Documentation of immigrants entering the United States varied significantly from 1789-1819 because there was not a singular entity creating and maintaining records of immigrants. The Customs Bureau oversaw ports starting in 1789, but, with limited exceptions such as New Orleans and Philadelphia which consistently recorded arrivals for spans of multiple years, it is difficult to find documentation at NARA of immigrants to the United States during this early time frame.
The Steerage Act of 1819 changed this. Until January 1820, the United States government did not require passenger lists. The new Steerage Act required the master of a ship to provide a manifest of passengers boarded at foreign port, and it required each vessel to carry a specific quantity of provisions for each passenger with an entitlement to compensation should supplies prove deficient.
The Immigration Act of 1891 introduced further documentation as it required that information be collected about immigrants entering the United States overland from Canada and Mexico. It is interesting to note that approximately 40% of the foreign passengers arriving in Canada were actually bound for the United States, so the creation of border crossing records began capturing a large pool of immigrants that likely would not have shown up on previous arrival documents. The Act also created a Superintendent of Immigration who oversaw immigration inspectors at ports of entry; and barred polygamists, persons convicted of crimes of moral turpitude, and those suffering from diseases – creating a provision for medical examinations.
For more information about passenger arrival records (1820 - 1982), Canadian border crossing records (1895 - 1954), and Mexican border crossing records (ca.1903 - ca.1955) please visit: https://www.archives.gov/research/immigration/overview
Various NARA microfilm publications reproduce passenger arrival records and/or vessel crew lists from the water or land borders from 1800-1982. Discover what records have been digitized and are available for online use. To browse by port please visit: https://www.archives.gov/research/immigration/ports