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Passport applications can prove a mine of records riches

SHARON TATE MOODY Tribune correspondent
Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 05:28 AM

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People who sought sanctuary in the American colonies or in the new United States probably didn't envision themselves or their descendants traveling back to the mother country.

But many did return to Europe, Asia or Africa, and researchers should always explore the possibility that their ancestors were globetrotters, adventurers or budding genealogists.

Except during a part of the Civil War in the early 1860s and a few years after World War I ended in 1918, the law didn't require U S. citizens to have passports until 1941. However, many citizens heeded the government's suggestion and carried passports overseas anyway.

Officials can't account for all early applications, but from 1810 to 1925, the State Department issued more than 1.5 million passports. They are housed at the National Archives in Washington.

For the most part, the government issued passports only to citizens. For brief periods (1863 to 1866 and 1907 to 1920) the government also issued passports to aliens who had officially declared their intent to become citizens.

Although the majority of the applicants were men, women can be found in the records. If women traveled with their husbands, employers or other male protectors, they were listed on the man's application. When a man and his family and servants traveled together, they did so under a single passport issued to the man. The others, however, were fully described on the application.

Ripe with personal data

Those records hold valuable genealogical information, such as dates and places of birth, full physical descriptions, and occupations. The foreign destination is stated on some applications.

Naturalized citizens had to provide the date and state where they became citizens and the date and ship on which they immigrated to the United States.

The physical descriptions are especially interesting and valuable. For example, Francis Armstrong described himself as 5-foot-9; having dark hair with gray; gray eyes; a light complexion; and stoutly made, with a full forehead and a "rather large nose."

It was not until December 1914 the government required photographs.

Original passport applications are at the National Archives in Washington. Microfilmed versions are available in some regional archives facilities. Researchers can consult the microfilm catalog ( www.archives.gov) to locate those facilities.

The really good news, however, is that Footnote.com has digitized all of these applications. Researchers with personal subscriptions can access the database online from home. Those with Hillsborough County library cards can access them from the library's website, www.thpl.org, by clicking on "Databases and websites," selecting "Genealogy" and then "Footnote.com." The records are listed alphabetically.

Details, details, details

Here are examples of the information we can find in them:

In May 1855, Anna B. Miesse applied for a passport to join her husband, Johnathan Miesse, a doctor of medicine, in Paris. The application revealed that her husband was born in Benks County, Pa., but in 1855 he was a resident of Chillicothe, Ohio. She was born in New York in April 1819. She also stated that she was a graduate of the Female Medical College of Philadelphia and was a practitioner of medicine. She was to travel with Jacob S. Alwood, a "well-known banker at No. 8 Wall Street."

Also in 1855, Francis R. Armstrong asked for a passport, stating he was "desirous of visiting Ireland, the land of his nativity." He stated he came to the country "very young" and became a citizen in November 1815 in New York City. In 1855 he was a resident of Hampshire County, Va.

In July 1901, Harris Yacknowitz applied for passports for himself, his wife and their two children. In the process he gave his own and his wife's dates and place of birth (Bialystok, Russia), and his son and daughter's dates and place of birth (New York City).

He also wrote that he came to the United States aboard the Fulda, which sailed from Bremen (Germany) in 1883. From his arrival to the application date, he had lived in New York City, working as a tailor. The application did not reveal where the family planned to travel, but he did pledge they would return to the United States.

As with all genealogical research, assumptions are dangerous. A researcher may know that his direct ancestor did stay home on the farm. But remember that looking at collateral relatives is a sound genealogy research strategy. Imagine that at least one great aunt or uncle was an adventurous vagabond whose passport application could hold clues to his siblings' roots.


Sharon Tate Moody is a board-certified genealogist. Send your genealogy questions and event announcements to her in care of Getaway, The Tampa Tribune, 200 S. Parker St., Tampa FL 33606 or stmoody0720@mac.com. She regrets that she is unable to assist with

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