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 sometimes helpful to know the port of arrival when searching for your immigrant ancestor's ship passenger record in the U.S. This guide offers some tips that might 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 19th century and early 20th century ship passenger lists were handwritten. Deciphering this handwriting was often difficult when the lists were later indexed. So you might need to try searching 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, beginning with 1820 (1800 for Philadelphia)...
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 They Settled

Geographic location can sometimes play a role in where you might want to search first. For example, if your immigrant ancestor settled in Pennsylvania, they 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 and 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 and 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 and the Erie Canal
    After completion of the Erie Canal (in October 1825), immigrants could travel by boat 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 27 September 1906 usually do not list a person's port of arrival. Some do, but most do not. In Naturalization records created 27 September 1906 and later, the port (as well as date) of arrival is usually given. For details on locating Naturalization records see...

These are merely suggestions for locating the arrival port of your immigrant ancestor in the U.S. There is no guarantee of success. You may not be able to find your ancestor's arrival information for a variety of reasons. Some ship passenger lists in this time period may not have survived, and the indexing of these lists may have missed some passengers or misread some names.

Helpful Links...

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

Ship Passenger Lists and Records Online

Finding Passenger Lists Before 1820

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