Surfing for Ships

By Nancy Hendrickson Premium

From the first explorers to the last great flood of 20th-century immigrants, our ancestors came to this country by ship. They paced the decks of the Snow Squirrel, Friendship, Two Brothers, Adeline and others, their eyes on the New World. When it comes to following those immigrants back to the old country, though, many of us are in the same boat — we know they came, but our knowledge of their past often ends on American shores.

Your first step in that long journey back is to discover when and where they landed. Then, to get across the ocean, you’ll have to weigh anchor on your ancestors’ ship. Pinpointing your family’s vessel used to be a task confined to microfilm, CD-ROM or library researchers, but now ships’ passenger lists are finding their way onto the Internet — including a vast new database of Ellis Island arrivals <>. So far, much of the online data consists primarily of transcriptions, with occasional images of original records. And just like traditional sources, the information you’ll find depends on the original list; records became more detailed over time, so 20th-century lists will likely hold the most clues. (For more on passenger arrival lists, see the December 2000 issue of Family Tree Magazine.)

Start navigating the sea of online passenger lists at our six favorite ship sites:

1. Immigrant Ships Transcribers Guild


The Immigrant Ships Transcribers Guild, founded in 1998, is a volunteer organization that transcribes and uploads ships’ passenger lists to the Internet. To date, the ISTG has transcribed lists of more than 3,000 ships and 1.5 million passengers. Is your ancestor in an ISTG database? To find out, just use the on-site search engine, which is a bit hidden: Click on any one of the ship “volumes,” click on the agreement that the information is copyrighted, and then scroll to the bottom part of the resulting page. The box there lets you search the whole site — all four volumes posted online, not just the one you clicked on. (Type your search in the box after Search — not after Surname, which is strictly to use the Soundex system to help find variant spellings.) Or you can browse the site by dates of sailing (17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries), ship names, port of departure and arrival, captain names and surnames. If you’re unsure of your ancestor’s date of arrival or country of origin, try searching for your surname alone and see what pops up. The site is updated monthly with newly transcribed lists, so check back frequently. Researchers are encouraged to check for every possible surname spelling — transcribers may have to make a spelling judgment when deciphering a poor quality record.

Besides the four ISTG volumes, don’t miss the links from the home page to the Bremen and 1903 projects. The Bremen Project is a joint effort of the ISTG and the Die Maus genealogical society of Bremen, Germany, to transcribe manifests of ships departing from Bremen and Bremerhaven, Germany, in the 19th and 20th centuries. The 1903 project (unaffiliated with ISTG) aims to transcribe lists of all 1903 arrivals in New York; the lists supply passengers’ names and the National Archives microfilm roll number.

The ISTG site also contains The Compass, a separate section with links to other ship-related sites. Follow these links for basic immigration and naturalization information, maritime resources, passenger ships, ship types and descriptions, historic maps and charts, captains and ship images.

2. The Olive Tree Genealogy

<> In addition to passenger lists, this searchable site provides information on the captain, the ship and, frequently, miscellaneous data about passengers. Lists range from the 1492 voyage of the Santa Maria, Nina and Pinta, to the S.S. Groote Beer crossing of 1957. Follow the links to passenger lists both on and off this Web site.

The Olive Tree groups lists by date, immigrant group (New Netherland, Irish, Huguenot, Palatine) and country of arrival (United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, South Africa, South American, United Kingdom). You can also search from any page; look for the search box in the right-side frame.

3. TheShipsList

<> TheShipsList is a links site with a twist. In addition to passenger-list links, it contains tutorials, photos of ports of the world and ships, period narratives, 19th-century magazine articles and information about shipping lines.

Not sure which port Great-great-grandpa Harold sailed from? Click on Pictures of Maps to see the major European ports of the 1800s. Wonder what the 1870 fare was from Hamburg to New York? Check out the Trivia section for an answer that may surprise you. If your immigration research has turned up the puzzling phrase “Declaration of Intent,” you’ll find a complete explanation under Q&A.

4. 100 Years of Emigrant Ships from Norway

<> Did Great-uncle Olaf travel to the United States from Norway? If so, you may find him on this Norwegian site. It indexes the names of ships known to have left Norway with emigrants between 1825 and 1925. This includes ships that sailed to ports in America and other parts of the world.

According to the “Hunting Passenger Lists” page, the first organized party of emigrants to leave Norway were known as the “sloopers,” and left from Stavanger in 1825 on the Restaurasjon. The next two ships left in 1836, and from then, ships would set out every year.

Since the site isn’t searchable, use the site map to find passenger lists by ships’ names and sailing dates. The “Passenger Lists” page (follow the link in the left frame) has tables organized by year that show the ship name, captain and date and port of arrival and departure. Most often you’ll find name, age and gender, and in some cases you’ll find a scanned image of the actual passenger list.

From the site map, head to profiles of individual ships (some of which have images of the vessel) and steamship companies. This site also contains voyage narratives, such as the one by Peter O. Stensven during his 1867 trip from Vardal, Norway, to Koshkong Prairie, Wise. — so even if you don’t find your ancestor, you can get a good idea of what his voyage was like.

5. American Plantations and Colonies/Ships to America

<> This site contains more than 800 voyage passenger lists and the names of more than 25,000 passengers. And it names many of the ships that sailed to the American plantations, even if no passenger or voyage details exist. Scroll down to the ship index, where you can browse alphabetical lists of vessels. Many entries include dates and ports, and some furnish lists of known passengers and other information. If a passenger list is given, it frequently includes the source of the information. The site also includes links to other Web pages with passenger lists.

Windows users can search the entire Web site by clicking on <>.

6. National Archives of Canada


The National Archives of Canada holds immigration records from 1865 to 1935, including complete immigrant passenger lists. The archives also houses border-entry lists — references to people who landed at American ports and indicated that they were proceeding directly to Canada.

You can search 500,000-plus records with the archives’ online database, which covers passenger list indexes from 1925 to 1935, as well as border-entry records of people whose surnames begin with C. The search screen contains five fields: surname, given name, year of arrival, port of arrival and ship. The results screen will give the passenger’s name, age, sex, nationality, date of arrival, port of arrival and the name of the ship.


A Sea of Sites

More places to explore the depths of online passenger data:

• On The Trail of Our Ancestors

<>: 17th-and 18th-century passenger lists to Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

• Immigration and Ships Passenger Lists Research Guide

<>: Excellent research guide from the Genealogical Society of Bergen County, NJ.

• What Passenger Lists Are Online?

<>: A links list to passenger lists on the Web.

• GenSeek Ships and Passenger Lists

<>: US, Canada, Australia/New Zealand, Ireland and general nautical links.

• GenSwap Passenger Lists and Immigration Records

<>: Links to more than 75 passenger list sites.

• Immigrants to Canada and Ships They Came On

<>: Links list to voyage accounts, ships sailing to Canada, ports of arrival and departure.

• Emigration/Ship Lists and Resources

<>: Portal site with more than 120 ships links.

• Immigrant Ships Descriptions

<>: Descriptions of ships, owners and voyages.

• Magellan — The Ships Encyclopedia

<>: Encyclopedic entries, some with photos.

• Passenger Lists, Ships, Ship Museums

<>: Portal site to research passenger lists.

This site also maintains its own mailing list to help you find information on which vessel brought your ancestor to a new land. This is an international list, and useful to subscribers regardless of what country their ancestors settled in. Another feature of this site is its query board. Click on TheShipsList Searchable Archives Database to leave a message about your ancestor. You can also search the message board or browse the archives.

From the June 2001 issue of Family Tree Magazine