Understanding Passenger Lists

Genealogy can provide us a lot more than a mere list of names and dates plunging back endlessly into History. In an interview I recently read, a professional genealogist expressed her opinion that she prefers to investigate personal details about a handful of her ancestors rather than trace her ancestry so remotely that those names and dates eventually come to mean absolutely nothing to her. I suppose she does have a point. So yesterday, making good use of my first day on holiday, I spent the entire day hunchbacked over my computer tirelessly trying to recover data about my Italian-American side of the family.

The second Ellis Island Immigration Station, in 1905. A previous building was destroyed by fire in 1897.

Most of the documents I checked were passenger lists available on Ancestry-co.uk, though you may be able to find certain facts for free on Ellisisland.org. All the documents I checked were post-1900; his gave me a unique chance to peruse through fairly modern data and obtain several interesting pieces of information which only the key players in this story would have been able to tell me. As they are no longer around, I felt as if they were almost talking to me through these simple passenger lists.

Passenger lists for travellers who entered the United States via Ellis Island (NY) up to approximately the late 1920’s offer several interesting details about those who emigrated to the New World at the turn of the century. Obviously details like name, age, profession and place of origin are the starting point for any genealogist tracing a migrant ancestor, but what is even more revealing about them is, on the one hand, their physical appearance, thus giving us details that no birth or death record would provide us with, and secondly, the address where that person in particular was going to stay after reaching his destination. This gave me many more clues than I had imagined.

A passenger list can offer interesting details about your migrant ancestors.

Knowing that my great-grandmother had two, possibly more siblings, I immediately keyed in her maiden name and place of origin. Coming from a tiny village in the North of Italy, I suspected I would be able to narrow down my findings if I saw someone with the same name and an approximate year of birth. Bingo! In 1909 a man with her same surname and naming her father as his father and next of kin (thus confirming that they were brother and sister) gave me an interesting clue: my great-grandmother’s older brother emigrated to New York City three years before she crossed the Atlantic for the first -and last- time. He gave a temporary New York address, which in itself told me nothing, but later moved to another apartment on 9th Avenue, Manhattan. Not exactly Little Italy, but further research showed that the building must have been roaming in Italians, eager to start a new life in the United States. The 1910 census, taken in the month of April, confirmed this.

My great-grandfather himself emigrated to New York from his home town in 1910, only months after his future brother-in-law had gone to America. Up to that point I doubt the two young men, of similar age, would have known each other before emigrating, coming as they did from different, albeit nearby villages in Italy. However the presence of the same address on 9th Avenue and the fact that they were both staying with the same person indicates that they met through a common friend, perhaps a common relative even.

Mulberry Street, the heart of Little Italy, Manhattan, around 1900.

What is even more revealing is that by 1912 my great-grandmother went to New York and stayed, of course, at the same address. I do not have proof that her future husband was still living there at that time, but surely the two would have easily met if they shared friends and acquaintances. I can picture my 17 year-old great-grandmother feeling besotted by the attentions of her fellow countryman, my great-grandfather, who was almost ten years her senior.

Further research has proven that my great-grandfather left the United States once, but returned to New York in 1915. The passenger list for this trip shows a small, scribbled date which indicates when my great-grandfather exited the US in order to return to Italy. Was he engaged to my great-grandmother by then? If so, it must have been a long engagement, for it took him two years to go back to New York. But finally, five months after his arrival, the couple married, presumably in the presence of many of those people mentioned in the passenger lists I browsed. My great-grandfather was the immediate result of their union.

My great-grandfather left the US at least once again in September 1923, three years after the untimely death of his young wife, who passed away aged just 24. He returned to America in 1924 but left again shortly afterwards to marry in Italy for a second time. He became a naturalised American citizen in 1927 (the passenger list for this trip re-entering the US after his second wedding is missing) and a few months after, his wife joined him in New York. His son, my grandfather, had been sent back to Italy in 1920, the same year his mother died, in all probability to be raised by the child’s paternal grandmother. He too joined his father and step-mother in 1928, when he was already aged 12; the passenger list confirms the year when he left America. To a young boy like him, leaving the provincial village in Italy to resume his life in America with his father must have been an overwhelming experience. But that’s another story…

This entry was posted in 1910 US Census, Death, Emigration, Engagement, Genealogy, Italy, Marriage, Ships, United States. Bookmark the permalink.

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