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Passenger Lists Back to the Home Country

What do you do when you trace your family back as far as it will go in the United States? How do you locate your ancestors in their home country? The first and foremost rule is to go back to the basics.

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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by: Karan Pittman
Word Count: 769 (approx.)
Labels: Immigration 
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What do you do when you trace your family back as far as it will go in the United States? How do you locate your ancestors in their home country? The first and foremost rule is to go back to the basics. Are there any family stories regarding the original location of your ancestors? Do you know for a fact that they came from England, Scotland, Norway, Germany, China, India, Japan, or Egypt? Do you have family traditions of an ethnic or religious orientation?

In order to go back over the ocean to the original place of birth, it is necessary to put your ancestor in geographical and historical context. Many people want to know why their ancestors migrated. These reasons may be lost in terms of family documents, but by using historical clues, you may get a good idea of what motivated your ancestor to try a new way of life.

Ships provided the most common form of travel. It may be simpler to start at the beginning of the country's origins in order to get a good idea of resources that may be used.

Before the Revolutionary War, no real attempt was made to require passenger lists. The colonies each would have their own requirements, if any at all. It is important to remember that before 1790 almost eighty percent of the Caucasian immigrants to the United States came from England or British-governed countries. Since the colonies were still British, there was little attempt to document arrivals. Truthfully, there was not as much interest in passenger arrivals besides prisoners and indentured servants.

In order to find passenger records before 1790, it may be necessary to try to find departure lists from the original country. These records may be found in the national or local government archives or repositories of the country.

Some exceptions exist for the pre-1790 passenger lists. In Pennsylvania, all non-British immigrants were identified after 1727. These people were primarily of German descent. Particular ships may be listed on Internet sites. For instance, the Ark and the Dove, web site lists the colonists who came to Maryland. Lists of the famous ships, such as the Mayflower, abound. It is much harder to find the information for the many ships that were not "famous" in the true sense of the word. Many people came to the United States on these ships and it is difficult, in some cases impossible, to find the lists.

One invaluable source for locating early passenger lists is the massive and monumental genealogical resource compiled by P.W. Filby and M.K.Meyer. Known to researchers as Filby's, this Passenger and Immigration Lists Index contains the names of approximately 500,000 passengers who came to the United States and Canada from the 1500's through the 1900's. These lists are updated annually. When you find your ancestor's name in the list, you are given a reference to a specific book or source of the original information about the person. Since the inception of this list, over three million names have been entered into this resource. Since so many early resources are used, some duplication occurs within the volumes, but as long as you keep accurate records of what you have done, you will be able to spot the duplications. Researchers may use this resource in a genealogical library.

Subscriptions to the service are available online, including Ancestry.com, and a CD-ROM is also available for purchase. For early passenger lists, this resource pulls together hundreds of resources into one. If you go online to Cyndi's List, you will find links to this resource.

It helps to know the ports of entry for the United States. Over one hundred ports saw passenger arrivals, but in truth, many of these ports just saw irregular activity. During the earliest years of immigration five major ports saw the arrival of most of the passengers to the United States. These ports were Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New Orleans. In the colonial days, Philadelphia was one of the most popular ports.

During 1820, Congress passed legislation that called for passenger lists to be filed by each ship's officer with the customs officer in each port. These lists were abstracted quarterly and sent to the secretary of state in Washington. These lists provide much information for family history researchers.

Although it is difficult to find passenger lists prior to 1820, it is not impossible. Resources do exist, but they are quite scattered. You have to do your homework and work from the most logical assumption to begin your search. Expect some disappointments along the way, but in the end, you will find out a lot of information about your ancestor.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2006.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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