Q. I’ve found the passenger list showing my German ancestors’ 1853 arrival in New Orleans. How can I find a record of their travel on a riverboat to Ohio?
A. “It was pretty much a given that when traveling from New Orleans to anywhere up river or out West, one took passage on a riverboat,” says “Riverboat Dave” of Riverboat Dave’s Paddlewheel Site <www.riverboatdaves.com>. Early boats, powered by burning wood, were called steamboats. In 1811, the New Orleans was the first one to sail on the Mississippi from New Orleans to the mouth of the Ohio.
Most boats did keep passenger lists along with freight lists and crew lists, but they often weren’t thorough. “Many boats were rather lackadaisical about their business,” Dave says. “Riverboats were much like a Greybound bus is these days. People were getting on and off at all manner of landings and towns.”
Not all passenger lists survived, and they’re not in the familiar standardized format of post-1820 immigration lists. Steamboat records are usually in archival manuscript collections. Start with public and university libraries, historical societies and museums near your relatives’ stop in Ohio.
Check repositories in river towns such as St. Louis and Cincinnati. The Public Library of Greater Cincinnati and Hamilton County’s special collections department <www.cincinnatilibraiy.org/main/rb.asp> is home to the Inland Rivers Library, which contains photographs, maps, freight and account books, crew registers and passenger lists. The Missouri Historical Society <www.mohistory.org> in St. Louis has a Steamboats and River History Collection spanning 1802 to 1986. You can search for materials in 10,000 libraries using WorldCat <world cat.org>.
Knowing the dates of your ancestors’ journey and the boat they took will help in your search. Bookstores, libraries and the Internet are full of information on steamboat history to help you. Way’s Packet Directory 1848-1994: Passenger Steamboats of The Mississippi River System Since the Advent of Photography in MidContinent America, revised edition, by Frederick Way Jr. (Ohio University Press) is a directory of boats with photos, years in operation, rivers covered, captains’ names and other details.
Riverboat Dave’s site has an alphabetical boat index, as well as articles, maps, queries and more. Start at <www.riverboatdaves.com/siteguide.htmI>. You’ll find even more resource recommendations at <www.steamboats.org/history-education/steamboat-rive r-boo ks.html#mississippi>.
A steamboat’s arrival often was an exciting event. Search local newspapers — usually at local libraries, but sometimes digitized on subscription sites such as GenealogyBank <www.genealogybank.com> — where your ancestors landed for the dates when you think they arrived.
From the January 2008 issue of Family Tree Magazine