Race boxes at ports of entry

How passenger manifests racialized aliens arriving in the US (and Canada)

By William Wetherall

Drafted 9 September 2009
First posted 1 December 2009
Last updated 26 July 2022

Immigration control   Passports and other certifications of affiliation, status, and authorization at ports of entry
1911 Race or People guidebook (United States) Aino Japanese Korean
Alien passenger manifest guidelines United States Canada
Naturalization   Race boxes on U.S. naturalization application forms

Immigration control

The United States required racial classifications on passenger manifests, and in 1911 the Government Printing Office in Washington, D.C. published Dictionary of Races or Peoples. Compiled by the Immigration Commission for the purpose of facilitating such classifications, the guide was written not for the "ethnologist" but for the "student of immigration" who wants "an approximately correct statement as to the ethnical status of immigrant races or peoples, their languages, numbers, and the countries from which they come" (Introductory, page 3).

The introduction speaks of the "five grand divisions" -- "the Caucasian, Ethiopian, Mongolian, Malay, and American, or, as familiarly called, the white, black, yellow, brown, and red races" -- "made upon physical or somatological grounds, while the subdivisions of these into a multitude of smaller 'races' is made largely on a linguistic basis" (Introductory, page 3).


1911 Race or People Guidebook (United States)

INS officials in the United States used the Dictionary of Races or Peoples, prepared in 1911, until the early 1950s.

The following transcription of the cover of the first edition of the guidebook is based on scans at The Internet Archive. A copy is also posted at UM Digital Library Production Service (UMDL) [University of Michigan].

61st Congress
3d Session


No. 662



Presented by Mr. DILLINGHAM
December 5, 1910. -- Referred to the Committee on Immigration
and ordered to be printed, with illustrations


The 1911 guidebook had hundreds of classifications, including the following, in alphabetical order. I have shown the page number of the start of entry in [brackets].

AFRICAN (black). (See Negro.) [page 13]

AINO. [page 13]


  . . . they are not considered legally as immigrants upon coming to the United States.

  Not counted among immigrants upon arriving in the United States.



JAPANESE. [page 85]
  The people of Japan.

  The people of the Korean peninsula.



The full AINO entry in the 1911 edition of Dictionary of Races or Peoples is as follows (page 13, left).

AINO.   A primitive Caucasian-like People in Japan, now numbering less than 20,000. (See Japanese, Cau- casian, and Mongolian.)



The full JAPANESE entry in the 1911 edition of Dictionary of Races or Peoples is as follows (pages 85-86).

JAPANESE.   The people of Japan.
With the exception of the "Arctic
group" the Japanese and Koreans
form the easternmost group of the
great Sibiric branch, which, with the
Sinitic branch (Chinese, etc.), consti-
tutes the Mongolian race (see these
terms). As was said in the article on
Chinese, the Japanese and Koreans
stand much nearer than the Chinese,
especially in language, to the Finns,
[page 85 right / page 86 left]
Lapps, Magyars, and Turks of Eu-
rope, who are the westernmost de-
scendants of the Mongolian race. The
languages of all these peoples belong to
the agglutinative family, while Chinese
is monosyllabic.

  Although many people may mistake
a Japanese face for Chinese, the Mon-
golian traits are much less pronounced.
The skin is much less yellow, the eyes
less oblique. The hair, however, is
true Mongolian, black and round in
section, and the nose is small. These
physical differences no doubt indicate
that the Japanese are of mixed origin.
In the south there is probably a later
Malay admixture. In some respects
their early culture resembles that of
the Philippines of to-day. Then there
is an undoubted white strain in Japan.
The Ainos, the earliest inhabitants of
Japan, are one of the most truly Cau-
casian-like people in appearance in
eastern Asia. They have dwindled
away to less than 20,000 under the
pressure of the Mongolian invasion
from the mainland, but they have left
their impress upon the Japanese race.
The "fine" type of the aristocracy, the
Japanese ideal, as distinct from the
"coarse" type recognized by students
of the Japanese of to-day, is perhaps
due to the Aino.

  The social characteristics and impor-
tance of the Japanese people are well
known from recent history. It is gen-
erally well understood that Chris-
tianity makes very slow progress.
Shintoism, a mixture of nature and
ancestor worship, and Buddhism are
the prevailing religions. The Japanese
now number about 48,000,000. Only
about 150,000 live outside of Japan.
Since the Russian-Japanese war there
are probably 40,000 or 50,000 Japanese
resident in Korea. Some 10,000 are
found in British lands. From 1890 to
1910, inclusive, 148,729 Japanese were
admitted to the United States. Under
the so-called passport provision of the
[page 86 left / page 86 right]
United States immigration law of
1907, and by agreement with Japan,
Japanese laborers are not excluded
from the country. During the twelve-
year period referred to 77,777 Japa-
anese immigrants were destined to
Hawaii, 32,273 to California, 25,912 to
Washington, and 4,485 to Oregon.



The full KOREAN entry in the 1911 edition of Dictionary of Races or Peoples is as follows (pages 87-88).

KOREAN.   The people of the Korean
Peninsula. They and the Japanese
(see) form a distinct physical group,
and are linguistically more nearly re-
lated to European Mongolians than
they are to the neighboring Chinese
(see). Under the new leadership of
the Japanese they may be expected to
make rapid progress. They number
about 10,000,000. From 1899 to 1910,
[page 87 right / page 88 left]
7,790 Koreans came to the United
States, but at the present time Korean
immigrants are practically excluded
from the country.


1908 Manifest 1941 Manifest

Instructions for filling alien manifests
List of races or peoples
Images copped and cropped from scan of
manifest downloaded from Ancestry.com
Click on images to enlarge

Instructions for preparing alien manifests
List of races or peoples
Images copped and cropped from scan of
manifest downloaded from Ancestry.com
Click on images to enlarge

1908 Manifest 1941 Manifest

Images copped and cropped from scans of
manifests downloaded from Ancestry.com
Click on images to enlarge

23 June 1939   Kobe → San Francisco
Edith [Edith Francis Kobayashi] Sebald
  Nationality -- "Former Japanese"
  Race or people -- "Japanese Eng [English]

1908 Manifest

16 July 1928   Yokohama → Vancouver
D. Daniel Brooke McKinnon
  Nationality -- "America"
  Race or people -- "American Scotch"
Shinko Mishima McKinnon
  Nationality -- "Japan"
  Race or people -- "Japanese"

1929 Manifest

10 July 1941   Yokohama → San Francisco
Elizabeth K. [Kimiko] McKinnon
Lincolna McKinnon
  Nationality -- "U.S.A."
  Race or people -- "American-Japanese"

1941 Manifest

Alien passenger manifest guidelines

The "Instructions for Filling (Preparing) Asian Manifest" and the associated "List of Races or Peoples" show how manifests were handled in 1908 and 1941. There are no remarkable in the purpose of the manifests and the manner in which they were to be completed by a ship's officer for the purpose of filing with an immigration official at a port of entry into the United States (or Canada).

The officer in charge of completing the manifest did so in various ways. Some manifests were typed, others hand written. Some showed names in alphabetical order, others not. I have no idea how officers typically completed the forms -- whether in their office from collected travel documents, or by calling passengers to their office or making rounds of cabins and berths. Some hand-written information is clearly the work of an immigration official. Other hand-written corrections or modifications could the work of either a ship's officer or an immigration official in the course of vetting the information directly with the passenger.

The "Nationality" box was completed with the name of the country of which the passenger was a subject, national, or citizen, as shown by a passport or equivalent travel document. Ordinarily, this would be country that issued the passport. Accordingly, the "Nationality" box would not be subject to negotiation because it was totally objective. Only the authenticity of a passenger's documents might cause the information in the box to be disputed.

The "Race or people" box could be negotiated if either the passenger or the ship's officer or immigration official differed in their view point. The more manifests you see, the more variation you will encounter in the way this box was completed -- especially in cases of passengers whose personal identities were listed, or whose identities fell between the prescribed choices.

"Japanese" is listed but "American" is neither listed nor self-evident. I have never seen "American" used to qualify the "Race or people" of a non-U.S. national, so it must imply some sort of racioethnic quality, on a par with "Japanese" or "Hebrew" or "Slovak". My impression is that "American" is most commonly used to qualify the racioethnicity a mongrel Cacasoid U.S. citizen who does not admit to being "German" or "French" or "Swiss" or "Chinese" in some ancestral sense. Hence "American" combined with a listed "Race or people" would signify someone of mixed blood.

23 June 1939 -- Edith Sewald

A passenger manifest shows William Sebald and his wife Edith arriving at San Francisco from Kobe on 23 June 1939. Edith has lost Japan's nationality on account of marrying an American man, but she has failed to acquire America's nationality through the marriage because her Japanese blood makes her ineligible for citizenship.

The manifest shows Edith's nationality as "Former Japanese" -- rather than "Formerly Japan" or "Stateless", which would better conform to the conventions of the "Nationality" box. But whereas her husband is an "American" by "Race or people", she is "Japanese English" in which the ship's officer has written "Japanese" but, probably through insistence by her legalist husband, who understands the implications of "Japanese" in America's racist immigration laws, insists on "English".

Notice the Swiss couple below the Sebalds. The wife is "Switzerland" by "Nationality" and "Japanese" by "Race or people". She has acquired Swiss nationality through her marriage, under the same sort of operation of Japan's and Switzerland's laws that would have resulted in Edith possessing "U.S.A" like her husband if America's laws had not been racist.

Edith would acquire U.S. citizenship in 1947 through the passage in Congress of a private bill that relieved her of the racial restrictions that still operated in America's Naturalization Act at the time. For details, see Fully stateless Edith Sebald (1902-1981) in the "Statelessness in Japan" article in the "Nationality" section of the Yosha Bunko website.

10 July 1941 -- McKinnon sisters

A "List or Manifest of Alien Passengers for the United States Immigration Officer at Port of Arrival" shows Elizabeth K. [Kimiko] McKinnon (1918-2013), and her sister Lincolna McKinnon [Guilfoile] (1920-2017), arriving in San Francisco on 30 July 1941, aboard the S.S. Tatuta Maru, which had sailed from Yokohama on 10 July 1941. The sisters are "U.S.A." by "Nationality (County of which citizen or subject)" but "American-Japanese" by "Race or people".

Elizabeth McKinnon was assisting Serge Elisséeff and Edwin O. Reischauer in their Japanese-language teaching at Harvard before the Pacific War. She then became an instructor at the U.S. Navy's Japanese Language School (JLS) at the University of Colorado. JLS was set up in Japan after the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), and William Sebald had studied there in the 1920s. The school left Japan in the late 1930s as US-Japan relations worsened and was at the University of California at Berkeley when the war began. However, it was moved to the University of Colorado in order to be outside the westcoast military zone within which most people of "Japanese ancestry" were not allowed to reside -- so that its faculty, consisting mainly of alien and American faculty members of Japanese descent, could continue teaching what had become the enemy's language.

Elizabeth McKinnon later married the linguist Denzil Carr (1900-1983), who had been a Japanese language specialist in the 1930s before shifting to Malay-Polynesian. Denzil Carr became a professor of linguistics at UCB, and in the late 1960s, when I was a student in the Oriental Language Department, I would know Elizabeth McKinnon as Elizabeth Carr, or Professor Carr, my first classical Japanese teacher.

For details about the McKinnon-Mishima family in Japan and America, see McKinnon-Mishima on the "Couples 2" page under "Couples" in the "People" section of the Konketsuji website. For a look at Elizabeth Kimiko (McKinnon) Carr's life, see Elizabeth Carr: Japanese Language School instructor on the "Keene, Seidensticker et al." page under "Translations" on the Yosha Bunko website.


United States

The United States set the example for the fairly small number of countries that sought to racialize people at their ports of entry. Other countries that did so generally adopted the classification rules used by the United States, but with some variations.

Sources of information

The following overview of the history of the overseeing of immigration in the United States is based on various guides related to Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) section [/research/guide-fed-records/groups/085.html] of The National Archives, a US government website managed by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

The transcriptions of the text on alien passenger manifests and instructions related to nationality and race were partly based on information obtained from various genealogy websites which have posted transcriptions of selected manifests for their users -- and partly based on images of actual passenger manifest documents posted in the Immigration Records (Ship Passenger Arrival Records) section [/genealogy/immigration/] of the website of The National Achieves website.

Availability of alien passenger manifests

The Freedom of Information Act of 1966 makes most federal records related to immigration and naturalization available to the public, subject to restrictions by the the Privacy Act of 1974. In principle, passenger manifests are accessible, and NARA now facilitates individuals seeking to confirm records of arrival of immigrant ancestors on America's shores.

The general public interest in early passenger manifests at ports of entry to the United States is thus mostly genealogical. My interest in the manifests, though, concerns how arriving aliens were described by nationality and race.

Overseeing immigration

Naturalization and immigration matters were handled by various departments of the US government since 1797. Such matters were usually overseen by a single department, which acted as the competent agency, meaning the agency with was primarily responsible for implementing and enforcing related laws. However, other departments were delegated administrative tasks to facilitate implementation and enforcement.

Aliens applying for visas and other permits at US consulates get the impression that the Department of State controls immigration. At one time it was the competent department, but for more than a century it has acted only as an overseas agent for other departments.

Such division of labor is common in other countries, including Japan. Japanese consulates, under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, process applications for visas and other permits to enter Japan. But relevant laws and regulations -- meaning the processing and issuance rules -- are under the Ministry of Justice. And the visas issued by consulates are provisional -- i.e., meaningless -- until they are recognized and approved at a port of entry in Japan by an immigration officer, who reviews the alien's qualifications for the provisional permit, and has the authority to refuse admission to Japan, or to change the type of visa or other permit and attached conditions.

Department of State

Secretary of State (1819-1864)
Commissioner of Immigration (1864-1868)
Secretary of State (1868-1874)

Department of the Treasury

Secretary of the Treasury (1869-1891)
Office of the Superintendent of Immigration (1891-1895)
Bureau of Immigration (1895-1903)

Department of Commerce and Labor

Bureau of Immigration (1903-1906)
Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization (1906-1913)

Department of Labor

Bureau of Immigration (1913-1933)
Bureau of Naturalization (1913-1933)

To be continued.



Canada to some extent followed the United States passenger manifest rules -- at least at ports like Victoria, which facilitated entry to the United States.

To be continued.


2022 Naturalization 2022 Naturalization

Click on images to enlarge
Application for Naturalization in the United States
Pages 1 and 5 of 20-page form used in 2019-2022
Images captured from pdf file downloaded from
US Citizenship and Immigration Services

Race boxes on American naturalization forms

Naturalization in the United States has a history of predicating qualifications for naturalization on race. From the late 19th century through the middle of the 20th century, foreign men and women whose "national origin" was China, Japan, and Korea, but also India and other countries regarded as "Oriental" -- were generally regarded as "ineligible to naturalization". And foreign women who stood to derive U.S. citizenship through marriage to an American man were "ineligible to citizenship" if they were 50 percent or more of "Oriental" blood.

Today, there are no racial bars to naturalization, and citizenship is no longer derivable through marriage. But some conditions permanently bar an applicant from naturalization, and other may temporarily impair naturalization.

Grounds for permanent barring eligibility for naturalization included a conviction of murder or certain other aggravated felonies, involvement in or aiding or abetting Nazi activities, genocidal or extrajudicial killings, torturing, and other such acts. An applicant may also be barred if, within the past five years, one as practiced polygamy, failed to pay child support, been an alcoholic, trafficked drugs, been involved in prostitution, or failed to register for selective service, among other such acts. Regarding military service, past refusal to serve as an alien, or desertion while serving as an alien, are likely to be permanent bars.

Still -- though race is not longer supposed to affect naturalization, application forms continue to solicit both "ethnicity" and "race", as shown on the images to the right, from Form N-400 as of 2019-2022.

Application for Naturalization
Department of Homeland Security
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services
USCIS Form N-400
17 September 2019 edition
Expires 30 September 2022