Tips for Researching Passenger Lists | Wisconsin Historical Society

Guide or Instruction

Passenger Lists Research Tips

Passenger lists are among the most frequently requested genealogical materials, and our Library has a strong collection. As immigrants arrived in North America, these lists were compiled at their port of entry.

Determine the Port of Entry/Month/Year

You must know the port of entry and at least the month and year to do a reasonable research of passenger lists.

If you don't know that information, research other genealogy resources first. The port of arrival may be stated in your ancestor's paperwork for naturalization (the process of becoming a citizen). Newspapers from the port of arrival may contain stories of the trip. Also, check censuses, obituaries, vital records, church and cemetery records, and family papers (diaries, letters, etc.).

Search Names

Most passenger lists (or indexes) for U.S. ports are searchable by name on Ancestry.com.Ancestry Library Edition is free on the Society's public computers in the Library.

Search by the name of the passenger under the port of entry.

Look at the complete passenger list for the ship in which your ancestor traveled. Other relatives may have come on the same vessel but may be found on a different page of the list.

Note the place of origin, when given, of neighboring travelers. If they come from the same town or province, they may be related.

Search Port of Entry

The year a ship arrived at the U.S., and the country from which it departed, had a great effect on determining its port of entry.

If you do not know the port of entry but you know the country your ancestor left from, email Library staff at asklibrary@wisconsinhistory.org. They will help you identify possible migration patterns of your ancestors.

Information that may be found in Passenger Lists

  • The name of each passenger
  • Age
  • Gender
  • Occupation
  • Nationality
  • The port from which they came
  • The name of the ship
  • The captain of the ship
  • Deaths at sea

More Tips

Some lists were lost and are not available anywhere.

Some lists will include information about the length of the trip, stowaways, births and deaths at sea. This explains a little about the trip and people who traveled with your ancestor.

Pre-1820
There were no laws requiring states, colonies or cities to create passenger lists. Instead, they individually decided the need for lists and any surviving lists are widely scattered. Most of the existing lists are published and described in the "Passenger and Immigration Lists Bibliography" by P. William Filby (2nd edition, Detroit, Gale Research, 1988). The Society's Library has most of these published lists.
1820-1891
U.S. law required captains of vessels to submit passenger lists to the Collector of Customs at the port of entry. These are the first lists maintained by the newly established Customs Department.
1891-1954
Standard forms for immigration passenger were issued to all shipping lines. The lists were maintained by the U.S. Immigration Department.

Examples of Migratory Patterns

The heaviest migration occurred in the spring (March, April, May) and the fall (September, October, November).

Norway
Many ships from Norway entered into Canada or New York.
Germany
Many ships from Germany came into New York, Philadelphia and New Orleans.
Ireland
Many ships from Ireland entered the U.S. at Baltimore, Boston, New York and Philadelphia.

Learn More

See more articles about researching your family history.

Have Questions?

Contact our Library and Archives staff by email.

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