January 28, 2021
If you’re like me, some of your ancestors immigrated to Canada and then made their way across the border to the United States. This happened for a variety of reasons, but the major one was cost. Historically, it was often less expensive for immigrants to book passage on a ship to Canada than it was one to the United States.
Unfortunately, for those us trying to find passenger arrival lists for ancestors, this fact complicates the process. The United States kept official governmental ships’ passenger lists beginning in 1820. Canadian passenger lists don’t begin until 1865.
In addition to the ships’ passenger lists for arrivals from overseas, there are also lists of those who crossed into the U.S. from Canada. These lists begin in 1895 and continue through 1956. Not everyone who crossed the border into the United States is listed. Only those who crossed via train or ship are recorded. This means if an ancestor crossed on horseback or by car or walked across the border, he will not be listed.
The Canadian passenger lists and border crossing records are readily available online on various websites. Family search has a full collection of these records available for free. Several of the large genealogical databases such as Ancestry and My Heritage also have the records. You will need a subscription to access their records.
If you’ve looked for your ancestors in U.S. Passenger Lists with no success, the Canadian passenger lists and border crossing records are definitely worth checking. I had looked for my Norwegian great aunt who arrived in the U.S. in 1913 several times. Since her sister, my grandmother, had arrived in New York only a year after her, I’d assumed that my aunt had followed the same migration path. None of my searches produced any results.
When I finally learned about the Canadian records, I checked for my aunt there and quickly found both her ship’s passenger list for her arrival in Quebec and a border crossing a few days later for her entry into the United States.
My aunt was joining her fiancée in Salt Lake City, which was clearly listed on the passenger lists. Her descendants have no idea why she travelled through Canada; they had assumed, as I did, that she’d taken the same route as her sister.
If you have an ancestor whose passenger list is “missing,” it’s certainly worth checking the Canadian records. Although they cover fewer years than the U.S. records, you never know what you might find.