Jul 8, 2009

Checking for those “Lost” Passenger Lists Records: Part II

by LCGS Researcher Carol Stetser
For many family historians finding a copy of their ancestors’ names on a ship’s passenger list is high on their list of priorities. With so many passenger records online, it would seem that finding an immigrant ancestor should be fairly simple, especially for those who landed in the later 19th century and early 20th century, when more complete lists were kept. Unfortunately, this isn’t necessarily so. In my own case, for example, I’ve only been able to find five out of nine ancestors who should show up on the lists.

There are several websites that contain ships’ lists. has probably the largest collection of ships’ lists online; Ancestry isn’t free, but both the Fort Collins and Loveland libraries have it available. For New York lists from the 19th and early 20th century, and http:// are great databases. There are also other good databases such as the Immigrant Ships Transcribers’ Guild at All of these websites are useful, but it sometimes is still difficult to find an ancestor’s name. One of the reasons it’s difficult to find someone is that researchers try to use the databases before they have enough information to use them effectively. Especially with common names, unless you know a lot about your ancestor, it’s going to be difficult to determine exactly which George Dawson, for example, is your ancestor.

Before ever checking the databases, it’s a good idea to gather as much information as possible about your ancestors. As with all other research, the first place to check is family sources; emigration was a big event in a person’s life, and sometimes records have survived. Next, the census should be checked. The 1900, 1910, 1920 and 1930 all have a column for year of emigration. Unfortunately, as in all census columns, this one is subject to error.

I have one ancestor who apparently emigrated in 1867, 1869, 1870 and 1880, at least according to the various censuses. Other potentially helpful records are naturalization papers. Especially later in the 19th century and beyond, the records list the date when the person arrived in the U.S. Since people often didn’t become naturalized until decades after they arrived in America, sometimes their memories were faulty. That’s why if other family members also arrived at the same time as your direct ancestor, it’s a good idea to get naturalization papers for those collateral relatives too. In my family the records never agree, but they have helped me narrow my searches to a week or two, which is certainly better than a year or two! County histories and obituaries also can be good sources of immigration information.

Once you have as much info as possible, the searches can really begin. Using the databases listed above and if you’re really lucky, you’ll be able to merely plug your ancestor’s name into the search boxes and he’ll pop right up. Unfortunately, for most of us, it’s not that easy. Names are routinely misspelled on the lists, places of origin are incorrect, first names are wrong and so on. Searching every possible variation of the name is often the only thing to do.

Sometimes I’ve had success in searching for first names only, especially if the name is a bit unusual. For example, one of my families consisted of parents Peter and Mary, with children: John, Mary, William and Victor. Using Victor’s name (I figured his was the most unusual of the group), plus his age (children’s ages tend to be more accurate) and place of origin helped me find the family. The old story is that names were changed at Ellis Island (or Castle Garden, or wherever), but that doesn’t really seem to have been the case. However, I have noticed that first names are often changed. I don’t think the officials did this; I think the immigrants themselves anglicized their first names. Scandinavians in particular, seem to have been prone to this.

The family mentioned above started in Sweden as Per, Maria, Johan, Maria, Wilhelm and Victor. Three weeks later, they showed up in America with the English versions of their names. So you’ll have to search every variation of the first names as well as the surnames. Also, lists often contain only first initials instead of first names, so this is another variant that needs to be checked.

With all of these possibilities, it’s easy to see why it’s so difficult to find people on the lists. Persistence is the only way to finally find those elusive ancestors who came to America.

From the Larimer County Genealogical Society Newsletter, Volume 28 Number 3