How to Use Ship Manifests

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It is possible to be lucky by searching ship passenger manifest lists with just a name and a birth year. This can happen if your ancestor had an uncommon name or if multiple family members were traveling together and the combination of their names is unique. Most of the time, however, it is good to have an arrival date or at least an arrival year. Sources for finding this information include:

  1. U.S. Federal Census Records. The 1900, 1910, 1920, and 1930 censuses asked for an year of immigration to the U.S. If your ancestor was living in the U.S. at those times, you should be able to find an arrival year. You might find that the year varies from census to census. Maybe your ancestor's memory of the year was fading, or someone else in the family gave an incorrect year to the census taker. More on census records.
  2. Naturalization Records. Before women could vote, men primarily went through the process to become citizens. The first papers filed in this process ask for the port of arrival and approximate month of arrival. More on naturalization records.
  3. Family Source. This could be something like a family story, a family bible, or past genealogical research by a family member.
  4. Community Histories. Sometimes the description of a family's background will include when the family members came to the United States.
  5. Obituaries. Sometimes an obituary will include when the person came to the United States. More on obituaries.

The likely most accurate source for an arrival year is a naturalization record. This is because the information came directly from your ancestor and likely not too long after your ancestor arrived. Nevertheless, the information may still inaccurate.

Guidelines for searching online sources for ship passenger manifest lists:

  • Initially, use +/- one year for the birth year. Most passenger lists use age instead of year of birth. So, searching with birth year may be one year off. This will minimize the number of search results so that you don't have so many to view. You can expand this year range if you were not able to find your ancestor in the initial search.
  • Initially, use the exact year for each of the possible arrival years from the various sources listed above. This will also minimize the number of search results. Like birth year, you can expand this year range if you were not able to find your ancestor in the initial search.
  • Be aware of spelling and transcription errors. For example, at Ellis Island, the transcribed records had two mistakes in the family of one of my ancestors, making the search difficult: "Jens Peter Hansen" was listed as "Mens Peter Hansen" and his eight-year old daughter "Ida" was listed as "Iva." The family was found by searching on Jens' wife, Lena.
  • Be aware of possible name changes. For example, immigrants from Sweden may be using a different last name. A woman with the last name of "Nilsdotter" might be traveling under "Nilsson," "Nilson," or "Nelson." The name of the farm where they last lived might be used. People also chose new last names that are unrelated to their former last name or where they lived.
  • If you believe a family traveled together, search for another family member if you cannot find the one you chose for your initial search.

Online sources to search for ship passenger manifest lists:

Also see:

If you are not sure that searching for a ship passenger manifest is the next best option for your research, consider using the advice feature of this site. This will help you pick your next best steps in your research. Go to the Free Search Advisor.