How to Use Ship Manifests
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- Family Source. This could be something like a family story, a family bible, or past genealogical research by a family member.
- Community Histories. Sometimes the description of a family's background will include when the family members came to the United States.
- 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:
- Ancestry.com's Immigration and Travel Records. This is particularly helpful if you do not know the port of entry. Ancestry.com searches multiple ports of entry, including Boston, Baltimore Philadelphia, New Orleans, and New York, along with ports in the states of California, Oregon, and Washington. There are also passenger lists for Canada, Australia, and several European countries.
- Baltimore Passenger Lists. Port of Baltimore from 1820 to 1897.
- Passenger Lists of Vessels for Baltimore and Philadelphia. These are microfilm reels that can be viewed online.
- Boston Passenger Manifest Lists. Port of Boston from 1820 to 1891 and from 1891 to 1943.
- Castle Garden. Port of New York from 1820 to 1913.
- Ellis Island Passenger Lists. Port of New York from 1892 to 1957.
- Los Angeles Passenger Lists. Port of Los Angeles from 1907 to 1948.
- New Orleans Passenger Lists. Port of New Orleans from 1820 to 1945.
- New York Passenger Lists. Port of New York from 1820 to 1846, from 1892 to 1924, and 1909 and from 1925 to 1957.
- Olive Tree Genealogy. Various passenger lists, including lists from Canada.
- Philadelphia Passenger Lists. Port of Philadelphia from 1800 to 1882, from 1800 to 1906, and from 1883 to 1945.
- San Francisco Passenger Lists. Port of San Francisco from 1893 to 1953.
- Seattle Passenger Lists. Port of Seattle from 1890 to 1957.
- Search Google for more information about online ship passenger manifest lists.
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.