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Overheard in GenForum: Passports -- Primary or Secondary Material?
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

March 16, 2000
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: How are old passports considered as genealogical material -- primary or secondary? I come from 2 generations of Americans who lived abroad a lot and gathered a stack of passports! -- j

A: Passports are one of the often overlooked documents that we may have on our ancestors. I have a couple for my grandmother, and like many people I had never bothered to take that extra step in getting the application for the passport.

Passport applications though can be an excellent source of information for genealogists. And it is important that we never assume that our ancestors never traveled.

Primary vs. Secondary

As a source for anything other than the traveling done on that passport, passports and their applications are generally a secondary source for the information you find in them. However, just because they were a secondary source does not negate the information you might find. What it should do is to raise a little red flag, indicating that you need to do a little additional research to verify what you have found in the application.

Many of our immigrant ancestors traveled back to their homeland to visit family members and they applied for passports before doing so.

Sometimes we get too caught up with the purist attitude that we should only use primary documents. In a perfect world, that would be true. However, most of us live in the real world, and the real world doesn't have primary documents on everyone we are researching. Thus there are times when all we can do is to amass information from secondary sources. The trick is to remember that the details found in secondary sources may have been misinterpreted or inaccurately put together. So, it is important to keep this in the back of your mind while you are working with them.

History of Passports

Many of us consider passports to be a creation of the 20th century. However, the Department of State has been issuing passports to American citizens who traveled abroad since 1789. They were not the only ones though that could issue passports. Up until a Congressional Act in 1856, state and judicial authorities could also issue passports. After the passing of this act though, it was prohibited for these other entities to issue passports.

Another misconception that we have about passports is that our ancestors weren't traveling that much. We think that they hopped the boat and migrated to the United States and then completely forgot about the family left behind. This is, of course, far from the truth.

Who Applied for Passports and How to Find the Applications

During the mid-1800s, about 95 percent of those applying for passports were men. Unlike today, when everyone needs to have a passport, back in the 1800s, if the man applying was going to be traveling with his wife, children, servants or other females under his protection, then their names, ages and relationships to the applicant are included on the application.

Most passports were good for a two-year period of time at the most. So, if you have a passport for an ancestor, then you can narrow down the application to an approximate period of time. There are also some indexes that can be of use to you in your research. You can find a complete list of the microfilmed passport applications and the indexes to those applications at, a major source in German genealogy, on their German genealogy: Emigration from Germany to America page.

In Conclusion

Passport records are useful resources. You should keep a look out for them and not assume that your family never needed one. You will also want to go one step further and get the application.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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