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 Tracing Immigrant Origins

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* Finding a port of exit with passenger lists

Passenger lists will give you your ancestor's port of exit. However, when using passenger lists, you should be aware of their limitations:

  • You may not find your ancestor on an arrival list because many lists have been lost or destroyed over the years.
  • The government did not require passenger lists until 1820, so the records for pre-1820 immigrants are more sporadic, and the information on these lists varies greatly.
  • Some lists may be difficult to locate. The National Archives collection mainly includes lists for Atlantic and Gulf ports in the post-1820 period, and there are large gaps in the records for most ports. Pre-1820 lists are scattered in libraries, historical societies, and other archives throughout the nation. You may need to check with several libraries and genealogical societies before you can locate the list that you need.
  • Records for individuals entering through Canada and Mexico were not kept until the 20th century, so if an individual first went to one of those countries and then entered the United States, you may not find them on a list at all.

To locate your ancestor on a passenger list, you must first find his or her name in an index. There is no single index for all passenger lists, but one of the most complete indexes is Passenger and Immigration Lists Index by P. William Filby and Mary K. Meyer. There are many other indexes, some of which concentrate on a specific group of people, such as Germans, or on a specific port of arrival, such as New York. It is possible that you will need to search through several indexes before you locate your ancestor. Check with your local public library, genealogy library, and other resources to see what types of indexes they have. A few examples of specialized indexes are in the list below.

  • The Famine Immigrants: Lists of Irish Immigrants Arriving at the Port of New York, 1846-1851, Ira A. Glazier, editor
  • Germans to America: Lists of Passengers Arriving at US Ports, 1850-1872, Ira A. Glazier and P. William Filby, eds.
  • Dutch Immigrants in United States Ship Passenger Manifests, 1820-1880, Robert P. Swierenga
  • The Wuerttemberg Emigration Index, 1750-1900, Trudy Schenk and Rutch Froelke, compilers
  • Alsace Emigration Book, Cornelia Schrader-Muggenthaler
  • Baden Emigration Book, Cornelia Schrader-Muggenthaler
  • Antwerp Emigration Index, 1855, Charles M. Hall
To use most indexes, you need to know the name of the immigrant and the approximate date of arrival into the United States. From the index, you can find different types of information, often including the individual's age and port of entry, as well as the source of the information.
  • If the arrival was after 1820, the source of information normally includes a microfilm roll number that you can look up through the National Archives.
  • If the arrival was before 1820, the index will give you information about where the list was published so that you can locate it. To find a pre-1820 list, you may have to contact several libraries or archives.
Once you locate the list and are certain that the individual on the list is actually your ancestor, you will know either your ancestor's ethnicity, last place of residence, birthplace, or place of departure, depending on the passenger list.

To look at passenger lists held by the National Archives, you must either go to or contact the National Archives regional branch in your area or the National Archives in Washington, D.C. The passenger ship list holdings for the regional branches vary, so you should call before you go. For more information about contacting the National Archives, see the topic The National Archives and regional centers.

You can also order copies of passenger lists from the National Archives themselves. Chapter 2 of the Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives, published by the National Archives, lists all of the ports of entry for which the National Archives has lists and/or indexes. Write to:

Reference Services Branch (NNIR)
National Archives and Records Administration
Washington, D.C. 20408

Request a copy of NATF Form 81. You will need to fill out and return this form to order a copy of a particular list.

In addition, the Family History Library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has passenger lists. You can access the lists through the library itself, as well as through your local Family History Center. For information about contacting the Family History Library, see the topic The LDS Library and Family History Centers.

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