Discovering La Famiglia: Finding Your Ancestor's Passenger List

An exciting piece of family history is to have a copy of your ancestor's passenger list like this one which shows the exact dates your ancestor left the motherland and arrived in America! An exciting piece of family history is to have a copy of your ancestor's passenger list like this one which shows the exact dates your ancestor left the motherland and arrived in America!

Over the last few months in this column, we have been exploring our Italian heritage from the perspective of our ancestors’ life experiences. Last month we looked at what it was like to travel in steerage across the Atlantic. If you read that column, it might have sparked your curiosity to find your ancestor’s passenger list, the topic of discussion this month. Next month we will jump back into our series and explore the “Ellis Island Experience.” 

To start your research on finding your ancestor’s passenger list, you will need these key pieces of information: Immigrant’s original name, approximate year of birth, ancestral home, and approximate year of arrival to America (1910, 1920, 1930, and 1940 U.S. census and naturalization records will have this information). 

U.S. Immigration Stations

There were over 75 Federal Immigration Stations in the U.S. Unfortunately, many of the records for these ports no longer exist or are extremely hard to find. New York was the most common landing port for Italian immigrants with an estimated 4.6 million Italians entering America here between 1855 and 1957. The good news is that most of the passenger lists for New York have been preserved. If your relative came to America via New York between 1855 and 1892, you can search Castle Garden (New York’s first official immigration station) records. For travelers who arrived after 1892, there is an Ellis Island website. Other common entry ports were Baltimore (1820-1948), Boston (1820-1891), Key West (1898-1957), New Orleans (1820-1945), Philadelphia (1800-1945), Tampa (1898-1945), and Wilmington NC (1898-1958). These other ports are searchable using, or (see web addresses at the end of the article). Steve Morse, Ellis Island and Castle Garden sites allow free searches as data is extracted from free databases, but for the other ports there may be a subscription fee. 

Types of Passenger Records

There are basically two types of passenger records. The earliest records were “Customs Passenger Lists” created between 1820-1891. Basic information was recorded such as name, age, gender, occupation, and nationality. The

later “Immigration Passenger Lists” (first used in 1891 and revised in 1893, 1903, 1906, and 1907) contain much more details with additional information such as marital status, last town of residence, final U.S. destination, whether the passenger could read or write, amount of money the passenger was carrying, passenger’s health, race, place of birth, and name and address of nearest friend or relative in their home country. 

How to Find A Record When You Do Not Know the Exact Surname or Other Key Information

When you do not know an exact surname or which port to search, your best bet is to use the search index at which allows you to search by port and add details such as town, year of arrival, age at arrival, etc. By entering pieces of information that you do know in your search, the resulting list can be examined for possible records of your ancestor. For example, if you know the village your ancestor came from, enter it in the search field. Since many of our ancestors came from small villages, having the ancestral village name is like a nugget of gold to help you narrow your search. Keep in mind that passenger lists were handwritten in the late 1890s and early 1900s and, as a result, there may be errors when the manifests were transcribed for internet searching. Therefore, the resulting list may only give you a list of possible records and you may have to use other records to corroborate your findings. The key is to be open minded, try different combinations of data that you do know in the search fields and compare results. When you view the results, take a close look at the manifest. It may show a final destination and the names of other family members. This information will help you determine if you have the right passenger. 

Why You Might Not Be Able to Find Your Ancestor’s Record

Transcription errors are common due to the difficultly reading such old records. For example, my “Torella” family were indexed as “Forella.” Even if the passenger list does exist and was digitized, it might be hard to read because of damage, smeared ink or fading. Some lists were lost before they could be digitized. Finally, if your ancestor has a common name like Giovanni Rossi (the Italian equivalent to “John Smith”) there may not be enough personally identifiable information on the passenger list to narrow down your search to find your ancestor. Do not let these difficulties discourage you from at least trying!


Helpful websites:

Castle Garden (1855-1892 arrivals):

Ellis Island (1892-1957 arrivals):

Steve Morse: