Skip Navigation Links The Library of Congress >> Researchers 
Local History & Genealogy Reading Room
  Home >> Bibliographies & Guides

Immigrant Arrivals: A Guide To Published Sources


A surge of interest in the subject of immigration--living conditions and political climate in the Old World, embarkation, the voyage, arrival in the new country, being "processed" at immigration stations, and making an adjustment to life in America--was sparked during the nation's bicentennial in 1976, the publication of Alex Haley's Roots, and by the highly successful restoration efforts at two outstanding historic sites: the Statue of Liberty, unveiled in 1986, and the Ellis Island Immigration Museum which opened in 1990. This latter facility, well known as an immigration station, was in operation for over half a century from 1892 to 1954. These two significant landmarks attracted the attention of millions of viewers throughout the nation during a particularly memorable televised celebration in New York City on the Fourth of July 1986. One result of all this attention is that Americans in all walks of life are pursuing their family roots in original documents, published books and journals, CD-ROMS, online data bases, and through the myriad avenues available on the Internet.

Original Ship Passenger Lists

In the study of immigration history, ship passenger lists have become increasingly important sources of data for historians, demographers, biographers, and genealogists. This is particularly true in the United States where forebears of all but native Americans arrived by ship from colonial times until the advent and popularity of air travel. Between the years 1607 and 1920, it is estimated that over thirty million immigrants came to these shores; during the past two centuries over half of them arrived through the port of New York. In studying immigrant arrivals other official ports of entry should not be overlooked, and a list of their locations is provided in the Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives. Revised edition. (Washington: National Archives and Records Service, 1985), pp. 41-59. Although a number of passenger lists have survived from the colonial period through the early part of the nineteenth century, there was no uniform code or system or even requirement to document incoming passengers until after the War of 1812. On March 2, 1819, the U.S. Congress passed an Act Regulating Passenger Vessels (ch. 46, 3 Stat., 489) designed to protect passengers arriving from foreign ports against overcrowding and inadequate provisions, as well as to provide statistical data on foreign trade. Section 5 of this legislation required masters of ships to file with the district collector of customs a manifest (or list) of all passengers who boarded at a foreign port. It was to include each passenger's name, age, sex, and occupation; the country to which he or she belonged; the country of which he or she intended to become an inhabitant; and a list of deaths that occurred during the voyage.

On March 3, 1853, Congress passed legislation designated an Act to Regulate the Carriage of Passengers in Steamships and Other vessels (ch. 213, 10 Stat., 715). In addition to requirements covered by the Act of 1819, it specified the requirements for health and safety, and masters of the ships were to indicate the class in which each passenger traveled--cabin or steerage.

Throughout the following decade as immigration of foreign laborers was encouraged, additional legislation was passed to protect their rights. Beginning in the 1870s, however, a backlash developed against the importation of contract labor and restrictive legislation was passed excluding people who were considered undesirable, such as lunatics, idiots, the indigent, and those convicted of political offenses. As additional restrictions were enacted during the twentieth century, significantly more data were collected about each immigrant who was admitted into the United States.

Documents created under these and other congressional acts that have particular significance for researchers are the Customs Passenger Lists of 1820-1905 and the Immigration Passenger Lists of 1883-1945. Some indexes for these lists are available at the National Archives and Records Administration, Archives I, 8th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C. 20408. In addition, the archives has a few baggage lists and cargo manifests that name passengers as early as 1798, but they are fragmentary. A discussion of these surviving lists, transcripts and copies, the ports for which they were available, and their limitations and significance for researchers is found in the reference work mentioned above, Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives, pp. 41-59.

No federal government agency required information about people entering the United States overland from Canada and Mexico until Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1891 (ch. 551, 26 Stat., 1084). In addition to excluding those suffering from "loathsome or contagious diseases," the law provided for medical examinations at what became the first United States immigration inspection stations along the Canadian border. The reason for this became obvious when it was acknowledged that approximately forty percent of the foreign passengers arriving in Canada were bound for the United States.

In 1909, District 1 of the U.S. Immigration Service was established at Montreal and encompassed the entire Canadian border. The headquarters were later moved to St. Albans, Vermont, where the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) microfilmed its five series of immigrant records and Soundex Indexes covering the period 1895 to 1954. That material is now available as a microfilm publication of the National Archives and Records Administration (address above).

After the National Archives microfilmed many of its passenger manifests in 1978, the originals were loaned to Temple University in Philadelphia for the purpose of compiling statistics on the social, economic, and genetic aspects of immigration, a project directed by Dr. Ira A. Glazier. Subsequently, this effort became a joint project of the newly established Temple-Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies (now the Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies) where storage facilities were available for the thousands of large bound volumes weighing approximately eleven tons.

Published Passenger Lists

In transcribing data from the above-mentioned passenger lists into a computer data base, Dr. Glazier acceded to a request that his team include information to benefit those involved in research concerning immigration and immigrant ancestors. The initial effort was a computerized list of Irish passengers published as The Famine Immigrants: Lists of Irish Immigrants Arriving at the Port of New York, 1846-1851 (Baltimore: Genealogical Pub. Co., 1983-86), currently being expanded to cover English, Welsh, and Scottish immigrants from 1880-1914. The subsequent major undertakings in this project are Germans to America: Lists of Passengers Arriving at U.S. Ports, 1850-1893 (Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 1988- ); Italians to America, 1880-1899 (Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 1992- ); and Migration from the Russian Empire. Lists of Passengers Arriving at the Port of New York, 1875-1914 (Baltimore: Genealogical Pub. Co., 1995- ). While this labor-intensive work is in progress, it is important to note that under no circumstances can staff members at the Temple-Balch Center conduct any research or respond to any questions about individuals whose names may appear on the original manifests.

A great many passenger lists, created both before and after passage of the act of 1819, have been published in a wide variety of books, journal articles, and special publications. An early attempt to locate them and to index the ships' names was made in 1938 by Harold Lancour, who compiled A Bibliography of Ship Passenger Lists, 1538-1825 containing about 98 sources; a third edition, including some 243 sources, was revised and enlarged by Richard J. Wolfe (New York: New York Public Library, 1963).

It is well for researchers to be aware of the companion volume that continues Lancour's work compiled by P. William Filby: Passenger and Immigration Lists Bibliography, 1538-1900, Being a Guide to Published Lists of Arrivals in the United States and Canada, 2nd edition (Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1988). This contains over 2,550 sources including hundreds of lists not yet published in the Passenger and Immigration Lists Index, cited below. As a major reference work, the Bibliography is available in many research libraries, and therefore no attempt was made to duplicate it for this reference guide. To date, unfortunately, there is no later edition of the Bibliography.

Beginning in the 1980s, P. William Filby and Mary K. Meyer launched a project to consolidate all known published passenger and naturalization lists, as well as other lists of American residents of foreign birth, and to edit a master index of names from these lists. The result was a three-volume publication, Passenger and Immigration Lists Index. A Guide to Published Arrival Records of About 500,000 Passengers Who Came to the United States and Canada in the Seventeenth, Eighteenth, and Nineteenth Centuries (Detroit, Gale Research Co., 1981); since 1982 a supplement of approximately 125,000 names has been issued annually. Combined, these volumes currently contain over two and a quarter million names taken from hundreds of publications. The editor's intention is to incorporate small passenger lists from such sources as journal articles and books. Hence, the names from a very large series such as Germans to America are not included.

Twentieth-century Passenger Lists

Currently, with fiftieth anniversary ceremonies commemorating World War II fresh in the minds of so many veterans and their families, there is a budding interest in relatively recent arrivals in the United States. This is a direct result of two significant pieces of federal legislation. In 1945 Congress passed the so-called War Brides Act to expedite the admission of foreign-born spouses and children of United States armed forces personnel (ch. 289, 61 Stat., 401). Three years later, in 1948, Congress passed the Displaced Persons Act, authorizing the admission of 400,000 refugees from war-torn Europe for a period of four years, 1948-1952 (ch. 647, 62 Stat., 1009). For an up-to-date list of microfilmed Passenger Arrival Records, 1882-1957 (ship), and Passenger Arrival Lists, 1929-1945 (air), at the National Archives, see the Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States (Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1995), 85.3.1 and 85.3.2. [CD3026 1996.]

For those seeking shipping company records of passengers from Europe who embarked for North America from the port of Rotterdam during the first four decades of the twentieth century, a new 272-microfiche publication may be of value: Passenger Lists of the Holland-American Line, 1900-1940 (Lisse, The Netherlands: Municipal Archives of Rotterdam and MMF Publications, 1995). Included among the passengers are many refugees who left their homes during the early phase of World War II in Europe, before the United States became involved in the fighting. In the District of Columbia this publication is available at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 100 Raoul Wallenberg Place, SW, Washington, DC 20024-2150.

Interest in immigrant ancestors has gone far beyond finding names on ship passenger lists. Today's researcher is often keen to discover motivations for leaving the mother country, to find first-hand descriptions of the crossing, to ferret out details about particular immigrant ships and the rigors of being "processed" by immigration authorities, to study conditions encountered during early years in the New World, to learn reasons for the settlement of various ethnic groups in particular places throughout the country, and to absorb first-hand accounts of newly settled immigrants. This guide provides an introduction to the type and variety of books available concerning these topics, both recent publications and reprints of some earlier works, as well as a list of some useful subject headings.

Top of Page Top of Page
  Home >> Bibliographies & Guides
  The Library of Congress >> Researchers
  February 23, 2018
Legal | External Link Disclaimer

Contact Us:  
Ask a Librarian