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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:


Lacunae in Germans to America, 3: Records Destroyed.

As indicated above, the overwhelming majority of the emigrants to the United States through both Bremen and Hamburg between 1850 and 1855 was comprised of German nationals, and of the non-nationals on board these ships most were in fact ethnic Germans. As a consequence, neither a distinction between ethnic Germans and German nationals nor the 80-percent requirement should preclude the publication of the passenger manifest of any ship arriving in the United States from either of these ports during this period.

Although GTA should contain the passenger list of every ship from Bremen or Hamburg arriving in the United States at one of the five major ports of entry between 1850 and 1855, it clearly does not. A collation of the passenger lists published in GTA with the manifests for ships sailing from Bremen to New York abstracted from National Archives Microfilm Publication M237 by Zimmerman and Wolfert in German Immigrants indicates that GTA omits some 27 lists contained by the latter [note 39]. Similarly, although GTA prints the passenger lists of 27 ships from Bremen and Hamburg that arrived at New Orleans in the fourth quarter of 1852, it omits the manifests of 10 others [note 40]. Additional gaps exist throughout all nine volumes of the work.

While the omission of one or two Bremen and Hamburg passenger manifests might be explained as an oversight by the editors--as indicated above, their application of the 80-percent regulation is not always consistent--the absence of so many suggests another cause.

Table 1 indicates that GTA contains fewer records for 1851 than for any other year; a comparison of Tables 2 and 3 further indicates that the greatest "under-representation" is of immigrants to the port of New York in the third and fourth quarters of the year. For the third quarter, during which, according to the official figures, 19,322 German immigrants arrived at New York, GTA contains the passenger manifests of only 18 ships, carrying a total of 3,106 German nationals. Of these 18 manifests, 17 date from the first 19 days of July (15 from the first nine days) and one from 29 September, just before the end of the quarter; there are no manifests at all, for any port, published for the period between 19 July and 20 September. For the fourth quarter, during which 17,493 German immigrants arrived at New York, GTA contains the manifests of only two ships, representing 493 German nationals. In fact, this "under-representation" continues through the first quarter of 1852: although the official figures state that 7,501 German immigrants entered New York during this period, GTA contains the manifests of only 14 ships, representing 2,331 German nationals.

The reviewer and his colleague, Kevin Tvedt, brought the gap between 19 July and 20 September to the attention of GTA co-editor Filby during his visit to California in September 1988. Upon his return to Baltimore, Mr. Filby discussed this gap further with Daniel C. Helmstadter, President of Scholarly Resources, the publisher of GTA, who contacted Professor Glazier at the Balch Institute Center for Immigration Research. In response, Professor Glazier wrote to Mr. Helmstadter, "These passenger lists are missing. But this is not simply a case of a lost or misplaced box as there are no lists in this quarter for any other port either" [note 41].

As Mr. Helmstadter states in his cover letter, Professor Glazier thought that the original passenger lists "had been lost or destroyed a long time ago" [note 42]. Indeed, for no port do the original ship passenger manifests survive complete. The conditions under which they were stored in the various customs houses were far from ideal [note 43]. Many were deliberately destroyed by district customs collectors, who had sent copies and abstracts to the Secretary of State and anticipated no further use of them locally. Still others were accidentally destroyed by fire, most noticeably those for the ports of Baltimore (1897) and Boston (1883). However, considerable numbers of copies, abstracts, and local records (in particular, the Baltimore "City Lists" for 1833-1866) survive for the five major ports of entry. As a result, the National Archives Microfilm Publications for these ports, which substitute these supplementary records for missing or illegible originals, are largely complete.

In fact, the loss or destruction of the "original" passenger lists for the third quarter of 1851 is clearly a recent event. Of the 27 passenger manifests abstracted from National Archives Microfilm Publication M237 by Zimmerman and Wolfert in German Immigrants, and omitted from GTA, seven date from the period between 20 June and 29 September 1851, while an additional nine bear dates between 30 September and 30 December of the same year [note 44]. A check of the microfilmed New York passenger lists by Kevin Tvedt disclosed manifests of an additional 107 ships--36 from Bremen, 13 from Hamburg, 27 from Havre, 10 from Antwerp, six from Rotterdam, one from Amsterdam, seven from Liverpool, and seven from London--all of which carried significant numbers of Germans, that arrived at New York between 19 July and 29 September. A similar check of the National Archives Microfilm Publication M255, for Baltimore, by Mr. Helmstadter revealed the manifests of 23 ships that had arrived at that port between 19 July and 20 September [note 45]. Indeed, there appear to be no noticeable gaps in the National Archives Microfilm Publications for either New York or Baltimore.

The story of the proceedings that led to the transfer of the "original" ship passenger manifests for the five major ports of entry from the National Archives to the Balch Institute Center for Immigration Research belongs properly to Mr. Filby and Professor Glazier, and it is hoped that one of them will see fit to publish an account. For the moment, however, it is sufficient to state that between the time it microfilmed them and the Spring of 1977, when it deposited those for the five major ports of entry with the Balch Institute Center for Immigration Research, the National Archives either misplaced or, more probably, destroyed the majority of the ship passenger manifests for the third quarter of 1851 for all ports and, possibly, for the fourth quarter of the same year for New York.

In defense of the National Archives, it is important to emphasize that archives generally retain in original form less than two percent of all records they acquire. All archives distinguish between two types of records: those documents, like the United States Constitution, that are important in themselves, and those, usually more modern records, like Social Security applications, whose importance lies only in the information they contain. Ship passenger manifests as a class belong to the latter type of record. Social Security applications and ship passenger manifests are voluminous, and storing them in their original paper form consumes enormous amounts of expensive shelf and floor space. Since the material on which they are written has no intrinsic historical value, it is consequently the policy of the National Archives--as it is the policy of archives throughout the world concerning similar records--to preserve the information on these records by microfilming them, and then to destroy the originals. This policy is not without its drawbacks. In particular, handwritten documents of the 19th century may be so faded that it is impossible to read them without the aid of special lighting. Microfilming such records without this lighting does not improve their legibility; indeed, the handwriting on some microfilmed passenger manifests is so light that the pages appear at first glance to be blank.

Although the actions of the National Archives are consistent with standard archival practice, the Balch Institute has been caught clearly napping. It is standard procedure for an archive receiving a collection that has been subject to a recent sale or, like the ship passenger manifests, has been scheduled for destruction, to check such records against any surviving earlier catalogues or microfilm reproductions. An example of such a procedure is the excellent catalogue by T. Michael Womack of the Archiv des Vereins zum Schutz Deutscher Einwanderer in Texas (commonly known as the "Adelsverein"), now WA MSS S-1291 in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University [note 46]. This the Institute clearly has not done. It must be admitted that the surviving passenger manifests comprise several hundred thousand individual pieces, and although the Institute has been in possession of these records for almost 13 years it is understandable that its small staff has been unable to check every single document. However, the initial accessioning process should have revealed any significant gaps in the records--the absence of passenger manifests for any port for the third quarter of 1851 must certainly have been readily apparent--and these gaps should then have been checked against the appropriate National Archives microfilm publication. Even if the initial accessioning process failed for some reason to recognize a particular gap in the records, this gap should have been noticed and checked against the National Archives microfilm publications by the GTA editorial staff.

It may be argued that since they no longer survive in paper form, and are consequently not deposited in the Balch Institute, and as both the forward and the introduction to each volume of GTA clearly state that this work contains only those records deposited in the Institute, the microfilmed passenger lists should not be included in GTA. However, as custodian of the surviving original passenger manifests for the five major ports of entry the Institute is also the custodian of the "tradition" of the records for these ports that no longer survive in their original form. Very few researchers are aware that any ship passenger lists have been destroyed since they were microfilmed by the National Archives, and as neither the forward nor the introduction mention any destruction of records researchers using GTA will expect it to be "complete" (subject to the 80-percent requirement) and to include all available records, regardless the form in which they survive. The fact that a passenger list survives only as a microfilm copy has little meaning to a researcher, whose primary interest is the names it contains rather than the medium on which it is written. (It is worth noting that in a court of law a photographic or micrographic copy has the same validity as a paper "original" [note 47].)


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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