Jan 13, 2023

A Way to Search for Passenger Lists

January 13, 2023

If you’re like me, you’ve probably spent time looking for passenger lists for your ancestors. After all, these lists can bring an ancestor to life. The lists were written at the time an ancestor was leaving one life for another. Europe was behind them, and America was ahead. For most of our ancestors, this was the biggest event of their entire life. Of course, we want to learn as much as we can about it.


Sadly, despite the widespread availability of passenger lists online, it’s still sometimes difficult to find an ancestor. Many of our ancestor’s names were misspelled when they were first written down. Others were incorrectly interpreted when the lists were indexed after digitization.


Even if you do find an ancestor’s name, it’s difficult to tell if the name you’re looking at is your ancestor. If your ancestor was named Thomas Smith, there might be hundreds of them in the passenger lists. Which one is yours? Records made before the Ellis Island era contain sparse information to help you decide. Frequently, they give only a surname with an initial for a first name plus an age.


So, what’s a genealogist to do? For me, the answer is to forget about the passenger lists and delve into other records that our immigrant ancestors may have left. Naturalization records, obituaries, and family stories may all give information about when an ancestor landed in America. Some will even mention the ship an ancestor sailed on as well as the port at which he landed.


While you’re looking at these other sources, don’t forget to look for records of family members and friends who may have traveled with your direct ancestor. Recently, I was trying to find the passenger list for my second great grandparents. I knew that they had traveled with four of their minor children. None of the children was my direct ancestor. However, their records led me to the passenger list I wanted.


One of the children was naturalized nearly thirty years after the family had traveled to America. I found his naturalization records which contained the date the family entered America as well as the port through which they entered.


I had never been able to find the passenger lists for this family. I had tried multiple variations of the family name. I’d searched using different varieties of the first names of the family. Nothing worked.


Once I had the information about the date and port the family entered, I searched manually for my family. Ancestry makes this easy for you. Just use the Card Catalog and click on Passenger Lists. From there choose the database “New York, U.S. Arriving Passenger and Crew Lists, 1820 to 1957.” Then click the browse option for this database and browse by date. The names of individual ships which arrived on a certain date will pop up, and you can manually search each ship’s manifest.


You may need to search for several days before and after your target date since the naturalization records and other records were often made decades after the person’s arrival in America. Memories tend to fade with time, but I’ve usually found the record I wanted within a few days. After all, this was a big event that would tend to stick in someone’s memory.


In the case of my ancestors, I found the family grouping I was looking for within a day of the date written on the son’s naturalization petition. I recognized the family name immediately, but it is an unusual name, and I think that the indexer just misinterpreted it.

If you want to find your ancestor’s passenger lists, this is a method that may help. If you can find some additional information about your ancestor’s immigration, it’s certainly worth a try.


Good hunting,


Carol Stetser