When searching for ancestors in American ship passenger lists there are three major time periods to consider: pre-1820, 1820-1890, and 1891-1954:
Ship Passenger Lists - Colonial Period to 1820
Prior to January 1, 1820, the U.S. Federal Government did not require captains or masters of vessels to present a passenger list to U.S. officials upon arrival in America. Therefore, for pre-1820 passenger lists, researchers must rely on surviving ship cargo manifests which have been scattered among archives, museums, and other historical agencies. The good news is that most of these surviving passenger manifests have been published, and several indexes have been compiled to these pre-1820 published passenger lists.
- The best place to start your search for pre-1820 ship passenger manifests is Passenger and Immigration Lists Index (P. William Filby, ed.) which attempts to index all passenger lists in the thirteen colonies and the U.S. during the early years. Beyond the original three volumes published in 1981, Filby and his collaborators continue to publish yearly supplements. This passenger list series is also available on CD-ROM and online via paid subscription from Broderbund.
- Another source for hard-to-find early American passenger lists is the compilation edited by Michael Tepper, New World Immigrants. This consolidation of ship passenger lists from periodical literature includes over 27,500 emigrants who arrived from mainly European countries during the period 1618-1878.
- Passenger arrivals at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania from 1800-1819, are reproduced in rolls 1-29 of the NARA microfilm publication M425, Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1800-1882 (108 rolls). The index to these lists is available in the NARA microfilm publication M360, Index to Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1800-1906 (151 rolls). Copies of these microfilm publications are available through the National Archives and the Family History Library.