Before the advent of commercial transatlantic airline flights in the 1960s, Belgian immigrants arrived in the new world at one of the Atlantic or Gulf Coast seaports in a sailing vessel or steamship. Surviving ship manifests, also known as passenger lists, make it possible for most Belgian-American family historians to discover the details of their ancestor’s voyage to America.
Before we delve into searching for the arrival records of Belgians in various databases and indexes, let’s take a closer look at the history of ship manifests in the United States.
Table of Contents
1820-1890s: Customs Ship Manifests
While there are manifests that go back to colonial America, the systematic recording of passenger arrival information started in 1820, as a result of the Steerage Act, which was approved by the United States Congress on 2 March 1819.
The act required every ship’s captain to
deliver and report, to the collector of the district in which such ship or vessel shall arrive, a list or manifest of all the passengers taken on board of the said ship or vessel at any foreign port of place; in which list or manifest it shall be the duty of the said master to designate, particularly, the age, sex, and occupation, of the said passengers, respectively, the country to which they severally belong, and that of which it is their intention to become inhabitants.1
The lists were handed over to the Collector of Customs in the port of arrival. Their format varied, as each shipping company was able to develop its own format. Some lists were handwritten while others were pre-printed by private printers and sold to the ship companies.
The data for each passenger was succinct: name, sex, occupation, country of origin, and country of intended settlement. Some lists also provided the number of luggage pieces the travelers carried with them.
Many of these early lists of the nineteenth century have survived and are now part of the records of the United States Customs Service, stored in Record Group (RG) 36 at the National Archives. As a result they are often referred to as “customs” passenger lists. All of the surviving customs passenger lists have been microfilmed and subsequently digitized, and can be accessed on genealogy websites such as FamilySearch, Ancestry, and MyHeritage.
For example, the customs manifest of the vessel Samuel Cunard, which arrived in New York on 26 August 1833, included twenty-nine Belgian passengers.2 Among them was the family of John Batiste Massonny, his wife Mary John Massony, and six children ranging in ages from one to thirteen, were from Belgium, and on their way to ‘Belleview, Ohio’ [i.e., Bellevue, Seneca County], with two boxes of luggage.3
The list for the vessel James M. Hicks, which arrived in New Orleans in January 1854, is very similar. Seventy-two of the Hicks’ 135 passengers came from Belgium.4
Rising anti-immigrant sentiment in the United towards the end of the nineteenth century led to increased regulation to restrict immigration, which resulted in some minor changes to the ship manifests.
On 6 May 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers.6 Three months later, on 3 August 1882, an Immigration Act denied entry to the country of “any convict, lunatic, idiot, or any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge.7 A day earlier, Congress had approved the Passenger Act, which established stricter rules and regulations to protect the health and safety of passengers on vessels arriving from foreign ports in the United States. The same law demanded from the masters of vessels entering American ports a list with, for cabin passengers: their names, ages, sex, callings and country of which they were citizens, and for steerage passengers (i.e. most immigrant passengers): their names, ages, sex, callings, native country, and intended destination or location.8 In 1885, the Foran Act prohibited most contract laborers from entering the country, and made the masters of the vessels liable for any transgressions.9
For example, J.B. Frare [or Frere], a 24-year-old glass worker, arrived with his family aboard the SS Westernland in New York City on 8 May 1890. The ship manifests lists the country of which he was a citizen, the country where he was born, and his intended destination. J.B. – quite likely Jean Baptiste – was a Belgian citizen, born in Belgium, and headed to Bridgeton, New Jersey, where he most likely went to work for one of its many glass companies.10
Enforcement of the federal laws remained difficult however as long as there was no federal bureaucracy to oversee the process. Meanwhile, the voices calling for immigration restriction in the nation grew stronger and louder.
As a result, on 3 March 1891, the United States Congress approved a comprehensive Immigration Act which completely overhauled the nation’s immigration policy.
Among other things, the act created the Office of Superintendent of Immigration under the Department of Treasury (renamed the Bureau of Immigration in 1895 and transferred to the Department of Commerce and Labor in 1903) and stipulated that passenger lists needed to be submitted to this federal agency. The law expanded the list of inadmissible aliens to include felons, those with contagious diseases, those whose passage was paid for by anyone else except friends and family, and polygamists. Furthermore it prohibited foreign advertisements to encourage immigration, and instituted a medical examination for every immigrant upon arrival. Finally, unlawful aliens needed to be immediately deported at the expense of the shipping company.12 Once more, the customs manifests were slightly revised to include more information, such as last place of residence, and an assessment of the immigrant’s mental and physical health.
For example, in 1892, Seraphine Martin, a Belgian citizen, born in Belgium, arrived in Boston aboard the SS Philadelphia with her six children. She was en route to Holland, Manitoba. Besides the usual columns, the list also stated whether she had been in America before (no), and whether she was in good bodily and mental condition (yes).13
1893 onwards: Immigration Ship Manifests
The immigration act of 1891 was strict, but still difficult to enforce until, on 3 March 1893, an “Act to Facilitate the Enforcement of the Immigration and Contract-Labor Laws of the United States,” provided immigration inspectors with a more efficient tool to coerce adherence to the new laws.14 A standard and expanded ship manifest entitled “List or Manifest of Alien Immigrants for the Commission of Immigration” with twenty-one questions was introduced, which ship masters needed to provide, not to the customs office, but to the immigration inspectors at every port of arrival. The lists created for the federal immigration officers are now part of the records of the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service, stored in Record Group (RG) 85 at the National Archives. They have been microfilmed, digitized, and can be searched on FamilySearch, Ancestry, MyHeritage, and other similar websites.
With twice the amount of information, these so-called “immigration” passenger lists provide a wealth of evidence for the genealogist. Immigrants had to provide answers to the following twenty-one questions:
- No. on the list
- Name in full
- Age (in years and months)
- Married or single
- Calling or occupation
- Able to read and write
- Last residence
- Seaport for landing in the United States
- Final destination in the United States (State, City or Town)
- Whether having a ticket to such final destination
- By whom passage was paid
- Whether in possession of money. If so, whether more than $20 and how much or $30 or less)
- Whether ever before in the United States, and if so, when and where
- Whether going to join a relative; and if so, what relative, their name and address
- Ever in prison or almshouse or supported by charity, if yes, state when
- Whether a polygamist
- Whether under contract, express or implied to labor in the United States
- Condition of health, mental and physical
- Deformed or crippled, nature and cause
For example, the Belgian Jules Désirant arrived aboard the SS Illinois in Philadelphia on 14 March 1894. The detailed “immigration” ship manifest tells us that Jules, a twenty-year-old married miner from Forchies-la-Marches, a small town in the province of Hainaut, was on his way to McAlister in Indian Territory [Pittsburgh County, Oklahoma], where he was meeting his brother H. Désirant. He had paid for his own passage, had a ticket to his final destination, and was in the possession of more than $20. He had never been in the United States before, had never been in prison or supported by charity, was not a polygamist, did not have a contract for a job waiting for him in Oklahoma [although he probably expected he could find a job at the coal mines near McAlister], and was in good mental and physical health.15
During the early 1900s, a few more changes were made to the form prescribed by the Bureau of Immigration. In 1903, the immigrant passenger manifest was revised by deleting one question, slightly revising three others, and adding two new ones:16
Added: Race or people (note: Belgian arrivals were considered to be “Flemish” or “French,” since “Belgian” or “Walloon” were not on the list of approved races or peoples)
Added: Whether an anarchist
Deleted: seaport of landing in the US
Revised: Whether in possession of
money. If so, whether more than $20 and how much or $30 or less $50, and if less, how much?
Revised: Whether going to join a relative or friend; and if so, what relative or friend,
their his name and address
Whether under contract, express or implied Whether coming by reason of any offer, notification, promise, or agreement, express or implied, to labor in the United States
In 1906, five more questions were added:17
- Color of Hair and Eyes
- Height (feet, inches)
- Marks of Identification
- Place of birth (Country, City or Town)
Finally, in 1907, one more question was added –Name and Complete Address of Nearest Relative or Friend in Country Whence Alien Came – bringing the new total to twenty-eight (not counting the duplicate “no. on list” question on the second page of the manifest).
For example, when Leonard Maenhout arrived at Ellis Island on 23 November 1907, we learn from the manifest that the twenty-three-year-old Leonard and his four-year-old companion Angèle – perhaps his daughter or niece – were both born in Vynckt [i.e. Vinkt, a rural village in the province of East Flanders, not too far from Deinze], and were on their way to meet Leonard’s brother Frans Maenhout who lived at 240 Victoria Street in Waukegan, Illinois, just north of Chicago.18It appears Leonard Maenhout died in Moline, Illinois on 19 January 1967. His obituary does not mention a wife or daughter.19
A Special Case: New York Passenger Lists before 16 June 1897
It is important to note that the early more comprehensive “immigration” passenger manifests of 1893-1897 were lost for New York City – the port where most Belgian immigrants arrived during this era – in a fire at Ellis Island on 14 June 1897. The fire incidentally also destroyed any other records that had been created at Castle Garden, the New York landing depot for immigrants between 1855 and 1890. Fortunately for researchers, the New York “customs” passenger lists were stored elsewhere and have survived. Thus, although “immigration” passenger lists are available from 1893 onwards for Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston, and other smaller ports, they are not available for New York until mid-June 1897. Genealogists must rely on “customs” lists for arrivals prior to that date.20
For example, when Louis De Bisschop arrived at Ellis Island on 3 May 1894, the master of the SS Noordland probably submitted an “immigration” passenger list to the immigration inspectors, but that list no longer exists. Instead, the passenger list that we find on Ancestry or FamilySearch is the familiar “customs” list, which only tells us that Louis was an eighteen-year-old flaxdealer, headed for Marion with two pieces of luggage.21 This must have been Marion, a farming community which is now part of Southington, Connecticut, because that is where we find Louis in the 1900 US census.22 He first worked in a factory, but by 1910 he and his wife had purchased a farm in nearby Cheshire.23
One of the first New York-bound-ships for which we have a detailed “immigration” manifest is the SS Friesland, which arrived on 16 June 1897, the day after the fire. She had more than one hundred Belgians on board.24
Among them were Rosalie Verspille and her 8-year-old son Alois. A search for their names in the “New York Passenger Arrival Lists (Ellis Island), 1892-1924” database on FamilySearch retrieves images of both a customs and an immigration passenger list, because the digitized microfilm publications for both the “customs” and the “immigration” passenger lists overlap by exactly two days.25
From the “customs” list we ascertain that Rosalie and Aloys were natives of Belgium, on their way to Rock Island, Illinois.”New York Passenger Arrival Lists (Ellis Island), 1892-1924,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:JXW6-Y6F : accessed 1 July 2020), manifest SS Friesland, Antwerp, Belgium, to New York City, arriving 16 June 1897, Rosalie and Aloys Verspille; citing NARA microfilm publication M237, roll 675. (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.).[/efn_note]
The “immigration” manifest provides more detailed information: both Rosalie and Aloys were supposedly born in Waarschoot, a village in East Flanders, not too far from Ghent and Eeklo. They were in the possession of $12.50 and a ticket to their final destination, and were meeting her husband and his father, August Saelens, in Rock Island.26
Understanding the legal background and history of United States passenger lists helps genealogists search for records more effectively. In my next post I will share some of the tips and tricks I have learned while navigating the various databases to find arrival records for Belgian Americans.
Cite this post: Kristine Smets, “Finding Belgian Americans in United States’ Passenger Lists. Part I: A Brief History,” The Belgian American, (https://www.thebelgianamerican.com : accessed [date]), posted 14 July 2020.
- An Act regulating passenger ships and vessels, U.S. Statutes at Large, 3 (1819):488-489; digital image, Library of Congress Law Library (https://www.loc.gov/law/help/statutes-at-large/15th-congress/session-2/c15s2ch46.pdf : accessed 25 June 2020).
- “New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1891,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:939V-5P37-LB?cc=1849782&wc=MX62-G68%3A165725901 : accessed 2 July 2020), 020 – 22 Jun 1833-27 Aug 1833 > image 809-810 of 841, manifest Samuel Cunard, Shields, England, to New York, arriving 26 August 1833, roll 20.
- Jean Baptiste Massonnet was a 46-year-old farmer from the village of Vance in Belgian Luxembourg. His wife was Marie-Jeanne Fosty. For more information about this family, see Guy Gallez, “Belgian Families in the Sandusky River Valley, northern Ohio, Seneca, Hancock, Wyandot, Crawford, Huron, Erie and Sandusky Counties at the Time of the Civil War (Part 7),” Belgian Laces 40, no. 156 (2018): 46-47.
- “Louisiana, New Orleans Passenger Lists, 1820-1945,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33SQ-G5VM-NX2?cc=1916009&wc=MFVK-NNL%3A1029673801%2C1029683401 : accessed 2 July 2020), 1820-1902 (NARA M259) > 039b – 18 Jan 1854 – 29 Apr 1854 > image 144-148 of 751, manifest James M. Hicks, Antwerp, Belgium, to New Orleans, arriving 26 January 1854; citing NARA microfilm publications M259 and T905 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.). FamilySearch indexes ship’s name as Philadelphia.
George Frederick Keller, “What Shall We Do With Our Boys?,” The Wasp, 3 March 1882; digital image, Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:What_Shall_We_Do_with_Our_Boys,_by_George_Frederick_Keller,_published_in_The_Wasp_on_March_3,_1882_-_Oakland_Museum_of_California_-_DSC05171.JPG
- An Act to Execute Certain Treaty Stipulations Relating to Chinese,” U.S. Statutes at Large 22 (1882): 58-59; digital image, Library of Congress Law Library (https://www.loc.gov/law/help/statutes-at-large/47th-congress/session-1/c47s1ch126.pdf : accessed 26 June 2020).
- An Act to Regulate Immigration, U.S. Statutes at Large 22 (1882): 214-215; digital image, Library of Congress Law Library (https://www.loc.gov/law/help/statutes-at-large/47th-congress/session-1/c47s1ch376.pdf : accessed 25 June 2020).
- An Act to Regulate the Carriage of Passengers by Sea, U.S. Statutes at Large 22 (1882): 186-191; digital image, Library of Congress Law Library (https://www.loc.gov/law/help/statutes-at-large/47th-congress/session-1/c47s1ch374.pdf : accessed 2 July 2020).
- An Act to Prohibit the Importation and Migration of Foreigners and Aliens under Contract or Agreement to Perform Labor in the United States, its Territories, and the District of Columbia, U.S. Statutes at Large 23 (1885): 322-323; digital image, Library of Congress Law Library (https://www.loc.gov/law/help/statutes-at-large/48th-congress/Session%202/c48s2ch164.pdf : accessed 25 June 2020).
- “New York, Passenger and Crew Lists (including Castle Garden and Ellis Island), 1820-1957,” Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 26 June 2020), manifest SS Westernland, Antwerp, Belgium, to New York, arriving 29 October 1890. For the glass industry in Bridgeton, see Penelope S. Watson, “Bridgeton, New Jersey,” in The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, copyright 2018 (https://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/archive/bridgeton-new-jersey/ : accessed 26 June 2020).
- Grant E. Hamilton, “Where the Blame Lies,” Judge Magazine, 4 April 1891; digital image, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C., https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/97515495/.
- An Act in Amendment to the Various Acts Relative to Immigration and the Importation of Aliens Under Contract or Agreement to Perform Labor, U.S. Statutes at Large 26 (1891): 1084-1086; digital image, Library of Congress Law Library (https://www.loc.gov/law/help/statutes-at-large/51st-congress/session-2/c51s2ch551.pdf : accessed 3 July 2020).
- “Massachusetts, Boston Passenger Lists, 1891-1943,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33S7-9Y7T-99WF?cc=1923995&wc=M6BW-XTY%3A219377801 : accessed 25 June 2020), manifest SS Lake Superior, Liverpool, England, to Boston, Massachusetts, arriving on 14 February 1892, p. 2, line 15-21; citing NARA microfilm publication T843 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.). We find the Martin family eight years later just across the border in Towner County, North Dakota. See 1900 US census, Towner, North Dakota, Population schedule, Township 163, Enumeration District (ED) 183), sheet no. 14 (penned), folio 137A (stamped), dwelling 326, family 330, Peter Martin; citing National Archives Microfilm Publication T623, roll not given.
- An Act to Facilitate the Enforcement of the Immigration and Contract-Labor Laws of the United States, U.S. Statutes at Large 27 (1891): 569-571; digital image, Library of Congress Law Library (https://www.loc.gov/law/help/statutes-at-large/52nd-congress/session-2/c52s2ch206.pdf : accessed 29 June 2020).
- “Pennsylvania, Passenger and Crew Lists, 1800-1962,” database with images, Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 26 June 2020), manifest SS Illinois, Antwerp, Belgium, to Philadelphia, arriving 31 March 1894, p. 4, line 20-23, Jules, Aline, Maria, and Philippine Désirant. For the history of coal mining towns in Oklahoma, see Eric Goostree, “Mining Towns,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture (https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=MI042 : accessed 29 June 2020).
- An Act To regulate the immigration of aliens into the United States, U.S. Statutes at Large 32 (1903): 1213-1222; digital image, Library of Congress Law Library (https://www.loc.gov/law/help/statutes-at-large/57th-congress/session-2/c57s2ch1012.pdf : accessed 29 June 2020).
- An Act to Establish a Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization, and to Provide for a Uniform Rule for the Naturalization of Aliens Throughout the United States, U.S. Statutes at Large 34 (1906): 596-607; digital image, Library of Congress Law Library (https://www.loc.gov/law/help/statutes-at-large/59th-congress/session-1/c59s1ch3592.pdf : accessed 29 June 2020).
- “New York Passenger Arrival Lists (Ellis Island), 1892-1924,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3Q9M-C95R-4SJX?cc=1368704&wc=4XCB-NYB%3A1600372342 : accessed 2 July 2020), Roll 1054, vol 2320-2321, 3 Dec 1907 > image 7-260 of 920, manifest SS Vaderland, Antwerp, Belgium, to New York City, arriving 23 November 1907; citing NARA microfilm publication T715, roll 1054.
- “Leonard Maenhout,” The Dispatch (Moline, Illinois), 29 January 1967, p. 6, col. 6; digital image, Newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com : accessed 8 July 2020).
- Marian L. Smith to Kristine Smets, e-mail, 26 June 2020, “Questions about Customs and Immigrant [sic] Passenger Lists,” Personal Correspondence Folder, TheBelgianAmerican Research Files; privately held by Smets, Baltimore, Maryland.
- “New York Passenger Arrival Lists (Ellis Island), 1892-1924,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33SQ-G1DH-33K?cc=1368704&wc=4FMB-7D7%3A1600262340 : accessed 1 July 2020), Roll 626, 28 Apr 1894-17 May 1894 > image 225-233 of 845, manifest SS Noordland, Antwerp, Belgium, to New York City, arriving 3 May 1894, p. 8, 258, Louis de Bisschop; citing NARA microfilm publication M237, roll 626.
- 1900 US census, Hartford, Connecticut, population schedules, Southington, ED 218, dwelling 238, household 259, Lew De Bischop; digital image, “United States Census, 1900,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:S3HT-DHR9-S2H?cc=1325221&wc=9BQF-T3R%3A1030551001%2C1031031001%2C1031520701 : accessed 14 July 2020), Connecticut > Hartford > ED 218 Southington township (excl. Southington borough) > image 24 of 50; citing NARA microfilm publication T623, roll 139.
- 1910 US census, Cheshire, Connecticut, population schedules, Southington, ED 331, sheet 3B (penned), fol. 82r (stamped), dwelling 53, household 55, Louis Debishop; digital image, “United States Census, 1910,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33S7-9RKM-RR6?cc=1727033&wc=QZZ4-FCS%3A133637401%2C137763101%2C133784801%2C1589092430 : accessed 14 July 2020), Connecticut > New Haven > Cheshire > ED 331 > image 6 of 40; citing NARA microfilm publication T624, roll 136.
- “New York Passenger Arrival Lists (Ellis Island), 1892-1924,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3QS7-99ND-LL59?cc=1368704&wc=4FMB-7KL%3A1600302329 : accessed 1 July 2020), Roll 1, vol 1-2, 16 Jun 1897-30 Jun 1897 > image 131-139 of 674, manifest SS Friesland, Antwerp, Belgium, to New York City, arriving 16 June 1897; citing NARA microfilm publication T715, roll 1.
- NARA microfilm publication M237 ([Customs] Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York 1820-97) ends with lists for vessels arriving on 17 June 1897. Publication T715 ([Immigration] Passenger and Crew List of Vessels Arriving at New York, NY, 1897-1957) starts with manifests for ships arriving on 16 June 1897.
- “New York Passenger Arrival Lists (Ellis Island), 1892-1924,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:JX4Z-94Q : accessed 1 July 2020), manifest SS Friesland, Antwerp, Belgium, to New York City, arriving 16 June 1897, Rosalie and Aloys Verspille; citing NARA microfilm publication T715, roll 1. We find the family reunited in the 1900 US census at 1529 42nd street. Unfortunately, it appears that Rosalie died before that year was over of typhoid fever on 13 December 1900. See 1900 US census, Rock Island, Illinois, population schedules, Rock Island township, ED 123, dwelling 124, household 141, August Sealens; digital image, “United States Census, 1900,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:S3HY-6SGS-H54?cc=1325221&wc=9B7T-2JM%3A1030552601%2C1036027301%2C1036046101 : 5 August 2014), Illinois > Rock Island > ED 123 Rock Island township, Election Precinct 2 Rock Island city Ward 7 > image 13 of 40; citing NARA microfilm publication T623, roll 339. For Rosalie’s death, see “Mrs. Saelens is Dead; Baby is Motherless,” Moline Daily Dispatch, 13 December 1900, p. 4, col. 6.