Although the online digitization of Ellis Islannd’s passenger records <ellisisland.org> was a landmark event for researching immigrant ancestors, it ultimately proved disappointing for many genealogists: Their ancestors weren’t in the database. Despite the lore of that gate way to America, not every immigrant came through the port of New York, and many who did arrived before Ellis Island opened in 1892. The recent posting of records from Castle Garden <castlegarden.org>, Ellis Island’s predecessor, has filled in some of the blanks, but finding passenger records can still be frustrating.
Two new massive digitization efforts may deliver answers to those still seeking their immigrant ancestors. Both come from sites familiar to Internet genealogists: Ancestors on Board <ancestorsonboard.com>, a new service from Find MyPast.com (formerly 1837 online.com), contains outbound passenger lists from British ports, digitized from the United Kingdom’s national archives. A total of 30 million records from the UK Board of Trade, covering thousands of ships from 1890 to 1960, are being uploaded over a span of several months.
Meanwhile, on this side of the Atlantic, Ancestry.com <Ancestry.com > has completed a three-year effort to digitize and post all US passenger-arrival records between 1820 and 1960 from 100 US ports. The record — essentially covering all the National Archives and Records Administration’s <archives.gov> microfilmed passenger list — are part of the site’s Immigration collection, and total some 100 million names.
Unless you have British ancestors who arrived relatively recently, you might not get too excited about Ancestors on Board — but you should. Emigrants from throughout continental Europe typically made British ports their way stations en route to America, catching cheaper ships for the journey across the Atlantic. Much like the Ellis Island site, this database also includes travelers on business and pleasure, so you might find, say, your Norwegian immigrant ancestor sailing back to his new home in the United States, via Liverpool, after a visit to the old country. Plenty of British citizens will be included, too: Every year between 1890 and 1914, some 125,000 Brits moved to the United States and 50,000 to Canada.
To start searching, go to the Ancestors on Board home page. (Or to scour the emigration lists plus FindMyPast.com’s British census, vital and miscellaneous migration records in one fell swoop, go to <findmypast.com/gettingstarted> and click All Records.)
Searching the passenger lists is straight-forward, yet flexible. You must enter a last name, but a first name is optional, and you can search variant spellings (similar to Soundex) with either or both names, or use asterisks as wildcards. Narrow your search by adding the gender, departure port, range of possible departure years, ship name, destination country and (once you’ve specified a country from the drop-down list) destination port. Helpfully, if you’ve searched on a name and come up empty, the site will let you know of any near misses: Searching for josiah welby, for example, gets no hits even with variants, but the results screen says, “3 records include initial J and exact matches. 4 records include unstated first name, initial J and exact matches.”
Ancestry.com’s expanded immigration Collection provides black-and-images of all available US passenger arrival list, from 1820 to 1960. The records cover 100 US ports.
If your ancestors emigrated from a British port — or changed ships there — check for their departure records at Ancestors on Board. The database will contain 30 million outbound passenger lists from 1890 to 1960.
When your search results in several matches, you’ll see a table showing each person’s last name, first name, age, sex, year of emigration, port of departure, and destination country and port. Click on a column heading to sort results by that column’s data. Unfortunately, you can’t view nationality, a fact that can help you pick the right person from the list. That information wasn’t uniformly recorded on the actual passenger manifests (nor was age — for some matches, that column is blank or simply reports “adult”). The ability to narrow results by traveling companion was in the works at press time.
Up to this point, using Ancestors on Board is free. When you click to view a transcription of the passenger record, however, you’ll be prompted to pay five credits (or to register with the site and purchase credits if you haven’t already done so). Viewing a digitized image of the manifest — remarkably clear and in full color — costs 30 credits. The cost per credit gets cheaper the more you buy, ranging from a 90-day plan with 50 credits at about $10, to 4,800 credits good for a year, priced around $480, Even stumbling about and clicking on a few wrong transcriptions before you find your ancestor’s manifest shouldn’t run more than $10 or so — a bargain if Ancestors on Board plugs a hole in your family tree.
Coming to America
Aneestry.com’s newly added immigration records are part of its US Deluxe membership, which costs $155.40 a year or $29.95 a month. The expanded databases let you hunt for ancestors on the other end of their journey; it covers US entry points from Baltimore to San Francisco, Boston to New Orleans.
If you suspect your family arrived in America via a port other than New York — but you don’t know which one — Ancestry.com’s ability to search all these databases at once makes it a deal for getting answers. Of course, you also can use it find New York arrivals, including those before 1892. And given the Ellis Island site’s switch to charging for almost everything beyond a search — such as downloading a passenger manifest — Ancestry.com may now be the better place to hunt for Ellis Island arrivals. Ancestry.com also tosses in other immigration documents, such as petitions for naturalization, which may bring you success where passenger lists have failed.
On Ancestry.com, you can search a single port or all of them at once, using any combination of your ancestor’s first name, last name, year of arrival (a range), age range, ports of departure and arrival, place of origin, ship name and keyword. A Soundex option accounts for name spelling variations, and you can uncheck “Exact matches only” to get a ranked list of results that most closely fit your criteria. All this adds up to prodigious searching power: You could search fore very arriving passenger from Germany between 1873 and 1876 who was age 20 to 25, for example.
Ancestry.com’s ability to search by a passenger’s age and place of origin gives that site a slight edge over Ancestors on Board. Ancestry.com shows the person’s nationality in the results list — information unavailable on departure-port records, which lumped all non-UK passengers under “foreign.”
Once you’ve found an ancestor using Ancestry.com, if you’re a subscriber, you can view a transcription of the record or, for most sources, a black-and-white digitized image of the original manifest. The image viewer is similar to the one Ancestors on Board employs for scrolling and zooming digitized images — easy and relatively fast, even if you don’t have a broad-band connection.
Though accessing Ancestry.com’s records requires a subscription, the site doesn’t charge you per view. The US Deluxe collection fee may seem pricey, but of course you also get Ancestry.com’s complete census collection, vital records and other databases in the deal.
For most researchers, it won’t really be a question of the Ancestors on Board emigration collection versus Ancestry.com’s expanded immigration content. Try one database and see if it solves your shipboard mysteries; then give the other collection a go and discover more immigrant answers. Unless you really love scrolling through and squinting at microfilm, you’ll agree these new passenger databases are a much better way to sail into the past.