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Ship Shape Research

Since the early 1800s, immigrants to the United States have been plentiful-and so have records of their voyage. Luckily for those interested in learning about their family history, almost all of the millions of immigrants to America were registered at Ellis Island when they came across the ocean on ships, and this extensive list of travelers is one of the best resources a researcher can use to find their ancestors. Ship passenger lists can be your best tools to start your search for your family tree.

Until after the end of the French Revolution, there are few records, because immigrants were not required to register. After this, there was an explosion of people moving to the United States and conditions aboard ships deteriorated. To help relive this problem, the government began to regulate the number of passengers a ship could carry, which required that names and dates be recorded and submitted to Ellis Island officials.

Of course, over time, many lists were lost. However, many more survived and those have since become property of the National Archive, with copies being held by the Department of State as well. In the late 1970s, copies of the lists from five of the major United States ports (Boston, New York, New Orleans, Baltimore, and Philadelphia) were also given to the Balch Institute Center for Immigration Research in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It is safe to say that, although there was some loss, the bulk of the passengers listed have been saved and are now on microfilm for safekeeping.

By law, after 1819 the following things had to be recorded on the passenger list: name, age, gender, country of allegiance, country of intended destination, and occupation. Later law required information such as country of origin, more specific intended location, previous address, marital status, amount of money, prison records, and health status. By the turn of the century, passenger lists carried 21 points of information. Soon, a physical description was added as well.

The National Archives is in the process of creating indexes for all of the existing passenger lists. This is the best place to start if you know the name of your ancestor. Remember that earlier records will be harder to read and may not exist at all. The indexes are arranged by port, so try to find this information, or at least make an educated guess, to start your search. Once you find the passenger list you need, you can continue on to other countries in your quest for your ancestors.

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