What basic information do I need to have about my ancestor before I start looking for the ship that he/she came to America on? So that I don't waste a lot of time fruitlessly searching for a ship - what information should I try to find first, before I look for the ship?

If I know a name and possible spellings of that name and a birth date, what else do I need to know in order to confidently connect them to a particular ship?

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    First thing you need to know is where "here" is and probably also where "from" was. Sources of evidence are almost always closely related to the places where events occurred.
    – Fortiter
    Oct 12, 2012 at 12:17
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    It would also help to have a timeframe to consider -- when roughly did he travel?
    – user104
    Oct 12, 2012 at 12:36
  • Genealogy is context sensitive; your question could be improved upon by adding some specifics. I've tried to add some general information. Happy to improve my answer if you add specifics to your question.
    – GeneJ
    Oct 12, 2012 at 15:02
  • Agree with @GeneJ, Jeni, I think your question would be more useful if we knew more about what you know about your ancestor already. Where did he/she come from? What was the time period? Consider that it's possible answers below may make assumptions about your ancestor that may be false or may lead you down a path you've already researched simply because we're lacking all the details. Hope this helps! :)
    – jmort253
    Oct 13, 2012 at 3:33
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    I think this is an important question that should have received more votes by now. I wanted to ask something similar, but it would have been closed because it would have looked like a duplicate. Can you improve the body of your question any to flesh out the discovery/learning aspect for this question? If you can make it more specific and someone posts an excellent answer, then we will all learn by seeing the process in action... even if it is not for a region that we are personally researching. Nov 14, 2012 at 5:06

3 Answers 3


Others can speak for themselves, but everyone in my family was excited when we discovered the identity, passage rates and even a picture of a ship our ancestors traveled on over the deep blue sea. Even those folks who didn't show other interested in genealogy, had a genuine interest.

Did you know ... there is an effort underway to index ships? Check out ShipIndex.org These folks even want to help us differentiate between the Elizabeth and the Elizabeth. (If you have been on a ship quest, you'll understand what that means.)

Ships (perhaps I should say vessels) traveled from place to place on a specific voyage that took varying amounts of time. This means dates and locations are relevant to your quest.

Depending on the era, it may be quite a task to develop a reasonable estimate of the dates and locations of the travel.

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    I found several Mormon ancestors who came here - wish they all had been Mormons - what a wonderful site Mormon Migration is mormonmigration.lib.byu.edu - it's easy to find who traveled together & there are stories and diaries about the ships as well. Thanks for Shipindex!
    – Jeni
    Oct 13, 2012 at 10:48

The book They Came in Ships by John Phillip Colletta has a flowchart. He suggests starting with the following:

  1. Your ancestor's full, real name
  2. the approximate age at arrival
  3. the approximate date of arrival

From there he suggests different types of searches, depending on the time period, and the other information you may have, such as the port of entry, the name of the ship, your ancestor's country of origin, etc.

He suggests looking for the answers to the above three questions in:

  • oral family tradition
  • family documents [such as letters, passports, Bible records]
  • civil and religious records [including naturalization records, census records, marriage and burial records]
  • published genealogies and local histories

Overviews of the immigration process can be found at BYU Broadcasting and at NARA (National Archives and Records Administration, aka The US National Archives). Check their pages Clues in Census Records 1850-1940, and Clues in Census Records, 1790-1840 to see what you might learn from a careful examination of the US Federal Census.

If your ancestor was naturalized, you may be able to find the arrival date in the naturalization records. The process of finding those also depends on the time period, because of changes in the naturalization laws. See the National Archives article "Where can I find Naturalization Records?".

If your ancestor is female, I recommend the article "Women and Naturalization, ca. 1802-1940" and "Women and Naturalization, ca. 1802-1940, Part 2" from The (US) National Archives' Prologue Magazine.

In some cases women can be found in passenger lists under their maiden names, so try that as well as her married name, if you know it.

I highly recommend Joe Beine's Emigration and Immigration Records and Resources: and Stephen P. Morse's One-Step Web Pages (specialized forms for searching passenger lists, census records, etc.).

Other things to consider -- it helps to trace your ancestor's life backwards in time to narrow the time frame for a possible arrival. Make a timeline of what you know and how you know it. Be aware of where other relatives might live -- if your ancestor is on a recent passenger list, look for the column 'person going to meet in the US' to see if you recognize that person. You'll want to be able to recognize your ancestor's entry in the passenger list and be confident that you have the right person.

People rarely emigrated just once and completely by themselves. Some families went back and forth more than once -- many families were part of a chain of migration events involving multiple people from the same family or same community. Searching for the names of siblings or children or parents can find family groups traveling together -- useful if your ancestor's name happens to be indexed badly or was entirely wrong.


I am reluctant to suggest a recipe but there is a thread running through the comments that have been added to your question which can be summarised as:

  • What was the "old country"?
  • What is the latest record of activity there?
  • Where did your ancestor travel to?
  • What is the earliest record you can locate in his or her new home?

Then you have a window in place and time (or a frame, you can choose your own metaphor) in which to investigate the migration. If my ancestor was in Hanover in 1863 and in Adelaide in 1871, then I know that I need to investigate shipping lines servicing what would now be called the Germany-Australia route in say 1850-1880.

Once you have defined your window then sites like the one suggested by GeneJ become useful tools in identifying the possible shipping line, then the probable ship and if you are fortunate the repository that will hold the passenger lists that you will need to examine.

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