on passport applications and draft cards.
Not all health problems were a quick ticket back home; note the hand-written comments regarding the person on line one.
At times, the United States placed restrictions on who could enter the country; admission was determined by the answers a person gave to these questions as well as other factors.
Pay careful attention to a previous visit: it may lead you to an earlier passenger list containing additional information.
Not what you were expecting? Immigrants often had a destination associated with a friend, relative or job, but they may have moved on shortly thereafter. City directories and census records may help you determine when.
An entry in this line gives you a new relative to discover. Bonus: if it’s the parent of a married woman, you may have just discovered the woman’s maiden name.
Information in this column may help you determine where to look for overseas records. Note that, depending on the year, you may be looking at place of birth or last permanent residence.
Occupation was often listed as “laborer,” particularly for steerage passengers, although new jobs were often found after arrival.
Watch for “Yrs.” and “Mon.” particularly in regard to children. An 11-month-old infant would show an entry only in the months column, although occasional mistakes did occur.
All passengers, regardless of age, were listed. Immigrant surnames may not be identical to the ones you know: language barriers and accents resulted in creative spellings, and immigrants sometimes modified their names after settling into their new homeland.
How to find your people
From their destination in America to a relative who remained in the homeland, our tips can help you navigate passenger lists and extract every detail. Learn more
Good to know
These fast facts can help you get the most out of passenger lists. Learn more
Back to the old country
Found an immigrant ancestor who decided not to stay? See which groups were most likely to return to their home country. Learn more
The German connection
Hamburg was Central Europe’s main transatlantic hub in the late 19th century. Did your ancestors depart from here? Learn more
“Two weeks before I traveled to Italy with my mother in June, I decided to search the Internet for immigration information. On Ancestry.com I found a copy of the ship manifest with the names of my great grandmother – Elvira DiLello – coming to Philadelphia with two daughters (my grandmother Iola and my Aunt Aida). From that manifest, we identified the town in Abruzzo where my grandmother was born. When we got to Italy, we found a guide to take us to that town and we were able to locate the house my grandmother was born in. The look on my mother’s face as we took her picture in front of that house is a memory I will cherish my entire life. My grandmother died when my mom was a young woman, but in that moment, my mother seemed to be connected to her again.”
— Kathy Doherty
What you’ll find in a passenger list depends on the time period. Early passenger lists may include little more than name, departure information and arrival details. But in 1893, the government mandated 16 new fields relating to marital status, last residence, final destination, literacy, financial status and more.
Starting in 1906, manifests required a physical description and place of birth and the following year added name and address of the passenger’s closest living relative in the country of origin (that means another relative to research).
And if your immigrant ancestor arrived prior to 1820, you may still be in luck: while ship captains weren’t required to submit passenger lists before this date, books and lists associated with certain early immigrants and immigrant groups do exist. Browse Passenger Lists at Ancestry.com for details.
Hungarian Christians, Russian Christians, Italians, Greeks and certain Slavic people were more likely to leave America in favor of their homeland than were their fellow immigrants. The primary reason for leaving was disillusionment – America didn’t live up to their expectations. But language difficulties, assimilation problems and the drastically different lifestyle in a big American city (trade life on an Italian vineyard for four cramped rooms in a tenement?) also fueled the hunger for home.
Groups most likely to remain in America included Turks, Spaniards, Jews, Irish, and Bulgarians.
Remember your ancestor didn’t just arrive, he or she left from somewhere, too. And that trail was marked at both the start of your ancestor’s journey as well as the end.
The German port of Hamburg, for example, was a popular departure point for emigrating Europeans from various countries. And you can access Hamburg Passenger Lists, 1850–1934 online at Ancestry.com. Look for details to add U.S. passenger arrival lists you already found or to help you locate a U.S. list that keeps eluding you. And check your ancestor’s fellow passengers as well – you may find other relatives on board.
Can’t read the language? Not a problem. The following words plus tips in The German Research Center at Ancestry.com, will help you through:
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