Find Your Immigrant Ancestor - Manifests and Passenger Lists

On using passenger lists for locating your immigrant ancestor


The act of entering a non-native country for the purpose of permanent residence is called "immigration." A person immigrates into a country. The act of leaving the home country for permanent removal is termed "emigration." There are records documenting both the arrival of an immigrant in the new country and the exit of the person from the homeland. The records maintained about the movement may contain names, ages, occupations, destinations and, infrequently, the place of origin or birth.


Until the passage of the Page Act of 1875, there were no governmental restrictions for entering into the United States or the previously established English Colonies. Most immigration studies and books focus on the waves of European immigrants that arrived in the United States during and after the 1800s. However, it is important to recognize that immigrants began coming to North America in the 1500s and there were several permanent settlements in what is now the United States in that time period. Both France and Spain had established settlements in North America long before the first English speaking immigrants arrived in 1607 at Jamestown, Virginia.


Some of the earliest immigration records are the lists of passengers on boats coming to America. The key issue in using immigration records for genealogy research is connecting the names on the passenger lists and other associated documents with the immigrant once they have arrived in America. It is all too easy to make the assumption that the person with the same name is the same person. There is no lack of records, although it seems that the one you are looking for always seems to be missing. Another obstacle in connecting your ancestor to his or her European origin is the fact that many immigrants altered or changed their names at the time of their entry into America or even before arrival. Finding out the original name may take some extensive detective work.


The FamilySearch Research Wiki has extensive links and explanations of the process and details of immigration into America and each of the states. The number of books, magazine articles, journal articles, websites and other information about immigration can be overwhelming. The U.S. National Archives has immigration records for arrivals in the United States from foreign ports from about 1820 to 1982. These records are arranged by port of arrival. The most common ports of arrival were the following:

  • Baltimore, Maryland
  • Boston, Massachusetts
  • Detroit, Michigan
  • New Orleans, Louisiana
  • New York City, New York
  • Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Los Angeles, California
  • San Francisco, California


Sometimes, it is possible to find the passenger list from the name of the ship using arrival and departure records. There are many websites and archives that contain passenger lists in various ports.


Written by James L. Tanner. Used with permission.


Related Topics