Tips for Determining Your Ancestor's Probable Port of Arrival

For Arrivals at U.S. Ports from Europe 1820-1950s

by Joe Beine


It is helpful to know the port of arrival when searching for your ancestor's passenger record in the U.S. But what if you don't know which port he or she arrived at? This page is designed to help you determine which port to search. In some cases you may need to search the records of several ports to find the correct one.

Keep in mind that most passenger lists were handwritten. Deciphering this handwriting was often difficult when the lists were later indexed. So always search for alternate spellings of a surname when using the indexes.

Five Major Ports of Arrival

The five major U.S. arrival ports for immigration in the 19th and 20th Centuries were: New York, Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New Orleans. New York was by far the most commonly used port, followed by the others. You can use these links to find information about the available indexes for these ports...
Don't Overlook The Smaller Ports

Some immigrants also arrived at a number of smaller ports. You can find a list of nearly every U.S. arrival port at... Where your ancestor settled in the United States can sometimes help determine which port he or she arrived at. See the next section for ideas.

Where They Settled

Geographic location can sometimes play a role in where you might want to search first. For example, if your ancestor settled in Pennsylvania, he or she might have landed at Philadelphia. If they settled in Maryland, you may want to try Baltimore. If your ancestors did not settle in or near a port city, then consider how they might have traveled from their arrival port to their ultimate destination...
  • To New Orleans & Up the Mississippi
    Many people who settled in states along or near the Mississippi River such as Missouri or Illinois (especially prior to the Civil War) landed at New Orleans and then took a riverboat up the Mississippi. After the Civil War many train lines were built making it easier to travel from an east coast port to their final inland destination.
  • East Coast Ports & the Ohio River
    Around the mid-19th Century many immigrants who arrived at Baltimore or Philadelphia traveled by land to Pittsburgh where they took a boat down the Ohio River to Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and other nearby states.
    • Important Cities Along the Ohio River
      • Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
      • Wheeling, West Virginia
      • Huntington, West Virginia
      • Cincinnati, Ohio
      • Louisville, Kentucky
      • Evansville, Indiana
      • Paducah, Kentucky
  • New York & the Erie Canal
    After completion of the Erie Canal (in October 1825) immigrants could sail up the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers, then take a boat to Buffalo and the Great Lakes. Many immigrants who traveled this route arrived in New York City and settled in Western Pennsylvania and Northern Ohio, and states like Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota.

Where They Came From

Using Naturalization Records

Naturalization records created prior to September 1906 usually do not list a person's port of arrival. Some do, but most do not. In Naturalization records created after September 1906 the port (as well as date) of arrival is almost always given. For details on locating Naturalization records see...

These are merely suggestions to use for help locating the arrival port of your ancestors in the U.S. While there is no guarantee of success, hopefully these tips will provide you with clues for locating your immigrant ancestor's passenger arrival record. Sometimes you will simply have to guess a port and you may need to search the records of many ports to find your ancestor's arrival details. For more disclaimers, see the link below.

Helpful Links...

Finding Passenger Lists 1820-1940s (arrivals at US Ports)

What Passenger Lists Are Online?

Finding Passenger Lists Before 1820

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