Mining for Genealogy Gold: U.S. Passport Applications

Have you seen one of those old westerns where the miner is panning for gold and then shouts “I’m rich” and dances around like a kid on Christmas morning? Well, the modern-day version of that thrill can happen to you when you mine the U.S. passport applications. 

For years, the name of my third-great grandfather remained elusive. All I knew was that he was from England. As an avid family researcher, I had mined more data than you can imagine looking for his name; but, I always came up empty. He became one of those frustrating brick walls. 

Then one night, while sitting in the dark at my computer (like other genealogists), I decided to give it another try. This time I relied on a family story that my second-great grandmother had returned to England to visit her father before his death. I wasn’t sure when that trip happened, because I didn’t know his date of death.

So I thought to myself, why not look for my grandmother’s passport application. I opened the online passport database and searched. There it was, my second-great grandmother’s application. And on it a priceless gold nugget, her father’s name.

It was one of those moment’s in your genealogy research you don’t soon forget, I had hit it rich! The passport application was a gold mine of information. 

History of passports

U.S. passport applications are an excellent source of genealogical information and date back to the colonial period, starting in October 1795. Early passports were used not only for overseas travel, but to provide safe passage between certain parts of the United States, such as the Spanish-held areas of the Mississippi Valley and Indian territories.  

Passports weren’t just for wealthy aristocrats, they were necessary for all types of travel and issued to business people, soldiers, the middle class, and immigrants returning to their homelands to visit relatives. 

Although the majority of passports were issued to men, many women traveled overseas. If the male applicant was to be accompanied by his wife, children, servants, or other relatives under his protection, their names, ages, and relationship to the applicant were stated on the passport application. A single application included the entire group. 

The earliest passport applications were generally handwritten letters, but by the 1860s they were submitted on printed forms. 

Although the U.S. Department of State was the governmental agency responsible for issuing passports, they were also issued by governors, notaries public, Spanish office holders, and even prominent U.S. citizens. It wasn’t until Aug. 23, 1856, that only the Department of State was allowed to issue passports. 

While most U.S.-born and naturalized citizens traveled overseas with a passport to ensure safe passage to their destination and back to the United States, as a general rule, they were not required until June 21, 1941, when the passport law was enacted. However, there were exceptions to this rule during periods of the Civil War and World War I. 

Gold nuggets

Early passports were very basic and contained only a limited amount of information. Overtime, the format of the application evolved and they became more detailed.

In the example above, Asa Gray’s passport application contains several gold nuggets. We learn he was born in Paris, Oneida county, New York, in 1810. He applied for his passport on Aug. 17, 1868. We are given a good description of his stature, face, hair, and complexion. Then, a huge golden nugget is discovered. Asa Gray was a Cambridge Professor of Natural History at Harvard University. Unfortunately, we don’t know why or where he planned to use his passport. 

This passport application is for Charles Herbert Gray, born Oct. 30, 1900, in Chicago, Illinois. Immediately you spot the most a treasured golden nugget, his photograph.

But we also learn his father was Thomas William Gray, who was still living at the time of his son’s application.  

By reading the entire application, you learn Charles was about to embark on a journey to Europe and South America, while performing secretarial work on a yacht named “OHIO.” He planned to depart July 15, 1924. Then the application reveals some more personal details: Charles stood 5’ 11”, he had a light complexion and a mole on his left wrist.

Once you read Charles’ application, you go “wow,” at age 23 this young man was traveling around the world on a private yacht. As a family researcher, you are compelled to learn more.

Using the passport hints we are able to discern that Charles Gray was the son of Thomas W. Gray and Elizabeth McHugh. The private yacht, OHIO, he traveled on was owned by wealthy, entrepreneurial journalist Edward W. Scripps, who organized various papers into the first modern newspaper chain, delivering content to 400 newspapers in 1920.

Even more gold

Later passport applications offer even more information for family researchers to discover. 

  • Name of applicant
  • Birth date or age
  • Birthplace
  • Marital status
  • Father’s or husband’s name
  • Father’s of husband’s birth date or age
  • Father’s of husband’s birthplace
  • Father’s or husband’s residence
  • Wife’s name
  • Date of immigration 
  • Date of naturalization, and where and what court
  • Possible information about children and other relatives
  • Physical description, with no photograph; or Photograph, required with applications since Dec. 21, 1914
  • Occupation
  • Current residence and length of residency 
  • Foreign destination(s)
  • Reason for travel
  • Length of time intending to be out of the U.S.
  • Port of departure 
  • Name of vessel 
  • Date of departure
  • Witness’ statement and signature
  • Oath of Allegiance statement
  • Applicant’s signature
  • Date of application or issuance of passport

Where to search

Regular passport applications from Oct. 17, 1795, to March 31, 1925 have been microfilmed and indexed, and are archived in two collections at the National Archives and Records Administration. 

These two collections, consisting of more than 3 million passport applications, can be searched and applications viewed using Ancestry.com (subscription), FamilySearch.org (free), FindMyPast.com (subscription), or Fold3.com (subscription). 

Paper copies of passport applications from April 1, 1925, to the present can be ordered from the U.S. Department of State, Research and Liaison Branch, 1111 19th Street NW, Suite 200, Washington, DC 20522-1705.

Search tips

  • Fill in the search boxes with the information you know (i.e., name on the passport, date of birth date, place of birth, state or country where they applied).  
  • Search for periods covering an individual’s entire lifetime. Generally, passports were only valid for two years, so someone may have multiple applications. 
  • Never assume an individual never traveled overseas, foreign travel was much more common than one might expect.
  • If looking for a married woman, trying searching using her husband’s name.  
  • Look for variant name spellings. 
  • Try searching using nicknames and abbreviated names.  
  • If you cannot find your ancestor using the name search feature, and you have lots of time on your hands, you can search through the image files by paging through the collection by date.

If this article was helpful, let us know in the comment section below.

Article References 

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