Finding Your European Immigrant Ancestor’s Ship, Part 2

Posted by Sean Daly on Aug 5, 2022
ship and passenger list visual

In the first part of this two-part article, we covered 19th century European immigration to New York City. In this article, we will go over other American ports of entry as well as some other techniques to find your ancestors!

Looking for Part 1? it’s here!

In the century from 1820 to 1924, tens of millions of European immigrants arrived in the United States, and most of them arrived in New York City (see Part 1 of our article). Although Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor is what we think of as steerage passengers arrived, that’s not the whole story: before New York, Boston and New Orleans were the major ports of entry and there were a number of other ports as well.

There are many sources for passenger lists, and FamilySearch, a Geneanet partner, and Ancestry, Geneanet’s parent company, have datasets for all the major US ports. Steve Morse offers a number of tools for searching passenger lists. The Immigrant Ships Transcribers’ Guild community has transcribed lists of hundreds of ships. JewishGen has a useful resource. Joe Beine has pages here and here with many useful links. And, of course, there are many books available — it’s a vast topic!

The Kaiser Wilhelm II was launched in 1889.

Rule of thumb: be flexible with spelling

There is an important rule of thumb when searching your ancestors: be flexible about spelling! Most passenger lists were handwritten and database transcribers have often had to guess what was written. The myth of name changes at Ellis Island has been debunked (see Part 1), however many names (particularly from Eastern Europe) were written as they were heard in Western European ports of embarkation, sometimes from immigrants who were barely literate. And many immigrants anglicized their names after arriving in America: to fit in, to simplify spelling, or to avoid discrimination. If you don’t find an ancestor easily, be creative with spelling and wildcards. If, on the other hand, your ancestor had a common name — an Irishman named John Sullivan, a German named Karl Schmidt — you will need to work on a list of “candidates” with that name, and rule out each one by age, family members, occupation, death and burial, and so on.

The FamilySearch wiki is an invaluable resource for quick overviews of what datasets are available, both on that site, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), and other resources. Cyndi’s List will help you leave no stone unturned in your quest to track down your immigrant ancestors. And this panorama on the Ancestry (formerly RootsWeb) wiki, as well as this more recent PDF overview from Ancestry, will help get you started, too. Ancestry even has a shortcut for searching all passenger lists here. Finally, the European Union’s Europeana site has a useful overview called “Leaving Europe: A New Life in America”.


Boston was the major East Coast port of entry from the colonial period through the 1840s, when New York became the preeminent port of entry. However, many European immigrants continued to choose passage to Boston throughout the latter half of the 19th century, for a good reason: fares were cheaper than to New York!

To find an immigrant to Boston, you can use the following FamilySearch collections:

You may also try the website of the Massachusetts Secretary of State, which has extractions of the above lists available through a different search engine.

Ancestry also has useful collections:

Here’s an example of what you might find in the Boston lists. Carl Janssen was a Swede who had lived in Copenhagen, and took ship for Boston at Liverpool aboard the “Lake Ontario” early in 1890. FamilySearch has him in both an index card collection and the passenger list. There is key information here which has not been indexed: his destination was Brooklyn (at that time a separate city from New York; they were “consolidated” into New York City in 1898). Why did he go through Boston? Perhaps the fare was cheaper; perhaps he had a family member there he could stay with before continuing to Brooklyn. Sometimes, unindexed information like this is a vital clue!

Carl Janssen is at line 20 of the steerage passengers in the bottom half of the page. Destination: Brooklyn!

Philadelphia and Baltimore

Philadelphia and Baltimore were important ports in the colonial era and European immigration continued in the 19th century, with over 3 million immigrants sailing the longer journey than to New York. What these ports offered was seamless railway connections to points West: immigrants could purchase a combined sea and rail passage in Europe and, after clearing immigration formalities, could board trains directly on the docks. A thorough article from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania about immigration to Philadelphia is worth a read.

New Orleans

Another port with cheaper fares than New York, New Orleans offered a gateway north on the Mississippi River. As a major agricultural export center — from the work of millions of African slaves who had endured forced migration — shipping lines often sent cotton and other products to Europe and returned with immigrants. New Orleans surpassed Boston as the major alternative to New York during the 19th century. As a commercial port, the city also had the reputation of being less strict about immigration procedure enforcement, which made it attractive to those concerned about passing the physical exams at Ellis Island — some disabled immigrants were sent back to Europe.

San Francisco

Ships from the Pacific Ocean docked at San Francisco (Angel Island after 1910) and traffic increased considerably following the Gold Rush of 1849. In the days before the Panama Canal — and even after — California remained very far from Europe, reachable only by sailing around the southern tip of South America or Africa, or by hiking through the jungle in Panama to wait for the next available ship. The completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 encouraged immigrants to arrive on the East Coast instead, and ride the rails West.

Other ports

Galveston, Charleston, Portland, Providence, New Haven, and other eastern ports were used by European immigrants in the 19th century. If you have a clue that your immigrant ancestor lived in one of these ports, it may be the case they had arrived there too.


Many European immigrants, in particular from the British Isles, took advantage of cheaper or subsidized fares to Canada as a waypoint to travel to the United States. And a number of French Canadians left Québec for the nearby New England states, where land and opportunities were more plentiful.

FamilySearch has a useful collection, “Canada Passenger Lists, 1881-1922”.

Ancestry has a number of datasets for Canadian immigration (see here). And two collections in particular are worth searching:

Advanced techniques for NYC and other port searches

If you just can’t find your immigrants in database searches, don’t despair, persevere! There are a number of alternative methods to passenger list searches. As always in genealogy, work backwards from what you know: if your ancestor was naturalized, look for clues about where and when he or she immigrated. Census returns, for example the 1900 federal census, are rich in information about the country of birth, year of immigration, and the number of years married (these dates will show if the marriage was in the old country or in the US). In Europe, departing passenger lists are available for some countries and ports. And don’t overlook historical newspapers, which can offer needle-in-a-haystack clues about the age at immigration in an obituary, or confirm when a particular ship sailed or arrived. If you are reasonably sure about the date and port of entry of your ancestor but still can’t find them, it’s always possible to roll up your sleeves and do the mind-numbing exercise of browsing online microfilm rolls of passenger lists page by page!


The US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has a helpful portal page about immigration and naturalization. Prior to 1892, when the federal government centralized immigration processing, naturalization papers were basic and did not have much information useful for genealogists. Later documents, however, are rich in details: you may find the date of immigration, ship name, country and province (or even town!) of origin, current address, occupation, a witness statement (usually signed by a friend or coworker), even a certificate of nationality delivered by the court. In rare cases, you may find a transcript of the hearing before the judge, who might ask questions about the Constitution for example. And there is usually an affidavit in which the immigrant forswears allegiance to any foreign king or potentate in general, and one in specific in the country of origin (the Kaiser, or the King). Naturalization is a complex subject, beyond the scope of this article — for example, for a long time, women were generally naturalized automatically with their husbands, and procedures were different for immigrants who arrived as children. Just keep in mind that a naturalization dossier is a rich source of clues. When you land on a page in FamilySearch or Ancestry, be sure to view the previous and following pages — you may have a dozen pages in your ancestor’s dossier on the microfilm roll!

In this 1923 document which was part of the naturalization process, we learn about Italian immigrant Federico Eppolito: where he was born, the ship he sailed on and when it arrived. Keep in mind though that years after the fact, your ancestor might not have remembered the month, date, year, or ship name correctly!

Port of embarkation lists

Hamburg, Rotterdam, Liverpool (including Queenstown/Cobh, the port for Cork), Le Havre, Naples, Trieste, Bremen, Antwerp, Goteborg, Cherbourg, and Belfast were the major European ports of embarkation. Some, but not all, ports established lists of outgoing passenger lists. Of these, some ports archived the lists while others destroyed them. And of the surviving lists, some have been digitized and indexed, and some have not. No single site has all these lists, so you will need to identify your ancestor’s port of embarkation and check what is available. The Hamburg lists are available on FamilySearch and Ancestry for example, and the Rotterdam lists were recently made available by the Rotterdam City Archives (PDF in English here). Information about paid access to arriving and departing passenger lists in the UK can be found on the National Archives site.


A newspaper obituary often has a vital clue about when an ancestor arrived in the US, and ships’ departures and arrivals were published. There are commercial services such as Geneanet sister company and the New York Times Machine archive, but there are free resources too: with a focus on New York State, including New York City; The Chronicling America project of the Library of Congress; the Brooklyn Newsstand at the Brooklyn Public Library; and others.

The Cunard Line’s Pavonia was launched in 1882 towards the end of the age of sail.

Finding a ship image

Looking for a ship image? Google Images is a good place to start, and has an extensive cross-referenced image database, but don’t overlook the online collections of maritime museums such as New York’s South Street Seaport Museum, the UK’s National Maritime Museum and Liverpool Maritime Museum, Het Scheepvaartmuseum National Maritime Museum in the Netherlands, and Germany’s Internationales Hamburg Maritime Museum. Paintings of ships were popular in the 19th century, even after the arrival of photography. And photos of ships are online in places you might not expect — see Part 1 for links to the Eugene W. Smith books at Hathitrust which have many photos of passenger ships, and the images available at the Statue of Liberty — Ellis Island Foundation website (free registration). The Library of Congress has a good list of books with ship images. The private Gjenvick-Gjønvik Archives has ephemera such as passenger directories and dinner menus. Tip: if you have a ship name from a passenger list, look at the first sheet for that arrival for the captain’s name, and search the Internet for him — you may find a ship image in a biography of the captain!

Tips for browsing passenger lists

Still not finding your immigrant ancestor? It’s true that some lists are damaged or missing. But before you give up, you have a last-gasp technique: scrolling manually through the passenger list images. It’s tiring work; you may want to limit yourself to 15 or 20 pages at a time to rest your eyes!

Let’s say you have a clue that your ancestor arrived in New York on June 9, 1901 — for example, from a naturalization document without a ship name, but with a date (which you hope your ancestor remembered correctly!). It’s usually possible to browse the actual digitized microfilm rolls, which are in chronological order; the trick is to go easy on your eyes by limiting the number of handwritten lists to read. Check the beginning of a roll in case an index was photographed, but don’t scroll endlessly page after page after that; use a binary search technique, described below!

FamilySearch has the best quality NARA scans of New York passenger lists (see Part 1) and it’s easy (and free) to browse the images. Let’s take an example. Start with this page which lists the Ellis Island rolls from 1892 to 1924. Search for the roll which has June 9, 1901: it’s roll number 203. There are 959 images covering three days in June. Yikes! Don’t panic, just scroll the first few pages to see if there is an index that was photographed. Image 3 has one, but that’s already tricky: the roll contains two book volumes, 332 and 333; the Image 3 index is only for volume 332. However, you already know vol.332 has only four ships, with their names; it’s a start! Each run of pages for a ship will start with the captain’s and surgeon’s (doctor’s) affidavits or certifications, then usually will list cabin passengers before steerage passengers; more recent rolls than this one will have pages set aside for American citizens.

Binary search method

The trick is to use a binary search approach. Jump to an image around the middle of the roll; for 959 images, that’s roughly image 480. Is June 9 before or after? The dates of departure and arrival should be on each sheet; if the arrival date is missing, scroll back and forth, you will find the arrival date. In our case, we see on image 480 the steamship Scotia arrived June 10, so our ship must be before that. Now, jump to an image roughly halfway between 1 and 480; image 240 has no arrival date, but image 241 says the Manilla arrived on June 8. New jump: halfway between 240 and 480 = 360; that image has no date, but image 361 shows La Lorraine arrived from Le Havre on June 9. Scrolling back a few pages, we find the final pages of the Manilla which arrived from Naples the day before. So, with only a handful of images viewed, we have located the start of the June 9 sheets!

You may have noticed the names on each sheet are transcribed under the Image Index tab at bottom left. This will probably not help you; if your ancestor’s name had been transcribed correctly, you would have found him or her through list searches in the first place. That said, the transcriptions can help you spot check the countries of origin of the passengers. If your ancestor was German, it is more likely they arrived from Le Havre than Naples, so you are on the right track!

Tip: considering how much time it takes to track down an unindexed passenger list image, it’s best to download as well the first sheet of a ship’s list with the date of arrival and captain’s name — that information may be useful later.

We hope this two-part article has been useful for you. Suggestions are always welcome, comment below!

Looking for Part 1? it’s here!


I have been searching for port of entry for my gr-gr-grandfather for years without success. I suspect they entered the port of New Orleans in 1855 as a second son was born “while traveling the plains of Texas”‘. what can you suggest?

Just hit that brick wall on Anna Marie Polnick. Don’t know if she was born in the USA or somewhere else. She was my husband’s 1st great grandmother born in 1843, married Karl August Schneider. Her 2nd marriage was to August Bluemel. That’s all I have and would appreciate any help at all. Thanks, Charlene

See more

Log in to leave a comment. Sign In / Sign Up