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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Passenger Lists May Hold Clues
by Rhonda R. McClure

July 26, 2001
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Why do we turn to passenger lists? We want to find our ancestor on the list. Usually we are hoping to find that all important clue to where in the old country our ancestor came from. As such, we often don't spend enough time with the passenger list.

Look at most of the passenger list pages and you will find a number of cryptic marks and codes on many of the pages. Even some of the non-cryptic marks are often overlooked because we skim the page rather than really reading it.

Examine all marks carefully on passenger lists.

What Is the List Telling You?

After you have looked at the passenger list and found your ancestor, don't just move on to the next resource. Read and reread the entry. Look to see if there are any marks, initials, or numbers near your ancestor's entry.

These may indicate something about the naturalization of your ancestor or about a possible detention when first arriving. To understand these, though, you must first understand that some of the annotations were made at the time of arrival and others were made at a later date.

Further, some of the information may be found later in the passenger list or in a few cases another file altogether. So often we stop our research on the page where we discover the entry for our ancestor. However, if he or she was detained, then it is possible that there is additional information in that passenger list.

Annotations at Time of Arrival

First, it is important to remember that the passenger list, while printed here in the United States, was actually filled in at the port of departure. Most people think that the lists were not created until the ship arrived at the American port, and this is a misconception. Therefore, most of the information requested through the various columns was actually filled out before the ship left the port of departure.

When they arrived in the United States, the list was turned over for filing by the appropriate government agency. At the time the passengers were disembarking, they went through a screening, more detailed of the steerage passengers than the other classes. At times it may have been necessary to clarify some of the information on the passenger list. Some of the other codes may have detailed a problem with the passenger's entrance to the United States.

Pay attention to the left of the name of the passenger. It is possible that you may see an X, S.I., or B.S.I.. The X indicates that the individual was temporarily detained. The S.I. stands for Special Inquiry, and B.S.S. stands for Board of Special Inquiry. Both of these indicate that the passenger was detained, and perhaps slated to be deported. All three of these entries indicate that additional information may be found at the end of the passenger list for that ship for that date.

At the end of each ship's pages, you will find two special forms. One deals specifically with those individuals who have been detained. The other deals with those who went through a Board of Special Inquiry. If you see any of these abbreviations to the left of your ancestor's name, take the time to go to the end of the list to see what else you can learn about your ancestor's entry experience. Even if you haven't found any markings next to your ancestor's name, it is still a good idea to make it a point to scan these forms at the end.

Annotations Made Later

The most common annotations made later on had to do with verifications, usually in conjunction with the immigrants application for citizenship.

When an ancestor applied for citizenship, the court would check the ship's manifests. The ship's manifest was checked and the information submitted back to the court on a Certificate of Arrival.

When such a check was made in the passenger lists, a notation was made on the passenger list. Usually these annotations are found under the occupation column. The annotations may extend beyond the occupation column, but they look something like this 11-239328 3/11/40. This entry would tell us that the request came from naturalization district 11, for either application number 239328 or Certificate of Arrival number 239328. The verification took place on 11 March 1940. Other annotations can be found in this week's Ask Rhonda.

Other annotations may indicate additional verifications. If the name is completely x'd out, this indicates that there was an official name change. You may also find W/A or w/a which indicates a warrant of arrest. You may find additional records at the county level for such an entry.

In Conclusion

If you take the time to go over the passenger list, you may find it has a lot more to tell you about your ancestor than you originally suspected.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

About the Author
Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in New England research and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for thirteen years. She was the Web Site Sysop for the Ultimate Family Tree web site. She was the Data Manager of the Genealogy RoundTable on Genie(r) for seven years and the forum manager for the Genealogy Forum on MSN(r). She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy. She is a contributing editor for Heritage Quest Magazine. She author's regular articles for the National Genealogical Society's Newsmagazine on copyright. She also writes a 5-day a week e-mail newsletter, Family Tree Finders - for SodaMail. She may be contacted at

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