Using Ancestry: U.S. Passport Applications, 1795-1925, by Juliana Smith

U.S. Passport Janos Jenos SzucsFor those of us with ancestors who traveled, it’s time to put on our dancing shoes and do a little “family history happy dance.” Ancestry has posted a database of U.S. passport applications, and it encompasses an amazing group of records, many of which include photographs of the applicants. This database really needs to come with the warning, “Caution: These records have the ability to consume entire afternoons and evenings and cause you to neglect your work for hours, resulting in missed deadlines.” Seriously. You would not believe the hours I spent in this database reading about people–most of whom weren’t even related to me!

I found information on some individuals that will be a dream-come-true for many family historians. What struck me most were the stories. Because many of the records included the reason for the passport request, we really get a unique look at the applicants that we may not find in other records.

A Bit of History
In one 1846 record, I found a collection of handwritten letters requesting a passport on behalf of a Benjamin V.R. James. The first letter, written 11 June 1846 in New York reads,

“Mrs. Codwise and some other ladies of our city have formed a society called the Liberian School Society for the establishment and support of schools in Africa. They have lately engaged a very respectable colored man named Benjamin V.R. James to go out as a teacher and superintendent of one of their schools. He is an intelligent, pious, and dignified man and for some weeks, since my family has gone into the country has occupied the basement of my house in St. Mark’s Place. It is desirable that he should have a passport from the Secretary of State’s office and I should be much obliged if you would procure it and thus contribute your quota toward the benevolent object of the ladies.”

This entry would be of interest to both the Codwise and James family descendants.

Wish This Was My Janos
The 1924 record of Janos Jeno Szucs caught my eye since we have three generations of Janos/John Szucs in our family. (Click on the image to see two pages from this record.)  It includes an “Affidavit to Explain Protracted Foreign Residence and to Overcome Presumption of Noncitizenship.” The document reveals that he had been living in Felsogagy, Hungary, and in it Janos states that,

“I was brought back to Hungary by my mother in 1900 when I was one year old and have ever since resided with her. Owing to lack of funds I could not return earlier to the United States. I have three times been called upon to perform military service but was found physically unfit for such service.”

The document goes on to give the names and addresses of his cousin, Steve Dvoracaki, and uncle, Stephen Kokai, in the United States. An affidavit is provided by another apparent relative, Lajos Kokai, a native of Budapest, Hungary. That same page lists Janos’s baptismal certificate–“issued by the Holy Ghost Church of So. Bethlehem, Pa.”–as an identifying document and goes on to says that he’ll be joining his cousin Steve in Niles, Ohio. There is also a photograph of Janos.

What a wealth of information on the family! And I couldn’t help but think how confusing he might be to research without the details contained in this document.

Something for My Own Family
I did manage to find one of my relatives in this database. My mom was adopted by her mother’s sister and her husband when she was very young, and she grew up with that family. Her uncle, who we always called Grandpa Pyburn, was a mining engineer in Mexico. His passport record is six pages long and includes a photograph of him from 1919 when he was twenty-five. Among the other cool things I found in his file was an affidavit from his father with his father’s signature and included dates and places of birth for both of them. Their address in 1919 is also included, as well as the name of the company Grandpa worked for.

Grandpa Pyburn worked in Mexico for many years and although he was married in 1923 in Brooklyn, he does not appear in the 1930 census because he was working outside the U.S. And he certainly wasn’t the only one who found employment outside U.S. borders.

Working Outside the U.S.
In browsing through entries for other surnames in our family tree, I ran across a record for George Sterling Dyer, also in the mining industry–although his work took him to Siberia. (Brrrr! I think Grandpa Pyburn had the right idea!)

Following Mr. Dyer’s passport, is a request for his wife Carrie (along with her photograph) and an amendment that states, “it is necessary for me to have included in my passport my two minor children, Florence and Jessamine.” A photo of the two girls is on that page as well.

Another businessman, Michael Dyer was headed to Havana, Cuba, with his wife and son. Their passports followed his and an added bonus is Michael’s date and place of birth–Brackloon, Ballyhaunis, Ireland, on 29 September 1865.

Traveling to Settle Estates
I found two records of individuals returning home to settle family estates. Not only does the usual information provide clues, but the reason for their traveling could give you a clue as to the death date of a parent or other family member.

In the record of Marius Nielson I found a reminder of the effects of war. He was returning to Denmark in November 1919 because, “both parents died during the War and I must visit the home relative to settling [sic] the estate.”

Using This Database
The records in this database cover more than a century of records and the content will vary by era. Earlier records that I viewed tended to be a little sparser in content but typically contained the age of the applicant. And if you can identify an ancestor in these records you will likely be rewarded with a good description of that person, since they didn’t have photographs to identify people in those days.

You’ll want to search for everyone in the family too. You may find your ancestor signing as a witness for a brother, sister, or some other collateral relative, and in many of the records, those providing affidavits typically also listed their address.

As I mentioned earlier, there is usually more than one page pertaining to each applicant, so be sure to click through to the next image and back to the previous records to see if there is additional information or other family members. I also found a number of instances like the Dyer example above where other family members’ applications followed.

Use Census in Tandem
Finding Grandpa Pyburn’s passport application brought back a flood of memories. I remember when we would visit him he would take me to the grocery store with him–just the two of us–in his car that I thought was very cool because it had a push-button gear shift. And he would always let me go on the rides in the front of the Piggly Wiggly grocery store. I watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon with him in his den. When I was growing up, he was the only one who always called me Juliana–although it was also occasionally used when I was in trouble for something.

The memories prompted me to revisit his family history, and I even managed to find his father’s family in the 1880 census–a record that had evaded me for years–using the birth date his father gave on the affidavit. (They were enumerated as Pylerson thanks to an enumerator with crummy handwriting.)

I now have the Pyburn family in censuses going back to 1860. I even found Grandpa Pyburn’s grandfather in the New York Emigrant Savings Bank database that gave his place of birth as County Cork, Ireland, his arrival in the U.S in 1851, and his wife’s name, Mary Ryan.

Coincidentally my mother recently discovered some letters from Grandpa’s father in her files and I can’t help but think that it’s appropriate that all these things are surfacing at this time of year, as the 20th of November marked the 28th anniversary of his death. Although he was not a blood relation, he is definitely an important part of our family history.

What Stories Have You Found?
I’m sure you’re going to have some fun with this database too. Please let us know what kind of gems you find in the comments section below.

Click here to access the U.S. Passport Applications database.

Click here for a printer friendly view of this article.

Juliana Smith has been an editor of Ancestry newsletters for more than nine years and is author of “The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book.” She has written for “Ancestry” Magazine and wrote the Computers and Technology chapter in “The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy,” rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e- mail at Juliana@Ancestry.com, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.

 

20 thoughts on “Using Ancestry: U.S. Passport Applications, 1795-1925, by Juliana Smith

  1. Hi there,

    I was so excited that the passport aps were going to go up. Waited and jumped right in the day they were posted.

    My gr. grandfather George Patrick Flanagan, b. app. 1872, came to the US with my gr. grandmother in 1898. He became a naturalized citizen.

    After his wife died, he returned to Ireland and in six months he was dead in 1922.

    I have in vain sought his Ellis Island arrival. No luck. So I thought hey… he HAD to have had a passport to go back to Ireland.

    I have entered every sort of name, place, (connecticut and NY) and other info but no luck at all. Bummer. I am really starting to believe that he deserted the Irish Army or something and snuck in and out of the US. I’ve found him on the census with the above naturalization and entry info, so I do know that. Other than the census and a letter from Ireland from his brother to my grandmother, George Patrick Flanagan seems to perhaps have traveled under a different name.

  2. I found my husband’s grandfather, William J. Keleghan,I in the passport database. It was a wonderful find, because we had no pictures of him that young (26 years old). I had found him on a passenger list returning to the US from Le Havre, France in 1919 and thought he was returning from WWI, especially because I had found his WWI draft card. The passport application shows that he had “deficient” eyesight and was not suitable for service and that he needed the passport to work as a bookkeeper for the Red Cross in France during the duration of the war. So now we have more information on his work and military history.

  3. I checked out the US Passport site. Much to my surprise I found a great great Aunt Maude that I didn’t know existed. She applied for a passport as an entertainer for the Soldiers with America’s Over There Theater League under the YMCA (world war 1). Her picture was attached. She was an actress and concert singer living in New York City, New York.
    Her sister Grace was the Supervisor of Music for the State of Massachusetts. Her sister Ida graduated from a state college, married and had three daughters that sang under the name of Purcell Trio. Other children played the violin. One child Ruth played the violin at age 3 with a violin that was specially made for her. Her brother-in-law Eben plyed the piano and the cornet.

  4. I love the site!! I found a great aunt with a picture. I printed it out and sent it to a cousin and her granddaughter. I know some cousins traveled before 1925 but cannot not find them. I wonder how I do find them. Is Ancestry still updating? Winnie

  5. I searched for my grandparents in the passport applications and came up empty. They took an extended trip to Europe in 1909 for their honeymoon, leaving from San Francisco. I looked up both their names (my grandmother’s maiden name)and there was no record. Is it possible that not all records are listed?

  6. Dear Julia,
    I have Hungarian heritage that is hard to trace as well…my great grandfather was Janos Horvath and when I was trying to find him in the information in Toledo OH, there were 8 distinct Janos Horvaths and none of them were my ded apam. Any hints besides this database of passports for uncovering our common named ancestors? I can not find them on the ship manefests either as the family story says that he came to the US with my great-grandma Anne/Anna and my great-aunt Anna-aged 4 years old in 1904. The reason was for better opportunities and he was a member of a deposed military unit that had to leave north-east Hungary from the Meszokovesd area. Ded anyam’s maiden name was some form of Csuhai and is a common name in that city’s area but as you might know she would have been listed as Horvath, Janosne. I appreciate any suggestions that you could post for me and those of us with Hungarian ancestors. Sincerely, Elaine

  7. I agree. This is a great addition to the databases at Ancestry.com. I have photos of people for whom I never would have found photos, it has filled in birth dates and places for wives of some of the males in my family tree, it has also helped me place people in or around 1890.I find the physical descriptions and the reasons for travel interesting as well. I’ve had a lot of fun with this database.

  8. This truly is a fantastic collection ! I have actually seen most of the applications that include my family already. I did this through the old methods and it was expensive and time consuming !! Now these are indexed and can be searched in a number of ways. Because of this index, I was able to find some other family members whom I didn’t realize had applied for a passport.

  9. I love the site however, I noticed that it said there were naturalization papers enclosed for proof. I went to the county of naturalization but could not find anything. One other problem is that there were no census records that backed up the ones that I found. Any suggestions? Thanks you.

  10. I had been anticipating the arrival of the passport listing on the ancestry.com website. I was very pleased to find passport aps for a married couple in my husband’s family tree. The information helped to clarify the date of birth for the woman and also listed the date & county of her naturalization. I will now search for her naturalization records!

  11. Thanks Ancestry and Juliana, this database just knocked down my very old brickwall of finding the ancestral home for my Great grandparents in Germany. One of their children listed his birthplace on a passport application. He was the only one of seven kids that applied for a passport and I still have no proof that he actually used it. But no matter – he applied thank goodness! Thanks again.

  12. Sirs: Please give me the address for the passport site. I have read and looked but can’t seem to find it.It’s probably right in front of me.

    Thank you so much.Bee

  13. Last week, I checked the new U.S. Passport Applications part of Ancestry. I was so thrilled to find my great grandfather’s brother and many of the other Hudel family members. No wonder I could not find these Germans in the U.S.–several members were working and living in Mexico, where Gustav Hudel was overseeing a flour mill! The family owned a mill in Germany for centuries, so this really makes sense.The information is so detailed, so many clues are given, and the photos are priceless.
    Everyone should check this site for your ancestors, and don’t forget to go to the next page as I missed this until reading this article.

  14. How do I find this website? I am not sure what date my grandfather and grandmother came from Austria-Hungary. And Eterovich & Sorich are very common names. Thank you.

  15. I see that a number of folks are asking how to find the website.

    go to http://www.ancestry.com and look at the right side of the page. You will see a link for US Passport applications.

    You must be a member of ancestry.com to do this. There is info on the home page that tells you how to join.

  16. I found the passport applications to be very exciting. I found my gg grandfather’s brother’s grandson and I immediately sent it to another cousin who told me yes he and some other agriculture students from University of Tennessee had gone on a cattle boat to Europe. While in Scotland or Ireland he met relatives and that family has pictures he took….I have yet to see them but maybe one day soon. Thanks for this great site.

  17. I have searched for years for the origin in Ireland of my husband’s ggrandparents. Lo and Behold, I found GGrandmother’s Passport Application to travel to Santiago,Cuba with her daughter whose husband was being transferred with the USMC.I had no idea that GGrandmother lived with her daughter. On the application was her home of County Clare and her deceased husband’s home of County Cork with his immigration date and the fact that he was naturalized. All of that in one evening. I feel as though I have won the lottery!

  18. I, too, had a success with the passport applications. My great-grandfather’s brother returned to Italy in 1921 “to settle estate” (sadly, no details on whose estate this is). Comparing the picture of him to one of my great-grandfather, I can definitely see a family resemblance!

    Several people noted that they were unable to find passport applications for relatives that they know traveled abroad; however, passports have only been required for international travel since 1941, as well as between 1915-21 and 1862-63. My great-grandmother traveled to France in 1924, and I wasted several hours searching for every possible permutation of her name until I found this out!

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