An Act of Congress passed on 2 March 1819, called An Act to Regulate Passenger Ships and Vessels, required masters of ships arriving at American ports from abroad to submit a list of all ships’ passengers to the Collector of the customs district in which the ship arrived. These lists– Customs Passenger Lists–were collected at all ports of entry from 1820 onwards, and they mark the beginning of official U.S. immigration records. The Act called for a strict enumeration or listing of all ships’ passengers–cabin and steerage passengers, immigrants and non-immigrants–and was thus the mechanism for an epic documentation. Well into the 1890s, Customs Passenger Lists furnish proof of the arrival in the United States of nearly twenty million persons. With the single exception of federal census records they are the largest, the most continuous, and the most uniform body of records of the entire century.
Under the 1819 Act, ships’ masters were required to deliver a list, or manifest, indicating each passenger’s name, age, sex, occupation, and the country to which he belonged, the country which he intended to inhabit, the name of his ship, his port of embarkation, and the date of his arrival. The lists were kept under the authority of the collectors of the customs at the various ports of entry and were subsequently deposited with the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Eventually they were acquired by the National Archives in Washington, D.C., where they were sorted and arranged by port, date, and ship, and then microfilmed.
Arranged chronologically by port of entry and only partially indexed, these Customs Passengers Lists are somewhat hard to use, even for the early years at the port of New York, where, for example, the existing National Archives index is based on a card index to copies of the original passenger lists rather than an index to the original lists themselves. This compilation by Mrs. Bentley, however, goes a long way to rectifying this situation, as it is a direct transcription of the original microfilmed lists (National Archives Microfilm #237) for the port of New York during the time period 1820 through 1829.
The majority of the passengers arriving in New York at this time were of British or Irish origin (occasionally listed by place of nativity rather than country to which they belonged), and proof of their arrival can be found in no other immigration records of the period. Indeed, this publication is itself utterly unique, and it is not available on CD or in any printed form but this. Here, then, in this one encyclopedic volume are the names of 85,454 passengers with their age, sex, occupation, origin, etc., and the names of the 6,247 ships that brought them to New York. (As a matter of interest, the book contains a separate list of ships with the names of ship masters, ports of embarkation, and dates of arrival.)
Until now these passenger lists have been virtually inaccessible, and no other publication has offered information on this particular group of immigrants. Anyone interested in early 19th-century records, therefore, could do no better than to begin his research here.