My Ancestor’s Trip to America: Newspapers Tell the Story

I knew my ancestor William Kemp had come to America – but I didn’t know anything about the trip itself. What was it like for him as an immigrant traveling by passenger ship across the ocean to the new frontier?

Could GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives help me find the answer?

I knew that William came to America on board the ship Benjamin Adams, arriving 21 October 1853. He left from Liverpool, England, and arrived in New York City.

painting: “The Bay and Harbor of New York” by Samuel Waugh (1814-1885)

Painting: “The Bay and Harbor of New York” by Samuel Waugh (1814-1885). Source: Wikipedia.

Since I knew that shipping was big business, I wondered if newspapers could tell me more about the movements of the Benjamin Adams and William’s trip to America.

In testing my search I found that the name of the passenger ship appeared multiple ways in various newspaper articles – so I strategized that I needed to search every possible variation for any mention of the Benjamin Adams, from the spring to the fall of 1853, to make sure I didn’t miss any articles.

To find all of the articles I needed to search GenealogyBank’s archives using:

  • Benjamin Adams
  • Adams
  • Benj. Adams
  • Benj Adams
  • B. Adams
  • B Adams

This should give me all references to the passenger ship and William’s voyage to America.

Here’s what I found.

This Maine newspaper told me that by 23 August 1853, the passengers had boarded the Benjamin Adams and the ship was positioned “outward bound” in the Mersey River in Liverpool.

shipping news about the ship "Benjamin Adams," Portland Weekly Advertiser newspaper article 13 September 1853

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

This Massachusetts newspaper gave me the critical fact that the ship sailed the next day – 24 August 1853. Wow – good to know.

shipping news about the ship "Benjamin Adams," Daily Atlas newspaper article 10 September 1853

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

Next I looked for reports of the passenger ship arriving in America.

Here it is – this New York newspaper reported that the ship had docked in New York on 21 October 1853.

shipping news about the ship "Benjamin Adams," Weekly Herald newspaper article 22 October 1853

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

The trip to New York took 56 days. There were 620 passengers – but here’s where the news turned more somber.

The old newspaper article reported:

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 ship was damaged in a fierce storm just 17 days after leaving Liverpool. The passengers must have been terrified – wondering if they were going to make it.

But there was more bad news:

Had 15 deaths on the passage.

Significant storm damage to the ship and 15 people died?
Fifteen people died?
Wow. Was that normal on these trips? Why did so many die?

William was lucky to make it safely to America!

In a follow-up article a week later, the Weekly Herald explained why so many had died on the passage. These passengers just didn’t die of random causes – they died from an outbreak of cholera, which struck  many ships.

…it is pretty certain that the disease which carried them off was cholera. ….The sickness on the Benjamin Adams was decidedly cholera.

shipping news about the ship "Benjamin Adams," Weekly Herald newspaper article 29 October 1853

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

This was a tough trip.

GenealogyBank’s newspapers continued to tell me more about William’s trip.

This New York newspaper mentioned that the ship Benjamin Adams had arrived “from Syria.”

shipping news about the ship "Benjamin Adams" and cholera, Albany Evening Journal newspaper article 22 October 1853

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

From Syria?
I thought they left from Liverpool?

They did – but before arriving in Liverpool, the ship had been in Syria.

This Massachusetts newspaper told me that the Benjamin Adams had docked in Beirut, Syria, on 25 July 1853, before it went to Liverpool to pick up William Kemp and the other 619 passengers.

shipping news about the ship "Benjamin Adams," Daily Atlas newspaper article 1 September 1853

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

The reason for the trip to the Holy Land was explained in this Massachusetts newspaper. The Benjamin Adams picked up artifacts there to display at the World’s Fair:  “an Arab plough and other agricultural implements for the World’s Fair…canes from the banks of the Jordan, branches from the Mount of Olives and cedars of Lebanon…” and apparently somewhere along the way it picked up cholera.

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

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

GenealogyBank doesn’t just give you the names, dates and places for your family tree – it gives you the stories of our ancestors’ lives.

You know when your ancestors arrived in America – dig in GenealogyBank and find out the rest of their stories.

Genealogy Tip: Search Wide Geo Areas

Did you notice a pattern with the newspaper articles in this blog post?

There were newspapers in Maine, New York, Massachusetts and beyond that reported on the Benjamin Adams. You want to search for this type of article and for the articles about your ancestors across all 8,000 of GenealogyBank’s newspapers. To find these articles, you cannot limit your search to only the newspapers of one or two states. If you limit your search geographically, you might miss an article critical to the telling of your ancestor’s story.

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Nautical Terms & Phrases Found in Old Newspapers

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary provides another fun quiz to test your knowledge of nautical terms and phrases you may encounter in your family history research—and provides examples from historical newspapers.

Sailing ships, steamships, and sea travel were a big part of our ancestors’ lives, something genealogists often encounter when searching their family history. This blog article provides a fun quiz to see how well you know old nautical terms and phrases, then defines the terminology using examples from historical newspapers.

When researching ancestral voyages in newspapers, you’ll find that maritime language varies vastly from that on land.

That is, unless you reside in a nautical community such as Nantucket, Massachusetts.

A newspaper article from the Idaho Register in 1916 reported that “Nantucket speech is a museum of nautical expression.” A departing guest might hear, “Well, a fair wind to you,” and “women’s work” was referred to as “tending the kettle halyards.” Unless you know maritime terminology, you might not realize that a halyard is a rope (known on a boat as a line) used to hoist items, such as sails.

So what is a kettle halyard? That stumps me, but I suspect it was a kettle attached to a halyard, either for hoisting fish aloft for drying purposes, or to assist in bringing newly caught fish into the boat.

In 1841, a Nantucket mariner wrote his will strewn with nautical language. Obed Gardner wrote that he had “cruised with wife Huldy Jane since 1811,” and he wanted her and son Jotham to be “captain and mate in bringin’ to port” whatever he left. His story was told in that 1916 Idaho Register newspaper article.

Made His Will in Sea Terms, Idaho Register newspaper article 19 September 1916

Idaho Register (Idaho Falls, Idaho), 19 September 1916, page 6

Perhaps you are an expert in the language of the sea? Test your nautical knowledge with this handy terminology quiz and review the definitions below. You are welcome to share the nautical terms quiz and this blog article, with proper credit to me and GenealogyBank.

quiz of nautical terms and phrases found in old newspapers

Nautical Locations and Directions: Sailors use different terms to refer to the front, middle or back of a boat or ship. Some common ship terms are:

  • Abeam: middle of the boat or ship
  • Aft, astern or stern: the back or toward the back
  • Bow or foreship: front or toward the front
  • Midship or amidship: middle or toward the middle (half way between the bow and the stern)
  • Port and starboard: the left & right sides, respectively, as you face forward
What's Your Answer? Repository newspaper article 27 December 1939

Repository (Canton, Ohio), 27 December 1939, page 18

Blunderbuss: A blunderbuss is a type of flared firearm (weapon); the term later came to describe a clumsy person. In 1720, a “Sale by Publick Vendue” described various appurtenances “lately belonging to the Ship Thomas and Benjamin” that had been shipwrecked off the coast of South Carolina, including blunderbusses. There were also references to hooks, spears, horns, compasses and a poop lanthorn, which is explained below

Sale by Publick Vendue, Boston Gazette newspaper article 23-30 May 1720

Boston Gazette (Boston, Massachusetts), 23-30 May 1720, page 3

Brig or Brigantine: Brigs were an early and popular ship design. Most brigantines were square-rigged with two masts, as seen in this Library of Congress photograph of Oliver Perry’s brig Niagara. An alternate term definition is a ship’s prison.

photo of Oliver Perry's flagship "Niagara," Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Old newspapers contain numerous references to sea voyages, including one from 1738 reporting that the brig Sally and the ship Constantine (a larger vessel) were bound for London.

notice about the departure of the ships "Constantine" and "Sally," American Weekly Mercury newspaper article 5-12 October 1738

American Weekly Mercury (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 5-12 October 1738, page 3

This 1917 newspaper article described the process of discipline on a ship. Insubordinate sailors were tried before a court called a “mast” and the worst punishment was to be sent to “the brig.”

notice of a ship's brig, Idaho Statesman newspaper article 2 November 1917

Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), 2 November 1917, page 3

Capsized or Capsizing: When a watercraft overturns, it is known as capsizing. In 1910, the sloop yacht Black Command, a type of one-masted sailboat, capsized off Solomon’s Island, forcing passengers into Chesapeake Bay.

Capsized off Solomon's Island, Baltimore American newspaper article 18 July 1910

Baltimore American (Baltimore, Maryland), 18 July 1910, page 12

Deck and Poop Deck: A deck is a floor of a ship. Some of the more common decks are: the bridge (captain’s or navigational equipment deck), main, upper, lower, promenade (walking area), tween or between (empty deck between two others), flush (an open unobstructed deck), quarter (near the main mast), weather (exposed to the weather), and the poop deck.

The poop deck is located at the aft or rear of a ship and its placement is typically elevated. The term poop is derived from the Latin term puppis, or stern portion of a ship.

Japanese Ship after Crash off Capes, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 3 October 1922

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 3 October 1922, page 15

Galley, Mess & Mess Hall: The galley or ship’s kitchen is where food is prepared, and the mess is the food, as seen in the following description from a 1917 newspaper article. Dining halls for soldiers and sailors are often called mess halls. This old newspaper article mentions that an enlisted sailor might be called a “jackie” by his family, but was always referred to as a “bluejacket” on board the ship—a nautical term which comes from his blue jacket uniform.

notice about a ship's galley and mess, Idaho Statesman newspaper article 2 November 1917

Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), 2 November 1917, page 3

Keel: The keel is the structure on the bottom of a vessel’s hull (main body), which counterbalances the boat’s weight should it lean (known as listing) too far to one side. Without a keel, ships often capsize. In 1901, Commodore Perry’s brig Porcupine from the War of 1812 was located by Dr. Schuyler C. Graves. Not much was left, but he was able to secure the keel and put it on display.

All That Remains of Commodore Perry's Warship, Grand Rapids Press newspaper article 19 October 1901

Grand Rapids Press (Grand Rapids, Michigan), 19 October 1901, page 13

Lanthorn and Poop Lanthorn: This nautical term refers to a portable lantern (lamp) or signaling device. In the above example for blunderbuss, there is a reference to the poop lanthorn which indicates a lamp secured on the poop deck. The below photo depicts an early American lanthorn from my family. A recently discovered family note indicates provenance relating to the Miesse family of Berks County, Pennsylvania.

photo of a ship's lanthorn

Photo: Harrell family lanthorn. Credit: from the author’s collection.

Mast: The mast is the pole that supports the sails on the ship, but it is also a term for the court that insubordinate sailors face while at sea. See the above example for brig.

Mizzen or Mizzenmast: The mizzen is a type of mast located behind or aft of the ship’s mainmast. The term also refers to the lowest sail on the mizzenmast.

In 1898, Miss Cowan, described as a “Yankee girl,” climbed the mizzen rigging (ropes and equipment supporting or attached to the mast). As she did not have her bicycle outfit with her, Captain Storer lent her one of his outfits.

Yankee Girl Went Aloft, Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper article 2 March 1898

Kalamazoo Gazette (Kalamazoo, Michigan), 2 March 1898, page 3

For more information on rigging and sails, see the Wikipedia articles at and

Sloop: A sloop is a type of sailboat with one mast and two sails (known as the mainsail and jib), although the term can also refer to a small square-rigged sailing warship with more masts. See the above illustration for capsizing.

Sternchaser or Stern-chaser: The following nautical term definition comes from a 1939 newspaper article.

notice of a ship's sternchaser, Repository  newspaper article 27 December 1939

Repository (Canton, Ohio), 27 December 1939, page 18

There are many more nautical terms you’ll find in newspapers. Let us know if you encounter one that you do not understand. Also, please share any nautical term definitions you have come across in your genealogy research with us in the comments.