By Michael Tepper
Researchers often run into problems when they are on the trail of an immigrant ancestor. The most common misconception about passenger lists is the belief that people had their names changed when they got to Ellis Island. In fact, immigrants did not change their names unless they applied for a change of name by deed poll at a courthouse or when they were naturalized. During processing at Ellis Island, officials had the actual ships’ manifests in front of them. They called each immigrant by name, according to the manifests, and often put a check next to the name after it had been called. So the passenger records are an exact reflection of the immigrants’ identities before they crossed the Atlantic, not after.
Among Americans of relatively recent ancestry, say researchers whose immigrant forebears arrived after 1850, there is the belief that official passenger lists must also exist for the Colonial and Early National periods of our history. The fact is they don’t. No colony-wide or U.S. law requiring the compiling of immigration records was enacted before 1820. The only immigration records prior to 1820 to have survived are really kind of quirky. For instance, we have lists of German immigrants who immigrated to colonies like Pennsylvania because the authorities, intent on keeping tabs on these newcomers, required them to take a loyalty oath. Also, some of the most important published immigration records are not immigration records at all, but land records, such as Nugent’s Cavaliers and Pioneers and Skordas’ Early Settlers of Maryland, which identify early immigrants taking up land grants.
Here’s a common mistake that’s made by researchers hoping to find an ancestor during the 1840s. Let’s say the genealogist is looking for a Sean O’Shaunessey, who is supposed to have come from Dublin to New York in June of 1849. The researcher finds a Sean in the official Customs Passenger Lists; however, because the record indicates that his country of origin is Great Britain, not Ireland, the genealogist concludes, mistakenly, that this Sean is not his relative. This is an error that could have been avoided had the researcher known that shipping agents, or bursars, or others who were responsible for compiling the ships’ manifests were far more likely to write ‘Great Britain’ and not Ireland as Sean’s country of origin during the 1840s because Ireland was, in fact, officially part of Great Britain.
The Genealogy Connect Immigration Collection can help your family historians easily navigate down the road of tens of millions of records and resources documenting immigrant arrivals from the time of the earliest settlements to the passage of the Quota Acts of the 1920s.
About the Author
Dr. Michael Tepper is the longstanding editor-in-chief of Genealogical.com, parent company of Genealogical Publishing Company and Clearfield Company. The author/editor of numerous books and articles in genealogy and English literature, he is the country’s leading authority on American passenger records.