Using Passenger Lists and Newspapers to Research Immigrant Ancestors

Passenger lists are important records for tracing immigrant ancestors. Before air travel became more common in the 1950s, ships were the primary mode of intercontinental travel. Passenger lists usually included passenger name, place of origin, birth date, departure date, arrival date, and the ship name. Using this information, a search through may shed light on your ancestor’s immigration journey with new details not found in a passenger list. Here’s a couple of questions to ask yourself when researching ancestors that immigrated aboard a ship.

  • Why Did Your Ancestor Immigrate?

A search of newspapers might provide insight into the events that led to your ancestor’s decision to immigrate. For example, a search of Irish papers in the 1840s reveals countless articles about the Irish Potato Famine. The famine led to more than a million deaths between 1845-1849 and prompted many emigrants to leave Ireland.

  • What Was Your Ancestor’s Voyage Like?

Newspapers can yield details of your ancestor’s journey. For example, on August 24, 1848, the Ocean Monarch departed Liverpool, England, bound for Boston. A fire broke out on board, and after attempts to extinguish it failed, passengers began jumping into the sea. Several ships came to the rescue but not before 180 perished. The following month, Boston papers reported as survivors from the Monarch began arriving in Boston aboard a different ship. Search newspapers for the name of your ancestor’s ship, then search the departure and arrival dates. You might uncover a story about their journey.

  • Can Newspapers Reveal the Story Behind Those Who Were Born at Sea?

Thousands of mothers gave birth to babies during their immigration voyage. Babies born at sea are often listed at the bottom of the ship’s manifest or on the final page. This Boston Globe article from 1895 reported that a baby born at sea aboard a ship flying the American flag was entitled to automatic citizenship. In 1900, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch profiled nine city residents, all born at sea, and shared their individual immigration stories. If you have an ancestor born at sea, you might find details of their experience in the newspaper.

  • What Was Happening at their Port of Arrival?

If you had an ancestor that arrived in New York City in August 1906, you might learn that the city was experiencing a terrific heatwave. The New-York Tribune reported a temperature of 106 degrees and described the impact the heat was having on immigrants. At Ellis Island, immigrants from Russia arrived in heavy clothing, coats trimmed with fur, and cumbersome boots and shoes. Some collapsed from the heat, and the paper published a list of heatwave fatalities. Meanwhile, anchored in the bay, nearly 5,000 passengers waited in sweltering ship holds for Ellis Island to open after a Sunday closure. The paper described the “haggard faces of the immigrants and the almost physical collapse of many women and children” as they finally disembarked the hot holds of the ships. Search the news at your ancestor’s port of arrival to learn more about their experiences after arriving in America.

New-York Tribune 8.07.1906
  • Did Newspapers Publish Ship Schedules?

Yes! Newspapers can be used as a cross-check for immigrant departures and arrivals. Shipping companies endeavored to maintain a timetable, but sometimes unforeseeable circumstances led to delays. Newspapers reported on delays and when ships finally arrived at their destination.

Steamer Coptic Passenger List
  • What If you Can’t Find a Passenger List for Your Ancestor?

Sometimes you may be unable to find ship records for an immigrant ancestor, perhaps because the records no longer exist or were destroyed. One example is the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900 which flooded the island and destroyed the building that housed immigration records. If you can’t find a passenger list, you can search newspapers. Sometimes papers published the names of arriving passengers. You might also find immigration details in obituaries or other published stories. On a few occasions (and for various reasons), immigrants arrived as a stowaway or traveled under an assumed name. Newspapers may provide the clue necessary to unlock that immigration mystery.  

To learn more about your ancestor’s immigration experience, explore™ today!

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47 thoughts on “Using Passenger Lists and Newspapers to Research Immigrant Ancestors

  1. Very interesting reading. I think my Irish ancestors came to America via the Philadelphia ports. Is there any information regarding immigrants that came through a different port?

    1. Ancestry has passenger lists for a number of other ports, including New Orleans, New York, and Baltimore.

  2. What about military personnel who shed their uniforms and became immigrants. Anyway to trace them? Or, perhaps just stayed after Independence.

    1. Hi David, While possible they deserters, desertering in the US might appear in UK newspapers from the I would suggest checking surviving Loyalist Newspaper titles first.. Deserters to appear in UK newspapers, in the 18th century, but so far I have only got 18th century examples (in my collection) of deserters deserting from the Army in UK. The Police Gazette (which I’m working on .c.1860’s onward) contains hundreds of thousands of deserters from the British Army, Navy, Marines, and Militia “gone to America” occasionally features along with the occasional ex Civil War in the UK.

      1. Thank you for this suggestion I have a family member who was an Able Seaman on his wedding certificate and has disappeared after serving on the Iron Duke his record states ‘Run 02.11.90’.

        I have been unable to find him or his wife but have found their child. I can only assume that he has changed his name and that perhaps I will never complete his details.

        1. Hi Sarah,
          Many thanks, Assuming your relative made an appearance, I doubt that there would be much more information in the Police Gazette than you would find in the service record (physical description, DOB POB HMS ships on which he previously served). There are very few deserters with known alias (unlike the criminal side of the Gazette) but as you say it would have been quite easy to adopt another name. Though possibly if he stayed in the UK and couldn’t find regular employment he might appear in the court / crime side.
          Very Best of Luck with your research

    1. The Australian colonies kept extensive lists – but before federation, they were maintained on a state by state basis. Check the State Library or Archive Office in the relevant state and search for “Passenger Lists”. Some states kept two lists – one for assisted immigrants and another for unassisted immigrants. A search of newspaper lists, using Trove’s Newspaper Collection, is a good place to start, if you are unsure where they landed. But if you consult the state-based lists, you will very likely yield a lot more information such as age, occupation, nationality, county of origin, port of embarkation, etc. Good luck.

  3. I have Irish and .German ancestors should emigrated to Canada, then later to the US. What about Canadian records? I’m stumped so far.

    1. You can join Ancestry global (or whatever they call it). I have ancestors who came to Canada from Ireland in the 1840s during the potato famine. Between their places of residence and Wikipedia articles, I have pieced together a sense of their lives.

    2. Check your ancestors Alien Registration Papers. They list what port of entry and date of arrival in the United States. With that information you should be able to narrow it down to ships arriving around the dates listed in their registration papers.

  4. I don’t have the exact date when my ancestors came from England, Russia and Poland and I don’t know the ship name that they came on. How do I find it when all the information I have is an idea of when they came over and the year of their births?

    1. I found the ship names that my ancestors from Poland and Czechoslovakia were on g to though the Ellis Island website. The information is free.

    2. Here is what helped me find information on my “Russian” in-law. On FamilySearch LDS I found a microfilmed book from the NY county my in-law immigrant had settled in (Broome County). I don’t recall the title of the book, but I was searching for citizenship applications with his name. The book contained copies of applications and, at the end of the book, an index of other people who had applied for citizenship in Broome County. Going page-by-page, I located a name similar to our immigrant in the index. I sent an email to the Broome town clerk on their website. Amazingly, they had his original application paperwork and sent me a copy for less than $10. It turned out he was from Minsk, Belarus (all we knew was “Russia”), his immigration date (about 10+ years after arrival), his wife and children’s names and so much more. They had changed their name after arriving, but I was able to find their passenger list. Still search for my relative from Wales, but enjoying the challenge.

  5. I’m searching my grandmother that desappeared during the second world war. May be she hided during the war and emmigrated.
    Her name is Marie Augusta Daisy Helme Rosanier, birn 20.11.1918 in France.

      1. Marie Augusta Daisy Rosanier
        Born 20 November 1918 (Wednesday) – 1 Rue de la Charité – Lyon, 69382, Rhône, France
        • Georges Hilaire Rosanier , born 16 November 1882 (Thursday) – Kharkiv, Ukraine,
        Turner, Watchmaker
        o Marie Valentine Sache , born 2 June 1896 (Tuesday) – Meillerie, 74175, Haute-Savoie, France, deceased 13 January 1990 (Saturday) – Thonon-les-Bains, 74281, Haute-Savoie, France aged 93 years old
        Spouses and children
        • Married 9 June 1938 (Thursday), Saint-Chamond, 42207, Loire, France, to Henri Eugène Helme-Duclos , born 23 September 1910 (Friday) – Lyon, 69382, Rhône, France, deceased 19 May 1999 (Wednesday) – Nîmes , 30189, Gard, France aged 88 years old (Parents: Stanislas Helme & Marie Louise Duclos ) , divorced with
        o xx

        1. You can access the Rhone archives online. For example Rue de la Charite is in the 2nd Arrondissement section AR and can be found on the Cadastral mps. I also went to look at the census (Resencements) for 1921 but looking at the entries it seems that this is a hospital i.e. the address where she was born rather than where the family lived. The arrangement seems similar to my department (Charente) and so it is likely that her baptism record will be there somewhere. Start here:

        2. Dear
          Thanks! It’s amazing how found thinks in so short time. I have found out all these things but I took months. She is born in Lyon at the charité. I don’t know her destany after 1940, whether, where and why she died.

      1. Thank you.
        I’m looking for the early 1600’s .
        I will be enquiring again.
        Thank you for your information

  6. It is anticipated that eventually with the great transcription work that is being down by FamilySearch, all that information will be available FREE.

  7. My children’s late Grandmother was Hungarian Jewish. Helene Szabo born 18/02/1925 in Vajka est ,Hungary. Somewhere along the line she married a ? Kulhanek. She immigrated to England where on the 24 Dec 1949 she married again to a Irving Horace Banks in Oldham and had my children’s late father Stephen Banks. I have never been able to trace her Journey over here.
    Her parents where I think Janos Szabo and Rozalia .I was told her life was terribley hard and very frightening .She had a sister called Margit Szabo who Married Geza Victor Angyalossy ,they went to Australia and Canada .I have been trying for absolutely years to find her and her family from Hungary . I would love for my children to know who their Grandmother and Grandparents where and keep their legacy alive

    1. Hello, Have you received any information yet? I have been doing some research and would like to share a couple of finds with you.

  8. Do you have a guide to citing passenger lists in the footnotes or endnotes of a book? I’ve queried an Ancestry forum, Family Search, the Chicago Manual of Style, and the Library of Congress, all without luck. (In my latest book manuscript, I just “winged” it.) The raw data is often available in spades, but how to present it has, apparently, never been codified. If you don’t know how, why not make a project of it? Gather examples from immigrant history books and LOC microfilm listings and amalgamate them into a consistent formula. It would be a real feather in your cap!

    1. Have you tried Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, Third Edition Revised, by Elizabeth Shown Mills? At almost 900 pages, it probably covers how to cite every type of source you might use.

  9. My ancestors immigrated to the US before 1899 but I have not been able to find either their port of entry or ship although I have documentation of their request for citizenship. I’m guessing they entered on the East Coast because they settled in Pennsylvania when they first arrived. Their name were: Frederick James and Eleanora (Lamont) Brettell. They brought their daughter, Esther Stone Brettell and their very young son, Frederick Brettell. Any suggestions or info would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

    1. If Fred is from the NW of England try the surname BRETNALL. I have ancestors at that time called Fred Bretnall who had a son Fred Bretnall. Good luck.

  10. Citing passenger lists or similar sources should not be a major headache. Your main guideline is to provide sufficient information so that a reader can find the relevant material simply and easily. The convention is that you cite the format where you obtained the information (and not where a third party obtained the information).

    The standard format is:

    Author name (year of publication) Title of Source, volume details, page references, (URL or other identifying information, if applicable)

    Example (depending on whether you consulted a fiche or book):
    Victorian Public Record Office, 1996, Immigration to Victoria [microform] : Inward Passenger Lists, British ports, 1852-1923, VPRS 7666, Fiche 29

    Victorian Public Record Office, 1996, Immigration to Victoria [microform] : Inward Passenger Lists, British ports, 1852-1923, VPRS 7666, Book 106, Box 10

    I hope that this helps

  11. I would like to know if your great great grandmother lived in Trumbull Ohio and moved to Petoskey Michigan in 1873 how likely would she had traveled by land or by the great lakes maybe a train? I haven’t been able to find out much information it would be greatly appreciated if someone might direct me in the right direction. Thank you in advance.

  12. I’m looking for my grandfather who came from Norway on a whaler at 15 yrs old. I can’t find where he entered the US and my mother says they never talked about this at home so I’m at a dead end. Any suggestions?

  13. My paternal great-grandfather emigrated from Switzerland around 1855 to 1860. The family story is that he stowed away in a pickle barrel. I’ve been unable to find any records until he enlisted in the union army in 1863. Are there any records of stowaways?

    1. Many Swiss came on the ship “Underwriter” departed March 30, 1860. And arrived in NY May 1,1860. You might search the list then read journals kept by other Swiss, who may have know about the pickle barrel kid? Ultich Loosle kept a detailed journal. You may find some info there.

  14. My relative came from the English area and arrived via Canada around 1850. Are there any newspapers in the collection that might cover this situation?

  15. My grandmother, Elizabeth Danis, cam thru Ellis Island around 1892. I visited Ellis Island several years ago and could not find any record of her. Now what to I do? I know she was in New York because she got married within a year of arriving.

  16. Is there any possibility that will provide editions of The Boston Pilot? That publication had many advertisements purchased by immigrants to solicit information pertaining to the current whereabouts of family members who immigrated earlier. I know that many Irish immigrants used that resource during the famine years to reunite with their families/friends.

    1. I can’t answer your question, and maybe you are already aware, but Ancestry has a database titled, “Searching for Missing Friends: Irish Immigrant Advertisements Placed in “The Boston Pilot,” 1831-1920.” You might try a search there.

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