In the past I’ve debunked the claim that names were changed at Ellis Island. You still hear this story but it never, ever happened. Whatever name was on the passenger ship list was the name the passenger gave when they embarked. But remember, if the person who drew up the list didn’t speak the passenger’s language, the name might have been mangled.
Don’t expect to find many passenger ship lists prior to the 19th or 20th centuries. Most were destroyed if they ever existed, with notable exceptions such as the Mayflower.
But what would you expect to learn from a ship list arriving at Ellis Island? Obviously, the name of the ship, port and date of departure and the port and date of arrival to the U.S. The passenger ship list would list the name, sex, age and a number assigned. This number was unique to each passenger who wore a paper tag on debarking the ship they arrived on.
Information asked varied over the years, but you may find ethnicity, nationality, occupation, marital status, language spoken and race. Other questions could include literacy or the lack of it.
You may also find the passenger’s destination in the U.S. and the name and address of the relative or friend they were joining. They were usually asked if they had money with them and if they had a ticket to their U.S. destination. When my Lithuanian grandmother arrived in New York she was heading to Foxcroft, Maine, to her sister and brother-in-law’s and had the railroad tickets and some American money. She couldn’t speak a word of English and she traveled completely alone.
Some of the questions asked of aliens strike me as ridiculous. They were asked if they were anarchists or polygamists. I can’t imagine anyone would identify themselves if they were. Some probably had no idea what either term meant.
If a person or a family member was ill, you’ll find a notation “To Hospital.” Sometimes you’ll see the abbreviation LPC which means Likely Public Charge, a major no-no. You might also see someone identified as cripple, idiot, the type of illness such as smallpox, the action of the board of inquiry, date of release, whether someone was deported back to the port they sailed from, and the number of meals given and presumably paid for.
Often there are handwritten notations that the list was checked when a person was naturalized.
Where do you find passenger ship lists? If you can get access to Ancestry.com, go to Search, Immigration & Travel. You may also find a photo of the ship your ancestor arrived on. NARA is another good source, as is the Ellis Island website.
Passenger Ship Lists can give us wonderful details about our ancestors. Be aware that not all German departure records survived World War II bombings. Bremen’s, for example, were lost in fires.
I’m indebted to my husband for suggesting this column and sharing his own knowledge about what you can find in these lists.
Columnist Nancy Battick of Dover-Foxcroft has researched genealogy for over 30 years. She is past president of the Maine Genealogical Society, author of several genealogical articles and co-transcribed the Vital Records of Dover-Foxcroft. Nancy holds an MA in History from UM and lives in DF with her husband, Jack, another avid genealogist. Reader emails are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.