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Finding Your Family from Ship's Passenger Lists

Written by: John Maguire

When exploring genealogy, research may include poring over ship passenger lists to find names of ancestors who immigrated to the United States generations ago. Passenger arrival lists are an excellent resource for anyone who wants to learn about family history. These records often included valuable information such as the name of the ship, full names of people on board, their ages, occupations, date of arrival, ports of both departure and arrival, and their country of origin. More recent passenger lists can be even more extensive, also providing physical descriptions of passengers and information about their relatives.


Search Tips

  • Search for family members using their names, and then refine searches with dates of arrival, ports of departure and arrival, countries of origin, and ages.
  • Search records for names using variations, since ancestors may have used foreign versions of names before coming to the United States. Surnames may also be slightly different due to ethnic variations.
  • Explore names that may have been recorded phonetically according to the way processing clerks heard and spelled them.
  • Look for name variations that may have been a result of misspellings.
  • Use U.S. census reports from 1900, 1910, 1920, and 1930, searching the year of immigration to find an ancestor who was living after the year 1900. Look in the "Migration Arrival" field, searching in the passenger arrival records.
  • Expand searches of passenger lists to include names of other family members to find families traveling together. Explore the members of families to locate a specific ancestor who may have had a common name. It's important to realize that entire families did not always travel together, however. Often, one or two members would travel first and then send for remaining family members later.
  • Build a chronological time line of an ancestor's life to determine the year of immigration.
  • If you find a city of origin, search for an ancestor using the surname and the city of origin. This may show other family members who also immigrated at different times.
  • Examine a passenger arrival record carefully. This record may also provide information about relatives and destinations. If an index collection includes a listing of a passenger arrival, examine any database description and supporting resources to locate original records, if possible.
  • Expand genealogy searches beyond the port of departure, since people often traveled significant distances to reach a port city. Similarly, explore a wide range of arrival port cities, as people may have traveled many miles before settling in a city in the United States.
  • Look for more than one arrival for an ancestor. Some people traveled back and forth several times before finally settling in the United States.
  • Don't forget to check Canadian ports as well. Not having the benefits of today's cruise ship deals, travelers often chose to arrive in Canada instead of the United States because it was cheaper.