Family Tree Friday: Why do immigration records start in 1820?

Family historians generally know that federal immigration records begin in 1820, but has anyone stopped to wonder why?  Well, it all began with the Steerage Act of March 2, 1819 (which went into effect on January 1, 1820).  Traveling conditions aboard ocean-going vessels were anything but good in the early 19th century, especially for general passengers (it was essentially an unregulated industry).  Concerned about overcrowded conditions on foreign vessels coming into the U.S., Congress decided to impose regulations to ensure the safety and well-being of immigrants.  Specifically, the Steerage Act limited the number of passengers aboard incoming vessels to 2 persons per every 5 tons of ship burthen or weight.  A $150 fine was imposed for every passenger exceeding a ship’s legal limit, and a vessel was subject to outright seizure by U.S. authorities if it carried more than 20 passengers illegally.
An early Baltimore Ship manifest from June 1834, showing the passenger information required by the Steerage Act of 1819.
An early Baltimore Ship manifest from June 1834, showing the passenger information required by the Steerage Act of 1819.

Concerning health issues, the Act called for each vessel entering the U.S. to carry a specific quantity of provisions for each passenger, above and beyond any supplies already stowed on board by the master and crew.  The enumerated supplies included 60 gallons of water, 100 lbs. of salted provisions, 1 gallon of vinegar, and 100 lbs. of wholesome ship bread.  If supplies proved deficient, each passenger was entitled by law to $3 per day compensation.  After all these regulations were spelled out, the final section of the Act required vessel masters to report specific information about each passenger to U.S. Customs agents, including their name, age, sex, occupation, country of origin, and place of destination in the U.S.  The Steerage Act regulated immigration into the U.S. until it was essentially replaced by the more comprehensive Immigration Act of 1882 (more on that next time!)

10 thoughts on “Family Tree Friday: Why do immigration records start in 1820?

  1. it was looking for an Italian immigrant that must have arrived in the been about the year 1800 the name is Argenta Natalio.
    Many thanks

    1. Hi Igor,

      Since the Federal government did not start tracking immigration until 1820, you would need to contact the appropriate state archives, depending on the port of arrival, to locate earlier passenger manifests. In some cases, city archives (if they exist) might also hold earlier arrival records.

  2. Natalio (name) Argenta (surname) was an Italian soldier of Garibaldi’s army that was shot in Cuba in 1880, 34 years old, so he came to US much later than 1820, and then transferred to Cuba. He is said to have been born in the town of Bergamo, but we couldn’t find any info about him in this place, so we are searching to know something more. He should have been disembarked in NY, we don’t know in what year. Can anyone help us?

    1. Antonio,

      Without knowing at least an approximate date and port of arrival, it’s probably going to be very difficult to identify when Natalio Argenta came to the U.S. He doesn’t show up in an index search of New York passenger arrivals on (these are a digitized version of the same records NARA has on microfilm). You may want to try searching information on, which offers a database of information on 11 million immigrants from 1820 through 1892. If he doesn’t show up there, it might be necessary for you to expand your search to other ports of entry (Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, etc.), all of which can also be searched on Ancestry.


    1. Hi Marie,

      Do you know where George McCrackan settled once he arrived in the US? If so, you may be able to make an educated guess at his port of entry. This doesn’t always work, but if he lived in New York City, for example, I’d guess New York City as the port of arrival. You can request a search from us using NATF Form 81, but you will have to provide a port of arrival to be searched.

      If you have access to, you can search all of the various ports at one time. We make Ancestry available at all of our facilities, and many public libraries also make it available to their patrons.

      You should also take a look at our Immigration records webpage – it lists the various ports, and you may get some ideas.

      Good luck with your research! If you have any questions, you can always contact us at

      – Katherine

    2. Hi Marie, Let me just reinforce Katherine’s reply–In general, most immigrants from the United Kingdom, especially in the 19th century, usually came into the US through New York, so you should definitely start your search there. If you’re not successful, then branch out to the nearby major ports, including Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Boston. Good luck!

      – John

  3. I am looking for a passenger list to view my mother-in-law Elsie Dawkins who travelled from Jamaica to Liverpool. She Arrived here September 1947 on the TETELA. Can anyone help please.

    1. Hi Daphne,

      The U.S. National Archives maintains ship passenger records for arrivals into United States ports:
      If your mother-in-law arrived at a U.S. port in 1947, we may have the records; however, we would not have the records for an arrival into Liverpool. You will likely have to contact the United Kingdom National Archives for such records:

      Good luck with your research!
      Meredith (admin)

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