If you have been doing your family history research for any length of time, you likely want to find the ship that carried your ancestor to the new country. If you have an ancestor with the last name equivalent of Smith or Jones like my Sullivans and Cotters from Ireland, it become a bit trickier. With more records available online, all hope is not lost. Let’s look.
It used to be that you scrolled through microfilm records ordered by your library or at Salt Lake City library or the National Archives. It was a painstaking process. (You can still do that because not everything is online yet.) Now many of us can find our ancestors with a quick online search and that is a wonderful thing. For those of us with the Smith/Jones equivalents, we need to do more due diligence to determine who is our ancestor among the many manifests. And sometimes there isn’t enough information, and we just cannot claim our ancestor’s ship record…yet.
As is often the case, we happily find the record we want and then move on to the next one. I encourage you to pause and carefully read the manifest and transcribe it. Recently I helped a client find the ship record for her ancestor. It was only after we looked at the ticket number that we realized that a group of nine individuals were all listed under that ticket. No one had the same surname, and they were all relatively young, early twenties. Were they random strangers placed in a particular section of the ship, did they know each other and travel together, or did the ticket number have some other meaning? At this point we don’t know but it is something worth looking into. I did find this site which talks about what those numbers might be: A New Look at Immigrant Passenger Manifests | Steve's Genealogy Blog (stephendanko.com). The author does an excellent job reminding us to look beyond finding the name of our ancestor. Most people traveled with people they knew whether relatives or neighbors. It is easy to overlook a clue like that.
In addition to finding the date of the voyage and arrival, take some time to look at the first page of the manifest where you can see the size of the ship, number of people including crew, port of departure and port(s) they planned to travel to. All these details help you paint a picture of the journey. Sometimes you can even find notices in the newspapers at the port of arrival, noting a ship’s arrival. If something unusual had happened like a severe storm or illness during the voyage, it might be mentioned.
Did your people have family here in America already? Sometimes the ship manifest might even note the specific city they planned to go to next. This might give you an idea of their route from the east coast. Read up on the type of travel options they would have had at that time. Did they travel by railroad? Put yourself in their shoes. What was it like to travel across the country if you did not speak the language? How relieved they must have been to reach the home of their relatives.
More records are being digitized for various ports. Not everyone landed in New York and not everyone came to the United States first. Often, they came to Canada first because it was a less expensive passage. It helps to be flexible in your search. Here are a few free places to check out Ship Manifests. If you have a subscription to Ancestry or MyHeritage and other larger genealogy sites, you can find ship records there.
Free Ships' Passenger Lists to USA, Canada, England, Australia (olivetreegenealogy.com)
Passenger Arrival Lists | National Archives
Passenger Search - The Statue of Liberty & Ellis Island
Cyndi's List - Immigration, Emigration & Migration (cyndislist.com)
I hope you go back and look at the Ship Manifest records that you have found to see if there are additional nuggets of information there. Hope your search is smooth sailing!
With a lifelong passion for genealogy and history, the author enjoys the opportunity to share genealogy tidbits, inspiring others to research and write their family story.