1. What questions can you ask of manifest records?
The source is a manifest record of passengers arriving in New York City. I came across them at the National Archives when doing research on West Indian immigrants to the United States during the early 20th century.
When a student or a researcher immediately comes to the document, its quite clear that they can get direct informationthe name of the immigrant, perhaps what their age is. Are they 40 years old? Are they a six-year-old? Are they married? Are they single? The basic information thats presented in the document. But then the student or the researcher asks questions of the information. Are most of the people single? What does that mean about West Indian immigrants? Are most of them women? Are most of them men? What might that mean about the West Indian immigrants experience in the United States? What port are they going to in the United States? Its New York. Why is it New York? Was New York a typical destination for West Indian immigrants? Why New York? Why not Miami? Who paid for the ticket? Did they pay for it by themselves? Did they have family support? What information does that tell us about the immigrants experience, both in terms of leaving and in terms of coming into the United States?
One of the limitations of the manifest records is that without a rudimentary knowledge of Caribbean history, it makes it difficult for students to begin to understand the indirect value of the document. They could come to the document and point out what the document provides in terms of direct information. But the ability, then, to stand back from that and say, What does this mean that the women were domestics? They would have to understand the Caribbean background. So that the document of course does not provide that. It also does not provide the New York context, the Harlem context, of what happens to the women. So that, then, has to be provided on the other side. It only gives in many ways the direct information, but with a larger context, it allows students to raise larger questions about the indirect value of the document.