Have You Looked at Passport Records Yet?

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

Documents that establish an individual’s identity and/or nationality enjoy a long history. In the Old Testament, Nehemiah asks King Artaxerxes to send him to Judah to help rebuild the city, stating in the Book of Nehemiah chapter 2, verses 7-9: “If it pleases the king, let letters be given to me for the governors of the region beyond the River, that they must permit me to pass through till I come to Judah.” Such documents have been used throughout a succession of later time periods, including the medieval era, when the word “passport” probably first came into use to allow individuals to enter walled cities (think of Edinburgh’s “west port,” for example); the Ottoman Empire, which was called the “sublime porte;” the reign of King Henry V, who wanted his subjects to be able to establish their nationality when abroad; and the Revolutionary War, French Revolution, and War of 1812, during which seamen’s protection certificates served as a type of mariner’s passport.

Those of us of a certain age can remember crossing into Canada with only our driver’s licenses to prove our identities. In the post 9-11 world, however, the use of passports as official governmental identification has become much more universal. Many of us use our passports for identification when flying, even when the flight is domestic rather than international. This use has not always been so prevalent, nor even required. The Department of State has had the authority to issue passports since 1789, but states, courts, and other such governmental entities could issue them as well until an act of Congress dated 23 August 1856. Despite the early starting date of 1789, Americans, generally, were not required to use passports until 1941. Exceptions to that rule usually occurred during armed conflicts: the American Civil War (when passports were required between 19 August 1861 and 17 March 1862) and between 22 May 1918 and the signing of the treaties that ended World War I in 1921, although as early 1915 an Executive Order issued by Woodrow Wilson’s recommended that all citizens leaving the United States have passports. On 21 June 1941, with World War II raging across Europe, Congress passed an act (55 Stat. 252) that reinstated the passport requirement for citizens traveling out of the country. Aliens (non-citizens, not extraterrestrials!) were not issued passports, with the exception of periods between 3 March 1863 through 30 May 1866 and 2 March 1907 through 4 June 1920, when those who had declared their intent to become naturalized citizens could obtain passport documents.

Not surprisingly, as passport use became more prevalent, more guidelines and regulations were promulgated, beginning with League of Nations conferences in 1920, 1926, and 1927, followed by a United Nations conference in 1963. Standardization came in 1980, overseen by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). While several types of passports exist, the main types include the standard passport, which many of us use while traveling; official passports, covering work-related travel by government employees; passports covering work-related travel by diplomats and any dependents who might be accompanying them; and emergency passports, issued to individuals who have lost or have had their passports stolen. Less well-known types of passport documents include the collective passport issued to defined groups, such as school children on a school trip to a specific destination, and the family passport covering an entire family group traveling together, thus eliminating the need to issue a passport for each child. This latter type of passport was used extensively during the mid-1800s.

Genealogists should never overlook passport applications as a possible source of useful ancestral information including date and place of birth, physical description, occupation, foreign destination, naturalization status if applicable, marital status, residence, father’s name and place of birth, and a photograph. Because the requirements for passport use, information required on applications, and the passport’s duration differ depending on the years involved, you will want to search throughout an individual’s lifetime to locate possible multiple applications. The National Archives holds passport applications from October 1795 through March 1925, while the Department of State holds passport applications from 1925 to the present. Applications prior to 1925 are available on microfilm at the National Archives. Footnote.com provides access to images of passport applications from 1795-1905, while Ancestry.com provides access to U.S. Passport Applications, 1795-1925 (National Archives microfilm publications M1372, 1490, and 1371, General Records Department of State, Record Group 59). My search for Barkleys in this online collection provided 1,412 applications. A sampling of these applications includes:

  • On 25 October 1843, Sanford R. Hall wrote a letter to Abel P. Upshur, Secretary of State, indicating that he was “desirous of visiting the West Indies accompanied by my Lady for the benefit of my health and wish to obtain a passport. I am likewise requested by my friend Mr. George Barkley who accompanies us to procure one for him. We are all natural born citizens of the United States and residents of the Village of Geneva, Ontario Co., New York…”
  • Annie D. Barkley, a widow, born 19 March 1862 in LaGrange, Texas, residing in Mexico City. Her husband had been Richard Alexander Barkley, of LaGrange, who died in Mexico City on 27 February 1914. Her passport, her first, was issued on 22 May 1919 for travel from the port of New York on approximately 16 June 1919. In addition, she stated that she had lived outside of the United States between 186[5?] and 1918 in various cities in Mexico and that her permanent residence was Mexico City.
  • William B. Barkley, born 25 October 1873 in Rutherford, New Jersey; residing in Newton Centre, Middlesex County, Massachusetts; father’s name was John Frank Barkley who was born in New York City, but who died prior to the passport issue date 1 February 1923. William’s occupation was listed as auditor for the United Shoe Machinery Corporation of Boston. He had previously had a passport issued in Boston in January 1919. His reason for travel was business and he intended to travel to South America including Brazil, and Argentina, departing from New York on board the Western World on 17 February 1923. He was 5’8½”, had a high forehead, brown eyes, medium nose, a straight mouth, light brown hair, a light complexion and a round face. His identification was attested to by William J. Conner of Brookline, Massachusetts, who had known him for ten years. In 1934, William B. Barkley wrote George L. Brist, Chief of the Division of Passport Control in Washington, D. C., asking him to extend the passport issued in February 1923.

While the detail differs among these examples, if I were researching any of these three Barkleys, I would learn a great deal from their passport applications. These are records that can be of great assistance in your ongoing research.

Further information pertaining to passport records can be found at Cyndi’s List and in several articles at the Ancestry.com Learning Center. Search sites such as NaturalizationRecords.com for information on other online indices and guides to passports. John Torpey’s The Invention of the Passport: Surveillance, Citizenship and the State (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1999), Martin Lloyd’s The Passport: the History of Man’s Most Travelled Document (History Press, 2005), and Craig Robertson’s The Passport in America: the History of a Document (Oxford Univ. Press, 2010) provide historical perspective. For those of you searching in the United Kingdom, Findmypast.co.uk includes access to registers of passports dated between 1851 and 1903 in its migration section.

As you investigate individuals on your pedigree chart, particularly those that are foreign born, remember to include passport application records as part of your research plan.

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