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Published Passenger Lists:
A Review of German Immigrants
Germans to America, Volumes 1-9 (1850-1855)

Michael P. Palmer


Table of contents:


Customs Passenger Lists.

The first passenger arrival records kept in the United States on a national level are those now known as the "Customs Passenger Lists" [note 1]. These records are the result of An Act to Regulate Passenger Ships and Vessels (3 Stat. 488), passed by Congress on 2 March 1819, to alleviate overcrowding and the resultant horrendous conditions on immigration ships of the time. The act limited the number of passengers to two for every five tons of a ship's register. In order to ensure that this provision was observed, the act required that masters of all ships arriving at American ports from abroad present to the collector of the customs district in which the ship arrived a list--for which the government provided a printed form--of all passengers on the vessel (including non-immigrants), giving, in particular, "the age, sex, and occupation of the said passengers, respectively, the country to which they severally belong, and that of which it is their intention to become inhabitants." The customs collectors were required every quarter to submit copies and abstracts of these lists to the Secretary of State, who, in turn, was to deliver a statistical report to Congress annually [note 2].

The various records resulting from the act of 1819 and now known as the Customs Passenger Lists extend from 1820 to the 1890's (to 1902 for the port of New Orleans), and document the arrival of almost 20 million people. Many of the people listed are of course neither immigrants nor alien passengers. In addition, the lists do not include those immigrants who arrived overland from Canada and Mexico. Nevertheless, the Customs Passenger Lists remain the primary record of the arrival of the overwhelming majority of immigrants to the United States in the 19th century; among 19th-century American records they are surpassed in size, continuity, and uniformity only by those of the federal census.

All Customs Passenger Lists--originals, copies, and abstracts--were eventually deposited with the National Archives in Washington, DC, where they were incorporated into Record Group 36, and arranged by port, date, and ship. In order to preserve the information these records contain, and to make it more readily available to researchers, the National Archives microfilmed the original lists, carefully substituting copies and abstracts for missing or illegible originals. At the same time, the National Archives microfilmed indexes to the lists, most of which had been compiled by the Works Projects Administration (WPA) in the 1930's. In 1977, the lists for the five major ports of entry--Baltimore, Boston, New Orleans, New York, and Philadelphia--were transferred to the Balch Institute Center for Immigration Research, at Temple University, in Philadelphia.

Although copies of the microfilms prepared by the National Archives are easily accessible through a number of sources, locating the name of a particular immigrant on a ship list remains a formidable challenge. There exist indexes to many of these records, including the following for the five major ports, compiled by the WPA: Baltimore, 1820-1897; Boston, 1848-1891; New Orleans, 1853-1899; New York, 1820-1846; and Philadelphia, 1800-1906. However, these indexes can prove difficult to use, since they are arranged in different ways--most commonly either alphabetically by surname or by soundex--, are subject to copying errors, and are to some extent incomplete. The lack of an index to the New York lists for the years following 1846 is particularly serious for researchers of German ancestry, since not only was New York the major port of immigration into the United States, but the years 1846 and 1847 also mark the beginning of the first great wave of German immigration, a wave that crested with the arrival of over 215,000 immigrants in 1854 [note 3]. The absence of an index to the New Orleans lists for the years prior to 1853 is almost equally serious for researchers of German ancestry, since in the period prior to the Civil War many Germans destined for the Midwest entered the United States through New Orleans [note 4].

The WPA indexers were most probably forced to abandon the indexing of the New York lists at the end of 1846 by the sheer volume of the records for the following years. However, the development of computers since the end of World War II, and in particular the refinement of the personal computer in the last five years, has enabled present-day indexers to venture bravely into the sorts of records that would have sent even the most intrepid WPA indexer to a sanatorium. In the past five years, two major works have appeared that utilize computer technology to make available information on German immigrants from the Customs Passenger Lists.

German Immigrants.

The first of these works to be published is German Immigrants; Lists of Passengers Bound from Bremen to New York (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1985-1993), compiled by Gary J. Zimmerman and Marion Wolfert. This work consists of four volumes (the last compiled by Wolfert alone after Zimmerman's death), covering the years 1847-1854, 1855-1862, 1863-1867, and 1868-1871 respectively. As its title indicates, the focus of this work is quite narrow: it covers only those ships that sailed from Bremen to New York, and is an attempt partially to reconstruct the Bremen ship passenger departure lists using the National Archives Microfilm Publication M237 (New York ship passenger arrival lists) [note 5]. In fact, the focus of German Immigrants is even narrower, since, as the introduction to each volume explains, it includes only those people for whom a specific place of origin in Germany is given. Of the total number of passengers arriving, the compilers estimate that only 21 percent provide such information; the other 79 percent give only "Germany" as the place of origin.

Each volume consists of a single alphabetical listing, containing between approximately 11,820 and 34,320 names (the total number of names listed in all four volumes is about 99,440). Each entry represents a single individual or family group, and is tied to a "Table of References" at the front of the volume by a reference number consisting of the last two digits of the year of arrival (e.g., "52" for a ship arriving in 1852) followed by the number assigned the passenger list for that year by the National Archives in its Microfilm Publication Series M237. Each Table of References is arranged chronologically, and gives for each passenger list abstracted the reference number as described above, the name of the ship, the date of the passenger manifest, and the number of the microfilm reel (of National Archives Microfilm Publication Series M237) on which the list appears. This enables the researcher easily to locate the microfilm copy of the "original" record [note 6]. The second, third, and fourth volumes contain an expanded introduction, in which Zimmerman and Wolfert explain some of the difficulties they encountered in abstracting the passenger lists. Among the points they emphasize, the following two are of particular importance:

the original lists contain obvious misspellings of both personal and place names, a consequence of the fact that the information on these lists was supplied to the compiler verbally by the passengers; and
certain German letters can easily be mistaken for others.
In cases in which the spelling of a surname is unclear or open to interpretation, Zimmerman and Wolfert have inserted additional entries, each using an alternative spelling, so that these surnames are alphabetized both as they appear to be written, and as the compilers feel they "should" be written. This practice has "padded" the size of each volume slightly, but ensures that a surname is not overlooked if its phonetic differs from its "proper" spelling. Above all, the compilers stress the importance of comparing their abstracts against the microfilm "originals".

Zimmerman and Wolfert's work should be considered an index rather than a record publication, since it lists only an immigrant's name, age, sex, place of origin, and ship: the passenger manifests themselves include additional information, most frequently occupation and intended place of destination. In fact, the only serious weakness of Zimmerman and Wolfert's work is the fact that the alphabetical arrangement of each volume destroys the original order of each ship list. As indicated in the opening paragraph of this article, the order of names on a ship passenger manifest can be important for a researcher attempting to determine the maiden name of a woman traveling with her future husband, to track groups of relatives with different surnames, or to identify bands of unrelated neighbors traveling together. In defence of Zimmerman and Wolfert, however, it should be noted that it is far more expensive to publish ship passenger lists in their entirety than to publish alphabetical abstracts of them. To publish full transcripts of the ship lists for 1847-1854 abstracted in the first volume of German Immigrants would require a volume of 400 to 500 pages of text; indeed, the index alone would almost certainly be the length (175 pages) of the entire published volume of abstracts. The costs of publishing a volume of this size can be quite high, and the decision of the compilers and their publisher to publish the smaller volumes, at a price ($22-$25 per volume) within the budgets of most private researchers, public libraries, and the majority of genealogical societies, is quite understandable.

Germans to America.

The second published work to utilize computer technology to make available information on German immigrants from the Customs Passenger Lists is Germans to America; Lists of Passengers Arriving at U.S. Ports, 1850-1855 (9 vols.; Wilmington, Delaware: Scholarly Resources, 1988-1990) [henceforth = GTA], edited by Professor Ira A. Glazier, Director of the Balch Institute Center for Immigration Research, and by P. William Filby.

Although the time period it covers is considerably narrower than that covered by Zimmerman and Wolfert's German Immigrants--1850-1855 (5 years), as apposed to 1847-1867 (20 years)--, GTA is a much more ambitious work, which reproduces, in modified form but in original passenger order, every "original" passenger manifest now housed at the Balch Institute Center for Immigration Research and containing a minimum of 80 percent German surnames. Unlike German Immigrants, which covers only ships arriving from Bremen, GTA includes ships arriving from all foreign ports. In addition, since inclusion is determined primarily by surname rather than by nationality, GTA contains not only German nationals (viz., citizens of the various states that later formed the German Empire) but also ethnic Germans from Switzerland, France, and the Austrian Empire. Passenger manifests are arranged chronologically, and then alphabetically by the name of the vessel, without regard to the port of arrival. Each entry contains the full name of the passenger, his/her age, sex, and occupation (most often in code), a two-letter code for his/her country of origin, a three-letter/number code for his/her village of origin, and a two- or three-letter code for his/her stated destination. Each volume contains lists of occupation, province/country of origin, village of origin, and destination codes. Volume 1 contains a foreword by Mr. Filby and a six-page introduction by Professor Glazier, including a short "Historical Background of German Migration in the Nineteenth Century," which relies heavily on the pioneering work of Peter Marschalck [note 7]. Both the foreword and the introduction are reprinted verbatim in each of the eight succeeding volumes. An extensive alphabetical index at the back of each volume enables the researcher to search for a specific immigrant by name rather than by port of entry or date of arrival.

The cost of publishing these ship lists in passenger order is not cheap: the price of each volume is $75, well beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest private researchers, public libraries, and genealogical societies. However, to those accustomed to purchasing academic record publications, $75 for a book of over 700 pages is something of a bargain, and the publishers are to be commended for keeping the price so comparatively reasonable.


This article is copyright © 1990 Michael P. Palmer, but may be republished, in whole, or in part, with proper attribution.

An earlier version of this article was published in German Genealogical Society of America Bulletin, vol. 4, No. 3/4 (May/August 1990), 69, 71-90.

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