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Immigration & Passenger Arrival Records

All genealogists are in the same boat--we are trying to trace an immigrant parent or ancestor. You may uncover clues in obituaries, passports, family sources, and an array of other records available in courthouses and archives. Perhaps the real questions are, "How long will you search for evidence of this pivotal event?" and "Will your search be as long as the voyage of your ancestor?"

In the light of family and local history, each immigrant is the sine qua non of America. Yet researchers will say they are stuck because they cannot find any records. The myth that illiterate European peasants left no records in their homeland or in America is disproved by the fact that there are numerous collections of immigration and ethnic documents. You may, in fact, drown in the volume of available materials. The misfortune of most researchers is that they don't spend enough time to use the available records properly.

You may save yourself time and effort by concentrating on the passenger arrival records created for the United States government. In the course of your genealogical journey you should observe the following: the general background and history of passenger arrival records the genealogical value and contents of arrival records the availability of passenger records and indexes appropriate search strategies such as the use of indexes.

You can learn the general background of United States passenger records by studying selected sources. Major research centers such as the Genealogical Library in Salt Lake City have books on sailing vessels, migration, naturalization, ethnic groups, Ellis Island, and the like.

You can read Philip Taylor's The Distant Magnet for example, to discover how many immigrants came from your native land during a certain era and what ports they favored, or how long the voyage took on certain modes of transportation. Other works will tell you not to look for Ellis Island records for the man who supposedly came there in 1849 (it was established in 1892), or to avoid expenses of time and money to find Galveston lists that were destroyed in the Great Hurricane.

Next you need to understand the contents and value of arrival records. The records known as customs passenger lists were filed by the masters of ships for the Collectors of Customs. This was in compliance with an act passed in 1819 and with later acts. The National Archives and Genealogical Library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have microfilms of the original customs lists (1820-1902), copies and abstracts (1820-1875), and transcripts of the lists (1819-1832). These records generally provide an immigrant's name, age, sex, occupation, and country of origin.

The records known as immigration passenger lists or "ship manifests" were originally maintained by the immigration and Naturalization Service and earlier offices. The National Archives has copies of the records for the years 1883 to 1951. Researchers will find that immigration lists provide far more genealogical and historical details than the customs lists. The twentieth-century lists reveal names of relatives, places of birth, and other critical information.

Reading the Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives will tell you who created the records, which records are available for each port, and what limitations you will face in using the documents. Here you will discover which ports have indexes for the year 1883. And if there is no index, you can decide if the contents of an 1883 list are worth the effort of reading 600,000 scribbled names.

Where are these Records?

The Genealogical Library is the place to visit. It has the most popular passenger lists among its collection of microfilms gathered from around the world. The Genealogical Library also has the most reading and copy machines, liberal rules about using the records, and a staff of trained consultants and volunteers to help you chart your course.

The most modern immigration records are found only in the National Archives. You should also use its services if the records of the Genealogical Library are unavailable or illegible. The National Archives staff will search the records if a researcher completes form NATF 81. This form asks for the date of arrival, port of entry, ship name, country of origin, and naturalization status. Reasons for not searching or for inconclusive searchers are also detailed on this form.

These forms may be obtained from the Correspondence Branch, National Archives, Washington, DC 20408.

It is interesting to note that the original passenger lists from 1820-1902 have been transferred from the National Archives to the National Immigration Archives in care of the Balch Institute (sponsored by Temple University) in Philadelphia. An ongoing indexing project is slowly producing published lists of immigrants; the first results have been the 500,000 names of Irish "famine immigrants." Public access to the original records and to the NIA database is not permitted. At this time, neither the Genealogical Library, the National Archives, nor the Ellis Island Foundation is creating a master index of passenger lists.

Contributed by Jayare Roberts, formerly a Senior Reference Consultant at the Genealogical Library in Salt Lake City.

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