Finding Your European Immigrant Ancestor’s Ship, Part 1

Posted by Sean Daly on Jul 22, 2022
ship and passenger list visual

There are a number of resources available for finding your immigrant ancestors. In this first of two articles, learn how to search the most typical case: a European immigrant arriving in New York City from 1820 to 1924.

Part 1: The Basics & New York City

The United States is a nation of immigrants, most of whom arrived in the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th. Waves of Europeans from England, Scotland, Germany, Italy, Ireland, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, and elsewhere in Central, Eastern, and Southern Europe wanted better lives and decided to brave a transatlantic crossing. In this two-part article, we will first talk about searching the typical case, estimated to be the route of over 80% of European immigrants to America: an arrival in New York City at Castle Garden or its successor Ellis Island from 1820 to 1924, when immigration was sharply curtailed. In the second part, we will cover other ports of entry as well as advanced techniques for finding your people when they don’t turn up in the lists.

A bit of history

Firstly, what are the broad outlines of European immigration to the US? The beginnings in the 17th century were English, Dutch, French, and Spanish settlers. The English replaced the Dutch — New Amsterdam became New York in 1664 — and the thirteen colonies occupied the eastern seaboard of the continent, with the French and Spanish to the north, south, and west. Many of the early European immigrants were indentured servants due to the high cost of passage. Native American populations were displaced, and West Africans were brought as slaves.

From the end of the Napoleonic wars (1815) and throughout the 19th century, German farmers came to the US and headed West; educated “Forty-Eighters” arrived following the 1848 revolutions; and the 1862 Homestead Act and railroad building accelerated this movement. From 1845 on, there was a massive Irish influx due to the Great Hunger, the most deadly of a series of famines there; many Irish turned their backs on farming and chose city life. From 1880 to 1914 — the outbreak of the First World War — immigrants from Eastern, Central, and Southern Europe arrived in astonishing numbers, peaking in 1907 with over a million immigrants. There were Jews escaping pogroms in Russia as well as Italians, Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Serbs, Armenians, and Greeks seeking economic opportunity, religious freedom, and to escape war or drought. Although many headed West, others put down roots in New York.

Boston was the primary port of arrival in the early years of the Republic, with New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New Orleans in secondary roles. However, this soon changed and New York became the major port of immigration. World War I drastically reduced immigration numbers and by 1924, strict legislation (the Johnson-Reed Act or Immigrant Act) enforced quotas which favored English-speaking Europeans over everyone else, in particular Asians.

Stereograph of Castle Garden, c.1868-1878, Library of Congress

Prior to 1892, immigration was handled by each state. In New York, this was the Castle Garden period. Castle Clinton, a cannon fort at the lower tip of Manhattan (it’s why that’s called the Battery), was transformed into an arrival hall. After waiting offshore or on Staten Island for a quarantine period (there was a fear of epidemics — yellow fever, cholera, smallpox, measles, scarlet fever, typhus, meningitis), immigrants processed by officials would hit the street and often fall prey to hucksters and shysters.

From 1892, immigrants were processed by federal officials. Steerage passengers were sent to Ellis Island within view of Manhattan for processing; cabin passengers were disembarked at Manhattan’s West Side piers.

Immigrants arriving on Ellis Island, c.1900, Library of Congress

The enduring myth of name changes at Ellis Island

Despite what you may have heard from older family members or Hollywood films, names were not changed at Ellis Island by careless officials. In every case, immigration officials worked from a list of passengers, provided by the ship’s captain who certified its accuracy in a sworn statement. These lists were established at the European port of embarkation; officials never invented names. That said, names were not consistently spelled in the 19th century, not everyone was literate, and Eastern European emigrants may have been misheard in Hamburg, Rotterdam, or Le Havre as they purchased their passage; in other words, a mistake may have been made in Europe. Stateside, if a name change did occur, it was most likely in later naturalization documents; some immigrants chose to simplify or anglicize their names when filing. No doubt in some cases this was to blend in, to avoid discrimination or anti-Semitism. At Ellis Island, over thirty languages were spoken by interpreters, and officials did their best to account for every individual entered on a ship’s list. One final note: your ancestor may have been a crew member, not a passenger, and may have decided to settle in New York City!

Finding Your Ancestor: “Candidates”

Now comes the fun part: searching databases for your ancestor. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) microfilmed the New York City Castle Garden and Ellis Island passenger lists (see here and here, other resources here and here). The Liberty Ellis Foundation has a passenger search page with links to the list images; later, the NARA scans were made available to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (sometimes called the Mormons) who transcribed over 65 million names for publication at Familysearch.org, a Geneanet partner. Building on that work, Geneanet parent company Ancestry.com has further transcribed an additional 30 million names (relatives of passengers, for example) and the list images are there, too.

Which database is best?

Searching by name is a hit-and-miss affair: most lists were written by hand, and some scrawled names have been incorrectly transcribed to the database. In other cases, a contraction may have been used, such as Wm. for William or Patk for Patrick, and not all databases can handle name variants. And, often there were several people with the same name — this means you have to identify “candidates”, people who may or may not be your ancestor, who need to be ruled in or out. If you don’t find your ancestor right away, the key is using more than one database. You will likely wind up doing this anyway, since contrary to expectations, there are variations in quality of the passenger list scanned images!

Note: it’s always best to search within a dataset (or collection) as opposed to a general search form. By selecting the dataset, you avoid results that aren’t passenger lists. And more importantly, the search form will be optimized for the dataset, offering fields to search which a generic search form won’t have. Our links below take you directly to each collection.

  • FamilySearch.org
    • A great place to start a search, this is a free site (registration required) which offers the highest quality passenger list scans. if you don’t find your ancestor here, but in one of the other sites, consider looking up the ship’s passenger list on FamilySearch just to have the best quality scan to work with.
  • Ancestry.com
    • Ancestry, the parent company of Geneanet, has extended the number of fields available in the FamilySearch index and added complementary data. It’s the most complete New York passenger list database. Note that some passenger list scans have an aspect ratio issue, with vertically elongated text; it’s worth fetching the FamilySearch version in that case. Ancestry.com is a subscription site, but is available free in most libraries (Library Edition) and archives (Institution Edition).
  • The Statue of Liberty―Ellis Island Foundation (https://heritage.statueofliberty.org)
    • This free site (registration required) has a quirky search interface and implied wildcards — in other words, you search with stems of names, such as Pat for Patk or Patrick. If you have no idea when your immigrant arrived, this database is helpful to identify “candidates”, as the results screen is easy to read and shows arrival year, last place of residence/birthplace, and ship name. Note that the quality of passenger list scans is poor; you will want to seek out the superior FamilySearch versions. And avoid specifying ship name as a criteria, as some ships have been entered 4 times with different spellings!
  • SteveMorse.org
    • Steve is an engineer and genealogist who has made great contributions to genealogy with his One-Step tools for passenger lists, censuses, and vital records. His passenger list tools provide an alternate front-end interface for the Liberty-Ellis foundation or Ancestry databases. Note: Facebook arbitrarily removes posts and comments with the URL of Steve’s site due to an AI bug, and they are showing no interest in fixing the bug; spell out his name when posting!
  • CastleGarden.org
    • The free Battery Conservancy site contains an old version of Castle Garden / Ellis Island data (Ellis Island to 1913). However, the simple results screen with age and exact arrival date can help you quickly build a shortlist of candidates. And with the ship name, you can rerun a search on that ship and year with the last name, to easily check if other family members were aboard. Text-only — no passenger list images.
On June 13, 1908, the French ship La Savoie from Le Havre brought Armenian and Turkish passengers to New York. This is a composite image from two consecutive FamilySearch microfilm images.

Tips for narrowing candidates

  • Try to ascertain if your ancestor married in New York or in the old country; search FamilySearch for a New York marriage and if found, download the certificate from the NYC Municipal Archives (online since March this year — read our guide!). If married abroad, look for the couple travelling together. But keep in mind some husbands arrived first, and sent for family members later.
  • Search the New York censuses for your ancestor; in addition to the federal censuses every ten years, there were New York State censuses for Manhattan (where most immigrants lived) in 1855, 1865, 1905, 1915, and 1925. The 1900 federal census is particularly useful as it has the birth state or country for every person as well as the immigration year and the number of years married. NY State censuses are at Ancestry and FamilySearch (however, only at a Family History Center).
  • Children? if born abroad, this is key information, try to find family members travelling together. This could be a mother with children, or an older sibling with a younger one.
  • Obituaries sometimes mention how old a person was when they arrived; this can help you narrow down a list.
  • Naturalization papers often mention a ship name and date of immigration, but beware, a form filled out ten years after the event may have details remembered incorrectly! An occasional case: the year may be wrong, but the month is right, since people remember what the weather was like the day of their arrival!
  • If your naturalized ancestor obtained a US passport, there may be immigration information in the passport application. FamilySearch and Ancestry have passport applications through 1925.
  • Keep in mind that a married woman from Italy, the Netherlands, or France may have travelled under her maiden name.

What about your ancestor’s ship?

Many genealogists, having identified which ship their ancestor arrived on, want to understand what it was like sailing for two to four weeks aboard. Or, there may be a photo taken aboard in a family album, and other images of the ship can offer clues. The Liberty-Ellis foundation site has some ship photos, although some ships with the same name have been mixed up. A simple Google search may locate a ship image. That said, there is a little-known but fabulous resource for learning about your ancestor’s ship, by author Eugene Waldo Smith: “Passenger Ships of the World Past and Present” published in 1963, an update to his 1947 book “Trans-Atlantic Passenger Ships Past and Present”.

Eugene W. Smith’s 1963 book at right incorporates his 1947 book at left

These books are available free online on Hathitrust.org, and individual pages can be downloaded:

There are many ship images in the appendices. These books help solve mysteries by indicating what year ships changed names (change of owner, or war spoils, or requisitioned by a navy), or when a ship was decommissioned and replaced the same year with a new ship having the same name.


This should be enough information to get you started! In Part 2 in two weeks’ time, we will survey the other American ports of immigration and offer some advanced techniques for finding your brick wall immigrant ancestors!

21 comments

Presumably migrated to USA from East Prussia in ?1880’s. Wound up in Minnesota farming. Do not know entry city. Can I get some help? Thanks.


Thank you for all this information. Looking forward to reading the next half. Trying to locate ship information on an uncle, who has a lot of confusing dates, times and arrival.


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