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Overheard on the Message Boards: Ships' Arrivals by Date
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.

May 22, 2003
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: Is there a place online that would list ships according to arrival date? I have two people I am looking for. One arrived prior to 1770 and the other in 1857. Thanks for your help! — Debi

A: Passenger lists are one of the most sought after records for so many genealogists and yet I believe that they are also one of the most misunderstood records. Researchers expend a great deal of time and energy seeking out these records without understanding just what the record will help them with in regard to the origins and earlier generations of the immigrant.

The other problem is that everyone now assumes that this information will be available online. This is in fact a two-fold problem. First, they assume that everything is available online. Second, if they do not find it online then they do not try to see if the records do exist in more traditional archives or repositories.

Passenger lists are just one record that might hold clues to origin.

When Did Passenger Lists Begin

Understanding that passenger lists do not exist in the form of passenger lists since the beginning of ships coming to the American Colonies and then the United States is something that many researchers may not realize. There are some alternatives that may supply you with the same information if there are no passenger lists in existence.

Passenger lists—the manifest pages listing the passengers by name—did not begin until 1820 and were actually the responsibility of the customs clerk. Those passenger lists from 1820 to about 1891 only listed the person's name, age, sex, occupation, and country of origin. These tell us little more about our ancestor than we probably already knew about his place of origin. Also, unless he was traveling as a child with his parents, we won't know anymore about them than we did before we found the passenger list. It is those after 1891, specifically those after 1906, that give us the most useful information about our immigrant ancestor, including asking about relatives back in the old country, who they were meeting here in the United States, and more importantly, where the immigrant was born.

Before 1820, there are no formal passenger lists. There are, however, alternatives that may supply you with the information about when and where your immigrant arrived. Those are discussed later. First, let's look at what might be available for your ancestor who arrived in 1857.

We may as well get the bad news out of the way first. If your ancestor came through the port of New York City in 1857, there is no index of passengers for this year. In fact, there is no index for the port of New York from 1846 to 1892, when the online index at Ellis Island Records picks up. The microfilmed indexes actually don't pick up again until 1897. If it turns out that your ancestor came through New York in 1857, you will need to narrow your arrival down more thoroughly. This might be possible through the name of the ship or the port of departure. You can find these and other suggestions in John P. Colletta's They Came in Ships, published by Genealogical Publishing.

There are other ports along the east coast through which your immigrant may have entered the United States. Many of these have indexes for the time period in question available on microfilm, and you could get the microfilmed indexes through your local Family History Center. I have found that larger public libraries with genealogy departments also sometimes have these records. You would want to check out the National Archives website to see just what ports were in existence then and what indexes exist. I suggest this site so that you know what really exists before you begin to look for the microfilms elsewhere. Also, you will want to check out the transcribed passenger lists that can be found at the Immigrant Ships Transcribers Guild website.

What to Do Before 1820?

Before 1820 there were no passenger manifests, and those lists that may exist are probably found in the country of departure rather than here in the United States. In regard to your immigrant who arrived in 1770, there wasn't even a United States yet. Some states have oaths of allegiance that have been compiled and published, such as those published for Pennsylvania.

One of the first resources I check when I am working on a pre-1820 immigrant is P. William Filby's Passenger and Immigration Lists Index. This multi-volume work was first published in 1982 in three volumes, and was updated yearly. Today it is found as part of the International and Passenger List subscription.

Filby indexed those immigrants that he found in published works, some of whom entered the colonies (or later, the United States). Others' entries came from books of published abstracts of records of the countries from which our ancestors emigrated. The index leads you to the published volume and page number where the immigrant can be found.

Once you have found the entry for an ancestor in the index, then you would need to find the book. Some of the books may also be available as part of the International and Passenger List subscription. If not, then you would want to check for the books at your local library, if your library has a good genealogy collection. The Family History Library may also have the book needed, and may have it on microfilm. If it is not available on microfilm, and you couldn't find the book locally, then you may need to hire a professional researcher in Salt Lake City to look at the book for you.

In Conclusion

Passenger lists and the ships that brought our immigrant ancestors are just one aspect of their lives. And while some passenger lists will give us information about the origins of our ancestors, more often than not the passenger lists (if they exist) are just another clue into one event in the lives of our traveling ancestors. It is certainly a good clue to have, but it may not help us in taking the ancestry back any farther.

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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