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What Ship's Passenger Lists Can Reveal About Your Ancestors

Updated on July 15, 2015

What are Ship's Passenger Lists?

For every voyage a ship made between 1565 and 1954, a list was made containing the name of every passenger on board and some personal details about them. Exactly what information was included on each passenger depended on a variety of factors, but often included their age, marital status, , and occupation. Additionally the name of the ship, it's captain, and the dates and ports of departure and arrival are included. Even with such minimal information you can trace your ancestor back to their hometown, which can help you to find additional family members.

Up to 1893, these lists may seem to contain but a few details, especially the very early records. After that however, United States law required exceedingly more information to be included on each passenger. When taken in context with the genealogical data you may already have on your ancestor, the few facts found in early ship passenger lists can be more valuable than you might imagine, especially when you know what to look for.


What the Lists Can Tell You

The most obvious information that ship passenger lists can provide is geographical and biographical data. In addition to the name of your ancestor, a passenger list may also provide:

  • Their age

  • Names of other family members accompanying them

  • Their social standing

  • Place of birth

Your ancestors history may be further colored by the names of other passengers they traveled with. Passenger lists exist for famous vessels such as the HMS Bounty, Christopher Columbus's ships the Nina and Pinta, and amazingly a listing of the officers and crew in Columbus's Expedition of 1492 exists. There are even Federal and Supreme Court records regarding the famous slave carrier after which a major motion picture was made, the Amistad. Other famous voyages for which passenger lists are available are; the Titanic, the Lusitania, and even some by the famous explorer Magellan. It's possible your ancestor may have been in the company of some major historical figures.

You may also need to extend the search for your ancestor to include departure ports in neighboring cities, or even other countries. For instance, many immigrants booked passage on steamships leaving from Le Havre in France rather than taking a sailing vessel from ports in England. It is important to investigate possible international connections your ancestor may have had. Just because they have an English surname doesn't necessarily mean they left from England; they could very easily have departed European shores from Ireland or Scotland, and vice-versa.

Religious persecution may have also caused your family member to flee from a neighboring or sympathetic country. Many french Huguenots left for America from Dutch ports such as Amsterdam or Rotterdam. Such a discovery should propel you to look for further connections in foreign lands, as your family may have settled overseas before eventually emigrating.

Stories Revealed

Basic passenger lists can even shed light on your ancestor's life story. If you find passengers with the same surname, there is a great possibility that other family members accompanied your ancestor. If their name alone is on the list, it's possible they were a trailblazer, paving the way for other family members to follow. On the other hand, they may have been the last to finally emigrate, reluctant to leave behind the land and culture they loved. It's very important when doing genealogy research to read between the lines, to use your imagination in conjunction with the basic facts to really paint a picture of your relative. This is the most rewarding aspect of tracing family lineage. We don't just want to find our ancestors, we want to get to know them, to understand what kind of people they were, good or bad.


Genealogy Tip

If you find your ancestor in a ship's passenger list, check lists from the same or surrounding ports for both previous and later years. Some relatives may have preceded your ancestor in immigrating, while others may have followed. It's also possible that relatives who remained behind may have visited their loved one in later years, so always expand your search and consider such possibilities.

Surnames in Passenger Lists

A few known facts about your ancestor can lead you to a treasure trove of genealogical gems. To find that treasure you need to trace backwards or forwards in time from any new found fact to the next one and beyond. The key is to understand what are actual facts, and what is merely a second hand bit of information. Before using any data as a starting point in your genealogical journey, you need to verify the information that you're basing the rest of your efforts on. This is especially true of surnames, as your family name may have been spelled differently a hundred or two hundred years ago, it could even be a transliteration of the name from its original language into English, or the other way around.

There are many historical inconsistencies that have altered the spellings of many a surname. Although this might make it difficult in some cases to identify a particular ancestor, knowing the full name of your relative is critical to continuing the search for other family members. The first step therefore in identifying your ancestor in a ship's passenger list is to know their complete name - first, middle, last and any nicknames they may have had. Only then can you begin your search with confidence that you are on the right path.

An important point to remember when consulting ship's passenger lists is that surnames were printed in the written hand of the purser, whatever nationality he may have been. During the Colonial period, ship's captains created the lists themselves, designing them to include whatever information was important to them personally. Later, from 1820, private companies printed the lists and sold them to the shipping merchants. Later, after 1891, the United States Government printed the lists to contain the information that they desired. In all of the above scenarios however, the data that was input into the lists was all handwritten.

Because the data was written in hand, spelling errors and other anomalies must be considered. Pursers during the early annals of maritime immigration often only asked the passengers their name and wrote it in according to how they would personally spell it. In later years the names may have been copied from passports or other documents, but still the problem of human error persists. The element of human error is especially prevalent in names that originated in languages other than English or the native tongue of the purser. This is not only true with surnames but of given names as well.


What You Can Find and Where You Might Find it

Keeping the above points in mind, always check for spelling variations when searching for your ancestor. Smith may be written as Smit, McMurphy as MacMurphy etc. The use of a nickname may help you to identify your relative more easily, so check family documents such as bibles or scrapbooks, even ask other relatives if they know of any your ancestor may have had. Once you do locate your ancestor, it's possible to find:

  • Their age at arrival

  • The date of their departure

  • The date of their arrival

  • Their nationality

  • Their occupation

  • Names of other family members

The more information you have about your ancestor before looking for them in ship's passenger lists the better, but having only a name can lead you to other records such as:

  • Immigration and Naturalization records

  • Church records

  • Employment records

  • City directories

  • School records

  • Local histories

  • Obituaries

  • Cemetery records

  • Vital records

Many of these records can be found online or at archives in the major ports of arrival for a particular time period. Those major ports for the popular early periods of immigration (19th and 20th centuries) are:

  • New York

  • Boston

  • Baltimore

  • Philadelphia

  • New Orleans

To find out which of these cities have which particular records the following genealogy handbooks are an excellent resource. Not only can they save you time locating more records on your ancestor, they can guide you directly too them. All of them contain internet links, physical addresses, Email addresses, telephone Numbers, and list the record holdings of every important archive and organization in the state the port of your ancestor is located. What's more, all of the resources in these guides are free, so they can save you money too. Some recommended handbooks are:

Keep in mind when searching your ancestor in ship passenger lists, that many have been lost over time, have been damaged by age and weather, or have been completely lost or destroyed. Don't let that discourage you. Check some of the other records listed above. If your ancestor stayed in the area you may find them in those other resources.


They Came in Ships; John P. Colleta PHD., Ancestry Publishing, 2002

Tips for Finding Family in Passenger Lists


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    • glmorrisbda profile image

      Gary L. Morris 3 years ago from Frankfurt, Germany

      You're welcome, and thank you. I'll be posting more on this and other genealogy subjects in the future, time permitting!

    • Millionaire Tips profile image

      Shasta Matova 3 years ago from USA

      This is very helpful. Thank you. I have been tracing all my relatives in the U.S. and have been afraid to take the leap to the other country, but I think I am ready now.