Exploring Irish History Through the Famine Files and Other Arrival Records

We’re wrapping up Irish American Heritage Month. Today’s post comes from Chris Gushman, Archives Director, and Dorothy Dougherty, Programs Director, at the National Archives at New York City.

The National Archives and Records Administration’s (NARA) Access to Archival Databases (AAD) launched nearly 20 years ago, providing free public access to several series of government records in the form of datafiles covering a range of subjects. Some of the more popular datafiles are the passenger list indexes that can help the amateur genealogist find an ancestor and scholars to conduct survey research on immigration trends in the covered periods.

One of the datasets is the Records for Passengers Who Arrived at the Port of New York During the Irish Famine, 1/12/1846–12/31/1851. We have highlighted this collection and other research resources on our page about Irish American Heritage Month on Archives.gov. The data includes information on over 600,000 individuals who arrived in New York in that period, about 70 percent of whom were Irish. The manifests vary, but the index entries can include name, age, town of last residence, destination, passenger arrival date, occupation, literacy, native country, transit status, travel compartment, and passenger port of embarkation. The Irish Famine database has two files:

  • Famine Irish Passenger Record Data File (FIPAS), 1/12/1846–12/31/1851
  • List of Ships that Arrived at the Port of New York During the Irish Famine, 1/12/1846–12/31/1851 

AAD, and specifically the Irish Famine File Dataset, is searchable by name. For example, if you searched on the name Doherty, your search would look like this:

Graphical user interface, text, application, email

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And if you click to view record, the details would list out like this:


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The immigration series in AAD came to NARA from the Center for Immigration Studies (CIR), Balch Institute, formerly at Temple University and now affiliated with the Pennsylvania Historical Society. The CIR’s former director, Dr. Ira Glazier (deceased, well remembered in New York City and genealogical circles), deserves tremendous credit for creating these datasets. Lesser known is that through this work, Dr. Glazier and colleagues effectively saved the original records—the customs manifests themselves—from which the data is drawn. For the Port of New York, this rescue entailed what we believe to be the vast majority of the manifests for the entire period they were created by the customs agency, roughly 1820–97. 

The short version of the story is that in the 1940s the New York Customs office turned over the manifests to the National Archives in Washington, DC, to be filmed and indexed as a WPA project. In the 1970s, the originals were slated for disposal after the microfilming—a practice the Archives and other archival repositories no longer follow today. By the early 2000s, Dr. Glazier partnered again with the National Archives at New York City (at the office’s former location at Varick Street in the West Village) to complete his immigration research work.

Even though NARA had the records captured on microfilm, this partnership brought the original manifests back to the Archives, where they were reaccessioned, reboxed, and reinventoried by ship with the assistance of the Italian Genealogical Group and German Genealogy Group of Long Island, NY. When the New York office relocated in 2012/13 to the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House in Lower Manhattan, the manifests were moved to the (much larger) archival storage bays in the National Archives at Philadelphia, where they remain very much in NARA’s permanent collection.  

These days, researchers can access these records in several ways. The family historian can and probably will start from the most recent efforts by NARA digitization partners including Ancestry.com. Ancestry has put all the original NARA microfilm online, and they did their own indexing from it and some image enhancement and cleanup as well. If the researcher is fortunate, the individual she is seeking pulls right up in the index along with a link to the Ancestry scan (again, from the NARA microfilm) of the manifest itself.

Other electronic indexes, including those in AAD, were created in different ways from how Ancestry has done theirs, and we have certainly seen results that were simply not showing in the subscription sites. AAD also captured different data fields than what Ancestry was after. We note again the AAD datasets each covering different time periods and countries of origin: 

  • AAD
    • Data Files Relating to the Immigration of Russians to the United States, 1834–1897
    • Records for Passengers Who Arrived at the Port of New York During the Irish Famine, 1/12/1846–12/31/1851
    • Data Files Relating to the Immigration of Germans to the United States, 1850–1897
    • Data Files Relating to the Immigration of Italians to the United States, 1855–1900

Another great index to the Port of New York customs lists is on the website CastleGarden.org, run by the Battery Conservancy. Dr. Glazier of the Balch Institute spent the latter years of his career at the Conservancy and continued the efforts to get this data out to the public. The Castle Garden database is more of a general index than the Irish Famine database, covering some 11 million immigrants, 1820–97. It launched in summer 2005, 150 years after the opening of Castle Garden itself. (Castle Garden was America’s first formalized immigrant processing center, established to both help control who was coming to the new country and to protect the immigrants from the scam artists who would greet them at a myriad of other points of entry in the city.) We have also seen many instances where a researcher finds “their person” on the Castle Garden site when other avenues had failed. 

Finally, NARA staff will retrieve an original manifest from archival storage if warranted. In a recent example, a researcher had information that his ancestor was on a specific ship on a specific date, yet the online scans he had access to indicated a clear scanning (or filming) error that we eventually found dated back to the original WPA filming—one page was duplicated, and another was missing. First, we went to the microfilm, which showed the same discrepancy. Then, because the manifest is still with us and on our shelves in Philadelphia, we were able to go to the original paper record. The researcher was proven to be absolutely correct. He found his people, and we applauded his persistence. And we once again thanked Dr. Glazier. 

As a final note, continuing the theme of Irish history and immigration (though straying some decades beyond the data in AAD’s Irish Famine database), we bring up the famous story of the 13-year-old Irish girl Annie Moore, the first immigrant to be processed at Ellis Island. Her arrival is recorded in one of these surviving original manifests, for the SS Nevada, arriving January 2, 1892, also among those rescued by Dr. Glazier and now in the National Archives. Annie immigrated along with her brothers Anthony, aged 11, and Philip, aged 9, to New York to live with their parents, who arrived a few years prior and were living in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

SS Nevada Manifest, listing Annie Moore and her brothers, January 2, 1892 (two piece document scanned together). (National Archives Identifier 5753086)

In 2011, in anticipation of moving our office from Varick Street to our new location at the Alexander Hamilton U.S Customs House at One Bowling Green, NY, staff sent select originals to our preservation labs for treatment and digitization. The Annie Moore record was in two pieces and scanned so you could see the full document (as in the picture above). As a result of the conservation treatment, the New York staff were able to display the top piece of the original document for the reopening of the National Archives at New York City, 2013. One view for a full year, in the Welcome Center’s New York on the Record Gallery, it was the first time Annie Moore’s record of arrival at Ellis Island was displayed to the public.

New York On the Record, Annie Moore installed.
New York On the Record, Annie Moore installed, detail.

Learn more about Irish and other arrival records held by the National Archives at New York City at on our web page for Passenger Arrival Lists.

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