Jul 8, 2009

Checking for those “Lost” Passenger Lists Records Part I

by LCGS Researcher Carol Stetser
I imagine that every family historian has said, or at least heard someone else say, “I can’t find my ancestors in the records; some of the records must have been lost.” Although at various times and places, many records definitely were lost, sometimes researchers assume records are lost, when really the researcher just hasn’t dug deep enough. Ancestors’ names on passenger lists are often one of those records that are difficult to find, even with the great online databases available nowadays, and there is a temptation to assume the records must have been lost or destroyed.

After several years of periodic, futile searching for my Swedish ancestors’ names on passenger lists, I came to the conclusion that maybe their records really were lost. In the process of searching, I gathered a lot of information about the family from censuses, an autobiography written by my great-grandfather sixty years after he came to America, naturalization records and the like; in fact, I narrowed down their arrival to early December of 1868. Even with all of this, I couldn’t find the family.

I just about decided that this would have to be one of those mysteries that wouldn’t get solved, at least by me. However, a few months ago, I suddenly realized that maybe I could find out if there really were passenger lists missing. Since I knew that all of the other Scandinavian ancestors I’d tracked had entered the U.S. through New York, I figured to play the odds and assume that the missing ones arrived there, as well. It wasn’t really too big a guess since literally millions of emigrants arrived there from about 1850 through the First World War.

To figure out if any records were missing, I decided to check the New York Times “Marine Intelligence” columns for the period I was interested in. ProQuest (fee-based database provider) has digitized the New York Times from 1851 forward, and it is fairly readily available. Several pay-for-view websites include the database, but for those of us in Northern Colorado, it’s available for free through Colorado State University’s Morgan Library. Students, faculty, staff (and anyone who knows someone in those categories who will go online for them to check) can access the database from home. Anyone else can go to the library and use the database on the computers there (even if you’re not looking for passenger lists the New York Times is worth checking out; it has all kinds of interesting articles such as the ones I found on Castle Garden describing exactly what emigrants experienced when entering the U.S. in 1865 or others describing the weather nationwide for a period when my ancestors would have been traveling by wagon from Pennsylvania to Illinois).

The “Marine Intelligence” columns were published every day and listed each ship that docked in New York. It’s easy to determine from the column, which ships were emigrant ships and which were not. Some of the columns even listed individual passengers; this doesn’t apply to those who traveled in steerage, however. In my search to see which passenger lists might be missing, I just kept a list of all the emigrant ships that arrived in a two-week window during late November and early December of 1868.

I ended up with a list of twelve ships that my ancestral family might have traveled on. To be thorough, I included every emigrant ship even those that had come from Germany. Although I was pretty certain my family had boarded in Liverpool. At this point, I did a line-by-line search of the passenger lists of those twelve ships. Microfilm copies of the lists are available at the Denver Public Library and NARA Rocky Mountain Region; online versions are available through After all my previous searching, I was amazed to find my “missing” family on the second list I searched. Their name was garbled in a way that I hadn’t ever considered, and the listing had them as being Italian, not Swedish. However, it’s definitely my family; the first names and ages are correct, and the surname is recognizable as mine.

Just to see if any of the ships’ lists from that period were missing, I checked for lists for all of the twelve ships. Every one of them had a passenger list. I suspect that many of those “missing” ancestors that we all bemoan are really not “missing” at all. They’re just hiding under garbled names or incorrect dates. To find them may only take a new way of approaching the task. Good searching!

From the Larimer County Genealogical Society Newsletter, Volume 28 Number 2