Ship Records for Genealogy: Newspapers & Passenger Lists

Every family historian wants to know the ship their ancestor came over on and the date that it arrived.

Along with Thanksgiving, tomorrow we’ll be celebrating the arrival of the Mayflower in 1620.

That trip took 66 days. Remarkably, when my ancestor William Kemp came to America 233 years later that trip still took a long time: 56 days.

Genealogists often can find the date and the name of the ship their ancestor came over on—but is there more to the story?
Is there a way to find out more details about our ancestors?

Yes—we can find the rest of the story and, importantly, pass it down in the family. We can find it in GenealogyBank’s 3 centuries of newspaper archives.

Stories from the Mayflower Voyage

In the case of the Pilgrims coming to America, the old newspapers fill in the story, reporting that the Mayflower voyage was very difficult. The Boston Herald tells us that “halfway across the ocean, the point of no return, the Mayflower ran into the first of ‘many fierce storms.’”

article about the Mayflower's cross-Atlantic trip in 1620, Boston Herald newspaper article 25 November 1970

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 25 November 1970, page 26

One violent storm at sea cracked and buckled the main beam. The news article reports that the Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower were terrified. Luckily they had brought along nails, screws and other items for building homes in the New World, and were able to use a “great iron scrue” to “force the beam back into place.”

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What about My Ancestor’s Story?

I have always wanted to know exactly when my ancestor William Kemp came to America, and I finally found that date and the name of the ship on the free Internet site CastleGarden.org.

William arrived in America on 21 October 1853, a passenger on the ship Benjamin Adams.

There it is in the ship passenger list: the name of the ship and the date of his arrival!
Done.

With this information, I did a search on FamilySearch and found confirmation.

screenshot of New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1891

Source: FamilySearch “New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1891” https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/275L-W4Z

screenshot of New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1891, showing the listing for William Kemp

Source: FamilySearch “New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1891” https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/275L-W4Z

But, Was There More to William’s Story?

The name of the ship and the arrival date are good to know, but I wanted to find out more about William’s story—and old newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, are a good resource for finding our ancestors’ stories.

Searching GenealogyBank by the name of the ship—not the name of my ancestor—I found this article in the American and Commercial Daily Advertiser reporting that the Benjamin Adams left Friday 26 March 1852 on its maiden voyage from Bath, Maine, to Baltimore, Maryland.

shipping news, American and Commercial Daily Advertiser newspaper article 1 April 1852

American and Commercial Daily Advertiser (Baltimore, Maryland), 1 April 1852, page 3

Advertisements for “the splendid ship Benjamin Adams” highlighted its comfortable accommodations of 6 to 8 cabins above deck and another 75 to 80 accommodations in steerage below deck.

article about the accomodations on the ship "Benjamin Adams," American and Commercial Daily Advertiser newspaper article 28 April 1852

American and Commercial Daily Advertiser (Baltimore, Maryland), 28 April 1852, page 1

Once William Kemp made his decision to emigrate he would have taken a steamship from Ireland to Liverpool, England, arriving at Clarence Dock along the Mersey River in Liverpool.

Liverpool has a series of docks along the banks of the Mersey River. It was one of the major hubs of immigration to America.

According to Liverpool and Emigration in the 19th and 20th Centuries, Information Sheet number 64:

By 1851 it had become the leading emigration port in Europe with 159,840 passengers sailing to North America, as opposed to the second port, Le Havre, [France] with 31,859.

This would have been the scene in mid-19th century Liverpool when William arrived to wait for his ship to America.

painting: “Liverpool Docks from Wapping,” 1870, by John Atkinson Grimshaw

Painting: “Liverpool Docks from Wapping,” 1870, by John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836-1893). Source: original is at the Liverpool City Library, Liverpool, England.

The Preparation and Movement of Ships

Here is a newspaper article reporting that the ship Benjamin Adams had moved from the dock and into the Mersey River ready to head outbound—waiting to move up the river with the aid of a tugboat that will direct it safely to the open ocean.

shipping news, Portland Weekly Advertiser newspaper article 13 September 1853

Portland Weekly Advertiser (Portland, Maine), 13 September 1853, page 3

The big day arrived: the Benjamin Adams set sail on 24 August 1853 bound for New York City.

shipping news, Daily Atlas newspaper article 10 September 1853

Daily Atlas (Boston, Massachusetts), 10 September 1853, page 2

Ship Arrival Times

It was announced in the Weekly Herald newspaper that the Benjamin Adams arrived in New York City on 21 October 1853.
They made it.

shipping news, Weekly Herald newspaper article 22 October 1853

Weekly Herald (New York City, New York), 22 October 1853, page 344

News Stories of Trouble at Sea

Newspapers can tell us just how difficult the cross-Atlantic trip was for our ancestors. That Weekly Herald article gave more details on the trip. The voyage took 56 days with 620 passengers on board. The ship was hit by a storm, suffering major damage:

Sept. 10, while laying to under a close reefed topsail in a heavy gale from the NW, lost all three topgallant masts, closed reefed mizzen topsail, foresail, mainsail, stern boat, and received other damage.

The old news article also reported: “Had 15 deaths on the passage.”

A week later the Weekly Herald told us why so many had died.

Great Mortality in Emigrant Ships, Weekly Herald newspaper article 29 October 1853

Weekly Herald (Albany, New York), 29 October 1853, page 350

Cholera was killing passengers on ship after ship:

…it is pretty certain that the disease which carried them off was cholera, that fatal malady which is making such havoc among the shipping in Europe…The sickness on the Benjamin Adams was decidedly cholera.

Cholera was a major problem in England and Europe in the mid-1800s. In 1853-1854 it killed more than 31,000 people in London alone. It would be another year before the pioneering work of John Snow, M.D. (1813-1858) discovered the cause and cure for the repeated cholera epidemics.

The Albany Evening Journal had this report about the arrival of the Benjamin Adams.

article about the ship "Benjamin Adams," Albany Evening Journal newspaper article 22 October 1853

Albany Evening Journal (Albany, New York), 22 October 1853, page 2

Passenger Ship Routes

Wait—the Benjamin Adams arrived “from Syria” bringing “a Jerusalem plow and other articles from the Holy Land, for the Crystal Palace at New York”? Notice that it stopped in Boston, Massachusetts, before continuing on to New York City.

When was the ship in Syria?

Enter Last Name

Digging deeper into GenealogyBank’s old newspapers—there it is.

The ship was in Beirut on July 25th before going to Liverpool to pick up William Kemp and the other 619 passengers.

shipping news, Daily Atlas newspaper article 1 September 1853

Daily Atlas (Boston, Massachusetts), 1 September 1853, page 2

The Springfield Republican gave more details.

article about the ship "Benjamin Adams," Springfield Republican newspaper article 25 October 1853

Springfield Republican (Springfield, Massachusetts), 25 October 1853, page 2

In addition to the “Arab plough,” the Benjamin Adams brought:

…canes from the banks of the Jordan, branches from the Mount of Olives and cedars of Lebanon, and husks that the “prodigal son” would have eaten if he had had them to eat.

Conclusion

When I began searching for the name of the ship and the date that William Kemp arrived in America, I only knew that William was born in Corradownan, County Cavan, Ireland. I did not know any additional details about William’s cross-Atlantic trip.

Thanks to CastleGarden.org and FamilySearch.org, I learned that he came over on the ship Benjamin Adams and that he arrived in New York City on 21 October 1853.

Those were the basic facts, but it took the old newspapers in GenealogyBank’s deep newspaper archives to fill in the rest of the story. These newspapers gave me the details of how dangerous the trip was, reported that it took an incredible 56 days, provided a description of the ship’s accommodations, and listed the interesting ancient relics it was bringing from Syria to the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations—the World’s Fair—held in 1853 in New York City.

Old documents give us the names, dates and places, but newspapers have the stories that give life to our ancestors and make their experiences memorable and unforgettable.

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American Immigrant Story: 1837 Shipwreck Ruins the Trip

Our ancestors have made the long trip to America starting with the days of the Pilgrims. These were not easy journeys and some ended in disaster. Here is a riveting newspaper account from an article written in 1837 showing just how brutal the trip to America could be.

Disastrous Shipwreck, Newark Daily Advertiser newspaper article 5 January 1837

Newark Daily Advertiser (Newark, New Jersey), 5 January 1837, page 2

The barque Mexico left Liverpool, England, in October 1836 with a 12-man crew and 104 passengers on board. Two-thirds of the passengers were women and children.

Two months after departing, the ship made it to the coast of New Jersey on Saturday, December 31, 1836. But, like an airplane waiting for the designated gate to open, the Mexico had to sit offshore with another “thirty or more square rigged vessels” waiting for a guide ship to pilot them in to the docks.

The sea was rough that day, and a gale-force wind blew them fifty miles from the port. It was now January 1837, the weather was not cooperating, and half the crew “were badly frost-bitten.” They could only remain above deck for 30 minutes at a time.

Soundings were taken but were not accurate. As the newspaper article explains: “The event has shewn that the information given by the mate as to the depth of water was incorrect; his error probably arose from the lead line being frozen stiff at the time it was cast.”

The captain, thinking that the water was deep enough for him to remain in place, dropped anchor. But as the tides shifted the ship “struck the bottom, 26 miles east of Sandy Hook at Hempstead beach, and not more than a cable’s length from the shore.”

A bad situation for the ship out at sea was growing worse… “The scene that ensued on board, we leave to the reader’s imagination.”

The Mexico’s life boats were deployed, but they were quickly smashed by the pounding waves. Finally a rescue boat came out from the shore to help the stricken ship and eight men—including Captain Winslow—jumped in and headed back to shore, escaping the Mexico.

What? The captain was one of the first to desert the ship?

The remaining ship passengers and crew, despite the fierce cold, gathered on the deck—watching the shore to see if more rescue boats would come out to save them.

None did.

“When they perceived that no further help came from the land their piercing shrieks were distinctly heard at a considerable distance, and continued through the night until they one by one perished.”

Their remains were found in the morning “lashed to different parts of the wreck embedded in ice.”

“None, it is believed, were drowned, but all frozen to death.”

The Newark Daily Advertiser published the Mexico’s sad shipwreck story, including a list of the passengers who died.

GenealogyBank gives you the news as your ancestors’ lived it.

list of dead passengers from shipwreck, Newark Daily Advertiser newspaper article 5 January 1837

Newark Daily Advertiser (Newark, New Jersey), 5 January 1837, page 2