Researching Your Family's History from Ships Passenger Lists

Family historians and genealogists prize the information that ship passenger lists have to offer. Although the information recorded on the lists was not made standard until the twentieth century, finding an ancestor or research target on a ship’s passenger list still provides valuable knowledge about the ancestor. The information on these lists include age, who they traveled with, what ship they took if they traveled first-class or steerage, what port they sailed from and what port they landed at, and their occupation when they took the journey. All of this information was typically recorded along with extra information like their physical description.

Most family historians think about ship records in terms of tracing their family’s immigration history, but people have long traveled for a variety of reasons. Some researchers will find evidence of their ancestors boarding ships because they needed to travel for work, to go back to their country of origin to visit relatives, or just to travel for pleasure. Lists from all journeys haven’t been archived, however, the ones that were saved are now easier than ever for genealogists and historians to access, thanks to many of them either being available online in their entirety or their information being transcribed into searchable online indexes.

Search Tips

  • Start your search with your ancestors’ names. However, remember most of these records have been transcribed from handwriting, and mistakes are made. Try alternative spellings. Confirm you have located the right person by with whom they are traveling, their age, or their date of arrival.

  • Often people’s names were changed when they immigrated, so it’s important to search for the English version of their name along with looking for their original name. Remember that clerks often wrote the names down as they heard them. Check for various spellings.

  • Searched various spellings and still haven’t found the correct person? Try using wildcards while searching. For example, typing Rot* will return Roth, Rothstein, Rothberg, et cetera. Using a question mark will return various spellings of the same word. So Lucian? will return Luciano and Luciana.

  • The 1900, 1910, 1920, and 1930 U.S. Censuses included a question about the year of immigration for anyone not born in the United States. Knowing the exact year someone immigrated helps find them in a passengers list.

  • Remember that it wasn’t uncommon for families to split up and immigrate in shifts. For example, the father might have traveled with his brother to America and specialized in concierge medicine, worked for a few years, and then once he had the money for their passage and a place for them to live, sent for his wife and children. However, looking at other people on the ship’s list will help confirm if the correct person has been located.

  • Make a timeline of the person’s life. It helps ensure the right person on the ship’s list is the person being researched.

  • Don’t just look at the research target’s information. Read over the entire passenger list. It will give you information about who else was on the ship, along with other information.

  • Remember that people often traveled overland to get to a port. Therefore, the country the person sailed from wasn’t necessarily their country of origin. Similarly, just because someone landed in, say, New York City doesn’t mean they settled in the Northeast of the United States. Check various departure and arrival ports to find the person being researched.

  • People who immigrated into the U.S. sometimes arrived in North America through Canada. If the person being researched isn’t located on U.S. arrival logs, check the ones in Canada.

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