Q. What’s the best place to find passenger ship crew lists? According to his naturalization certificate, my great-grandfather entered the United States at New York in January 1856. I suspect he was crew, as he lists himself as a mariner and ship’s cook.
A. An early 19th-century law required the masters of American vessels arriving at US ports from abroad, or leaving US ports on foreign voyages, to file crew lists with the customs agent at the port of entry. The original purpose of the act was to protect American mariners against the threat of impressment, by providing a convenient means of identification. But the crew lists often included both Americans and foreign-born sailors.
The National Archives and Records Administration has 19th- and 20th-century crew lists on microfilm. The microfilmed records constitute the only existing copies of these records, as the originals were destroyed after the Immigration and Naturalization Service microfilmed them in the 1950s. Find descriptions of many of these holdings by searching on crew lists in the Archival Research Catalog.
It’s possible your ancestor arrived aboard a foreign vessel. Non-US vessels were exempt from the law until the passage of the Immigration Act of 1917, which required all alien seamen on vessels entering the country to be documented. The National Archives has an “Index to Alien Crewmen Who Were Discharged or Who Deserted at New York, New York,” but unfortunately it covers only 1917 to 1957.
Whether crew or not, if your ancestor got off the ship and entered the United States, he should be listed in immigration records such as those at Castle Garden, which hosts 11 million transcribed records from 1820 through 1892.
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