Passports Can Offer Proof of Identification

by Bob Brooke

In the early years of America, individuals carried passports when traveling from state to state or into Indian territory. Records of such early passports may be useful to a genealogist if his or her ancestors settled in the area that eventually became Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. Some of these documents have been published. Mary Givens Bryan transcribed the passports issued by the governors of Georgia between 1785 and 1820, for example, which were printed in two special publications of the National Genealogical Society.

Modern passport applications filed between 1791 and 1905 are now maintained in the Diplomatic Records Branch of the National Archives. Although passports weren't required by law during that period, except during the Civil War, many individuals secured them for the protection they afforded. Immigrants traveling home often obtained passports in order to avoid the military draft in their home country.

Passport applications dated between 1810 and 1905 are kept in bound volumes at the National Archives, and indexes are available for the years 1834 to 1905. While the earliest applications were simple letters of request, expired passports, birth certificates, certificates of citizenship or similar documents may be on file with them.

After the Civil War, passport applications were more detailed. Information usually includes the applicant's name, signature, residence, age, personal description and the names or number of family members traveling with him. If he or she were a naturalized American, the date and place of his or her naturalization is given. Early passport applications for naturalized citizens also include birth dates, the name of the vessel and date and port of arrival, and the length of their uninterrupted residence in the United States.

Information about an ancestor who traveled and applied for a passport before 1905 can be obtained from the Diplomatic Records Branch of the National Archives by submitting his or her name and residence and the place and approximate date of application. If the records are located, a nominal fee will be charged for copies.

The Passport Office (Department of State, Washington, DC 20524) maintains passport applications filed since 1906. To request information from these records, an ancestor's full name, the date and place of his or her birth and at least an approximate indication of the time and place of application must be supplied. In some cases an approximate birth date may suffice. The location of an ancestor's application may be facilitated by also supplying the passport number, if known, information on whether he or she was included in another s passport, and any possible variations in the spelling of the individual's surname. If the individual whose passport application is being sought is still alive, he or she must sign your request. If he or she is deceased, evidence of a relationship with the person must be submitted with the request.

The amount of data contained in these applications varies. In addition to the information supplied in pre-1905 records, more recent passport applications may identify the applicant's spouse and may include the names, birth dates and birthplaces of children if they were included in the passport. If the ancestor filed an application in 1915 or later, a photograph is also included.

Information from passport applications is sometimes very helpful to genealogists but will be available only if the ancestor was a citizen and sought a passport. Before World War I, the U.S. Government required passports only for travel to certain countries. For additional details, consult The United States Passport, Past, Present, Future, a publication available from the U.S. Government Printing Office (Washington, DC 20402).

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