Newsletter Archives

Catch up on the latest in family history with these articles from GenealogyBank News

June 2011 Newsletter

Past Issue Archive

Select the month and year below

FREE Newsletter!

Get online search tips, exclusive offers and other helpful information to aid your genealogy research.

How to Use Passenger Lists

Passenger lists can be a very helpful resource when searching your family's history. Genealogists are usually familiar with the passenger lists online that were digitized from the original registers at the National Archives, based on passenger lists the U.S. Customs Service began compiling in 1820. These are usually records of passenger ships that brought passengers from a foreign port, or at least made a stop at a foreign port before coming to the United States.

But what if you want a passenger list from a stage coach? Or a passenger list before 1820? Or you are looking for a passenger list documenting internal migration within the United States, such as a ship pulling out of Boston and discharging passengers in Baltimore?

Fortunately, newspapers published all kinds of passenger lists, and they were doing it long before 1820. Therefore a good place to find passenger lists is a newspaper archive—and with over 5,000 newspapers from 1690 to today, GenealogyBank's newspaper collection contains thousands of passenger lists.

In this article we'll examine four types of passenger lists: ships arriving with immigrants, ships carrying people within the United States, stage coaches, and ship disaster lists. In each case, we'll examine the passenger lists to see how much genealogical information they provide.

Ships Arriving with Immigrants

The arrival of a ship from the "Old Country" (Europe, Latin America, Asia, etc.) was a very big deal in 18th and 19th Century America. Crowds would flock to the wharves to greet the newly-arriving vessel, and newspapers often published the ship's passenger list. Not only are these lists a great resource for names, they often provide the immigrant's home town, county, and country as well.

Here's a good example, printed by the Shamrock (New York, New York) on August 17, 1817:

In this list we learn that these passengers left Sligo, Ireland, and arrived at New London, Connecticut, on board the brig Juno. They then transferred to the sloop McDonough to complete their passage to New York City.

It can be very difficult for Irish-American genealogists to find the actual town or county where their ancestors lived in Ireland before departing to begin a new life in America. Notice that this published list gives that important information: John Gibbs was from County Cavan; James Wright was from Newtownstewart in County Tyrone; and so forth down to Patrick Travers and James Mara from Lurganboy, County Leitrim.

Ships' passenger lists often contain this information for countries other than Ireland as well. Keep this in mind when researching the past of your immigrant ancestors—passenger lists may be the key to unlocking their Old Country identity.

Ships Carrying People within the United States

Newspapers published passenger lists not only for international arrivals, but also for internal and regional migration routes within the United States. The following example was printed by the Duluth News Tribune (Minnesota) on July 18, 1906:

This list records the names and places of residence of 220 passengers who arrived in Duluth aboard the steamship North West. That's a wealth of names that may prove useful to you—and knowing where the passengers lived at the time of this voyage may help fill in a missing piece of your family history puzzle.

This article also informs us "the weather was ideal all the way from Buffalo" and tells us what a big deal it was when one of these passenger ships arrived: "The North West has lost none of her interests with the Duluth public and despite the fact that she has been running in here regularly there is always a crowd of eager spectators, with women in the majority, at the dock to welcome and admire her. There were at least 400 people at the pier last night and a large number of them were provided with passes to inspect the ship after the passengers had disembarked."

Passengers on Stage Coaches

This is one that might not have occurred to you: newspapers published passenger lists from stage coaches! People were moving around America using all kinds of transportation, and stage coaches were an important part of that.

Here is a stage coach passenger list that was printed by the Rocky Mountain News (Denver, Colorado) on April 8, 1861:

In this example we get a group of names, which is always something genealogists are looking for. Were some of these passengers related to each other? Were they all coming from the same home town? As genealogists we need to look at the facts in the record and see what clues it provides for filling in our family tree.

This next example gives us more information about another stage coach trip, including details about their brutally difficult travel in the dead of winter. This article was printed by the Louisville Journal (Kentucky) and reprinted by the Alexandria Gazette (Virginia) on January 30, 1852:

What an ordeal these passengers went through! This example is more than a passenger list—it is a news article about a disaster that happened on this trip. It gives us the names of the stage coach passengers and driver, and the fact that they left Nashville, Tennessee, bound for Louisville, Kentucky. It also tells us how miserable stage coach travel could be, how bitterly cold these passengers were on this particular trip, and how one of the passengers was especially stricken:

Poor, unfortunate Mr. Gates. The kicker of this story comes in the final lines:

Imagine if Mr. Gates were your ancestor—this article would be of special interst to you. Even if your ancestor was one of the other passengers, this article describes a dramatic episode he experienced, and tells you something about your ancestor's life beyond just a name or date. Stories like this help bring your ancestor's experiences to life, including hardships and disasters they faced.

Ship Disaster Lists

In fact, disasters—while undeniably tragic—often resulted in passenger lists being published that can be of great benefit to genealogists. Here's a good example, printed by the Hartford Daily Courant (Connecticut) on September 2, 1872:

It is a news article about the grim tragedy of the wreck of the steamer SS Metis after a collision with another ship off the coast of Rhode Island on August 30, 1872. Important for genealogists, this article contains two passenger lists—one for the survivors, and one for the dead; along with the 163 names, we get their places of residence.

In addition to these facts, we also get a description of the disaster that vividly recreates this awful moment in your ancestor's life:

Whether this describes your ancestor's last moments alive, or a desperate time your ancestor managed to survive, the account is gripping and frightening. Imagine receiving a warning only 15 minutes before the steamer sank! "After that everything was in confusion and the wildest panic prevailed. The passengers were left to take care of themselves; the crew and deck hands and passengers crowded indiscriminately into the boats." As the subhead proclaims, "Unpleasant Reflections" indeed.

Passenger Lists: Sources for Names, Places of Residence—and Stories

As the examples in this article have shown, passenger lists are another resource you can find in a newspaper archive to help with your family history research. They can be generated by different modes of travel, and are often packed with names and such details as places of residence. They can also bring to life vivid moments from your ancestors' lives, and help you get to know them better as real people.

Be sure to include passenger lists when you are examining historical newspapers to trace your family history. Have fun searching—and good luck with your family history research!