Your Ancestors' Ship Experiences
Read all about it! Discover the storiess behind your immigrant ancestors' voyages to America in newspapers from their ports of entry.
As the SS Veendam entered New York Harbor on the morning of Aug. 30, 1892, Franz Schnell waited breathlessly in steerage with his wife and nine children. Ten days before, the family had boarded in Rotterdam, Holland, bidding farewell to their native Russia forever. Now, finally, they were passing through the gate to their future: America!

But as soon as the cabin-class passengers stepped onto the pier in lower Manhattan, the Veendam veered away, steamed into one of the detention docks of Staten Island and raised a yellow flag. Cholera had broken out in Russia and spread to other ports. Just the day before, 22 steerage passengers from Bremen had arrived in New York City dead. The eager Schnell family would have to wait—the Veendam was in quarantine.

I learned about the Schnells' 1892 plight from the New York Times. Detailed articles describe the quarantine process they endured. Theirs was not the only arriving steamship, and the steerage passengers were stuck waiting their turn aboard the Veendam. Finally, on Sept. 1, the Schnells and their fellow travelers were transported to the Quarantine Hospital on Hoffman Island, just outside the Verrazano Narrows. There, they were required to strip and bathe, while their clothing and baggage were sent through a disinfecting steam shower. Then, returned to the Veendam, they waited again: Would the cholera show itself or not?

Of course, the story of the Schnells is only one among millions. Your own immigrant ancestors have their stories, too. What was their vessel's original port of embarkation? When did they sail? How long did the voyage last? Were the seas tranquil or turbulent? How was the weather? Was there anything noteworthy about the crossing—illness on board, delays, extraordinary speed? Answers to questions such as these can bring your immigrant ancestors' stories to life—and may even help unpuzzle your pedigree chart.

Like the Schnells' saga, vivid details about your ancestors' immigration experiences can be found in the newspapers of their ports of entry. Port-city newspapers in the 19th and early 20th centuries usually had a regular feature titled Harbor News, Marine Intelligence or Port Items, which reported on ships arrived, expected and departed. While the content varied from port to port and from one era to another, such columns generally showed: for every ship—the name, type, registry, tonnage and captain's name; for departing vessels—the port of destination; for arriving vessels—the port of origin, intermediate ports of call, names of cabin passengers (first and second class), number of passengers traveling in steerage (third class), names of firms receiving merchandise, and the sea and weather conditions of the voyage. Often, when something unusual was noted—in the case of the Veendam, the suspicion of cholera and detention in quarantine—a lengthier article in a separate column provided fuller details.

Before you can access the right newspaper, however, you must learn the name of your ancestor's ship, as well as its date and port of entry. I knew before I turned to the New York Times that the Schnell family landed in New York on the Veendam in early September 1892. This information is found in passenger arrival records.

You can find US passenger arrival records dating from 1820 through the 1950s on microfilm at the National Archives and its 14 regional archives (, the Family History Library and its thousands of Family History Centers worldwide (, and many large libraries across the country. Portions of this enormous body of federal records have been published in multivolume sets you can consult at your local library. Other portions have been transcribed on CD-ROMs or digitized and uploaded to the Internet—most notably, the passenger arrival records for the Port of New York, 1892 to 1924, found at (For tips on finding Ellis Island ancestors, see the December 2002 Family Tree Magazine.)

A variety of alphabetical passenger-name indexes, finding aids and search engines can help you locate one passenger among the millions enumerated on ship manifests for the different US ports. To use these, you need to know your ancestor's full original name, approximate age at arrival and approximate year of arrival. Any additional facts about your ancestor's migration—he traveled with his wife and two children, for instance, or she landed in Mobile, Ala.—will help you identify him or her when other passengers with the same name and about the same age arrived at the same time. For descriptions of available passenger arrival records, visit the National Archives Web site

Once you've learned the name of your ancestor's ship and its port and date of entry, you can get the story from the newspaper. Accessing the newspaper you need is easy once you've located the passenger arrival record. Newspapers of all five major ports—Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and New Orleans—and most minor ports—Providence, RI; Galveston, Texas and San Francisco, to name just three—are readily available on microfilm. For more on accessing old newspapers throughout the United States, visit the US Newspaper Program at The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy (Ancestry, $49.95) also contains a chapter listing state-by-state resources for locating newspapers.