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Passport Records

Early passports were not only used for overseas travel, but also were concerned with safe passage and the concepts of identity, nationality, and allegiance.  They also helped ensure the safe passage of goods and merchandise, ships, and even to regulate a soldier's leave.

The U.S. Department of State as of 1789 was the authority for issuing American passports.  However, some governors of individual states, notaries public, Spanish office holders, and even prominent citizens issued passports to allow travel within what is now the United States or outside of the jurisdiction of the U.S., i.e., Florida (Spanish territory), Mexico, the Caribbean, Europe, and the Indian Territory.  It wasn't until 23 August 1856 that only the Department of State was allowed to issue passports.

Foreign travel in the nineteenth century was much more frequent than one might expect. Overseas travelers included businessmen, the middle class, and naturalized U.S. citizens who returned to their homelands to visit relatives. For example, statistics show that the State Department issued 130,360 passports between 1810 and 1873, more than 369,844 between 1877 and 1909, and more than 1,184,085 between 1912 and 1925. It is unknown how many American citizens traveled abroad with passports issued by state or judicial authorities prior to 1856 or without any passport prior to 1918.

Although 95 percent of mid-19th century passport applicants were men, many women also traveled overseas. If the applicant was to be accompanied by his wife, children, servants, or other females under his protection, their names, ages, and relationship to the applicant were stated on the passport application. One passport was then issued to cover the whole group. Likewise, when children traveled abroad solely with their mother, their names and ages were indicated on the mother's passport application. Passport applications by women in their own names became more frequent in the latter part of the nineteenth century, and by 1923 women constituted over 40 percent of passport applicants.  (NARA, Passport Applications)

Passport applications from 1795 to 1925 have been microfilmed and are located at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. To obtain passport applications after 31 March 1925, visit the State Department's Web site <http://travel.state.gov/passport/services/copies/copies_872.html>

  • Hodges, Sharon B. "Using Passport Records." NGS Magazine 35, 2 (April-June 2009): 38-42.

  • Martin, Lloyd. The Passport: the History of Man's Most Travelled Document. Gloucestershire, England: Sutton Publishing Ltd., 2003.

  • Obtain Copies of Passport Records. U.S. Department of State.

  • Passport Applications. NARA. Digital article adapted from Kathie O. Nicastro and Claire Prechtel-Kluskens, "Passport Applications: A Key to Discovering Your Immigrant Ancestor's Roots," Prologue: Quarterly of the National Archives 25 (Winter 1993): 390-94.

  • Potter, Dorothy Potter. Passports of Southeastern Pioneers 1770-1823. Baltimore, MD: Gateway Press, 1982.