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?

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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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Trace Your Immigrant Ancestors with Newspaper Passenger Lists

Be sure to check passenger lists that were routinely printed in newspapers—they have critical genealogical information about your immigrant ancestors that you need for your family history research.

Look at this typical example, published in the Irish Nation newspaper in New York City.

This passenger list reports on the Irish passengers who arrived in New York City on board various ships recently arrived from Europe. Look at the entry for Jane Williamson.

passenger list, Irish Nation newspaper article 7 January 1882

Irish Nation (New York City, New York), 7 January 1882, page 8

This passenger list newspaper article tells us that Jane Williamson, from County Antrim, Ireland, arrived on 28 December 1881 on board the steamer England. It also says that her ultimate destination in America was Cincinnati, Ohio.

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I looked at the original passenger list online, and found that it has no mention of the facts that Jane was from County Antrim or that she was heading to Cincinnati.

  • For the entry “Place of Last Residence” it was blank.
  • For the entry “Province of Last Residence” it read: “Unknown.”
  • For the entry “City or Village of Destination” it read: “United States.”

How did the Irish Nation newspaper get more complete information about Jane Williamson for its newspaper article than was contained in the original passenger list?

Did they pay arriving Irish immigrants for self-reporting this information? Did they devote a lot of reporters’ time to getting all the facts—and do this for the hundreds and hundreds of Irish immigrants that arrived every day?

What a great resource for genealogists who are tracing their ancestral roots overseas!

The federal passenger lists contain part of the story—to get the rest of the story, you need to turn to old newspapers.

It is essential to check the deep newspaper archives on GenealogyBank to get more of the details about your ancestors and their immigration to the United States.

Keep digging and discover the stories of your ancestors’ lives.

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Where to Find Passenger Lists to Trace Your Immigrant Ancestors

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary explains how ships’ passenger lists can help you trace your ancestors’ journeys to and arrivals in America—and she provides dozens of links to passenger list websites.

Tracing the ship journeys of your immigrant ancestors is an undertaking all family historians should do. A helpful resource for this kind of research is ships’ passenger lists, which can report your ancestors’ full names, what countries they came from, and when they arrived in America.

photo of passengers on the deck of the steamship Comus

Photo: passengers on the deck of the steamship Comus. Credit: Library of Congress.

Since there is no comprehensive online genealogy resource featuring all the passenger lists, researching them is a time-consuming task. To complicate matters, some old passenger records have been lost or destroyed. Don’t despair, however—there is hope for research success: many passenger lists have been transcribed or digitized, and are available for online searching.

What’s more, passenger lists were routinely published in the newspapers of the time; any comprehensive collection such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives will contain thousands of passenger lists.

Filby’s Records

One of the most comprehensive studies for pre-1820 arrivals in America is Passenger and Immigration Lists Index, which was compiled by William P. Filby and Mary Keysor Meyer (Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research, 1981). Known as “Filby’s” to researchers, this body of work consists of 15 volumes and contains over 4.5 million names. It’s available at select libraries and in several subscription services.

As the FamilySearch Wiki reports, Filby’s includes “published lists of immigrants’ names taken from newspapers, naturalization oaths, indenture lists, headright grants, and other records.”

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Passenger Lists in Newspapers

Since a primary portion of the records in Filby’s study came from newspaper reports, be sure to explore GenealogyBank’s Passenger Lists in Newspapers 1704-1984 collection. Because shipping was a mainstay of early commerce, newspapers routinely advertised sailings and reported the arrivals of passengers and goods from foreign and domestic ports.

screenshot of GenealogyBank’s search form for passenger lists

Photo: screenshot of GenealogyBank’s search form for passenger lists

The information you’ll uncover in passenger lists varies. Some accounts include little more than the ship or shipmaster’s name for both incoming and outgoing vessels. Other records reveal a count of passengers and the names of most of the passengers. In some cases, the passengers traveling in steerage were not reported.

If you’re lucky, passenger list records will report full names, or refer to travelers by title, as seen in this passenger list published in a 1793 Massachusetts newspaper.

passenger list from the ship George Barclay, Massachusetts Mercury newspaper article 23 April 1793

Massachusetts Mercury (Boston, Massachusetts), 23 April 1793, page 3

Here is another example of a passenger list, this one published in an 1895 New York newspaper.

passenger list from the ship Normannia, New York Tribune newspaper article 18 July 1895

New York Tribune (New York, New York), 18 July 1895, page 6

Domestic Passenger Lists

Many websites feature, or refer to, passenger lists. Some have searchable databases, lists or links to other websites.

Here are some helpful passenger list websites:

  • Castle Garden at the Castle Clinton National Monument. Located in Battery Park in Manhattan, New York, Castle Garden was the main point of entry for some eight million immigrants from 1855 to about 1892, until Ellis Island was constructed. http://www.castlegarden.org/
  • The Ellis Island Immigrant Station was constructed in the Port of New York between 1890 and 1892. Its completion changed the immigration process from a state responsibility to the federal government. http://www.ellisisland.org/
  • FamilySearch Historical Record Collections include over 30 archives pertaining to California, Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New England, New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Washington. The collection continues to expand; one of the newest databases is Washington, Seattle, Passenger and Crew Lists of Airplanes, 1947-1954 at https://familysearch.org/search/collection/2299373. To search other passenger lists, enter “passenger” at https://familysearch.org/search/.
  • Oregon: Passenger and Crew Lists of Vessels Arriving at Astoria, Portland, and other Oregon Ports, Apr. 1888 – Oct. 1956, and Passenger Lists of Airplanes Arriving at Portland, Oreland, Nov. 1947 – Oct. 1952 http://www.archives.gov/research/microfilm/m1777.pdf
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Foreign Passenger Lists

Manifests were created at the port of embarkation, so you may wish to research foreign records. The following is a brief list of online resources for tracing your immigrant ancestry in passenger lists.

If you have other passenger list links to share, please tell us in the comments section!

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