I've long heard a story that my Great Grandfather was going to travel on the Titanic, but ended up choosing another ship. Supposedly his ship was close enough that they heard the SOS call for the Titanic, but were 12 hours away and couldn't do much if anything. I would really like to prove this story.

This 1930 US census record says that my great grandfather was born in Sweden and immigrated to the US in 1912. However, I'm a bit unsure of what I should search for in passenger lists, and even what passenger lists to look for. A part of the problem is he changed his name when he immigrated to the United States, from David Henrik Troijbom to Henry David Pearson.

How might I prove this story?

A few additional pieces:

  1. Likely he traveled with is brother, Sam Pearson post travel, Per Samuel Troijbom pre-travel.
  2. The names were definitely in place in 1920 with the census.
  3. Neither one was naturalized as of 1940 census.
  4. Family tradition says he didn't land in New York, but was somewhere in the mid-atlantic region, possibly Virginia.
  5. It seems he worked his way across, although he supposedly had a ticket.
  • 2
    Al in all versions (1920. 1930, and 1940) Commented Dec 1, 2014 at 15:02
  • 1
    Of course that's not a guarantee that there are no 'first papers' but ... too bad.
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Dec 1, 2014 at 15:11
  • 1
    Do you have access to Newspapers.com? Their demonstration video for the 'clippings' function shows how to find articles about the Titanic. Following newspaper coverage of the day might yield some clues. newspapers.com/basics/#h-clips
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Feb 26, 2015 at 1:09
  • 1
    I've turned up a list of Vessels with their radio callsigns who communicated with the Titanic, and added a section to the end of my answer.
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Jun 13, 2015 at 19:28
  • Via tip on Twitter, found a new Titanic site with list of communications: greatships.net/distress.html
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Sep 29, 2015 at 19:10

3 Answers 3


There are multiple approaches to this problem -- here are my recommendations for how to go about the search.

Important note: Do not assume there is only one passenger list -- many families had family members who went back and forth multiple times before settling in the USA.

Find your great-grandfather's arrival (and find his naturalization records, if any exist)

Start by creating a biographical sketch and/or a timeline of your great-grandfather's life. It can be a simple outline of all the things you know about him, with brief notes about how you know the information. You already have two points on the timeline -- your family story says that he arrived in the US in 1912, and you have his census record from 1930. What else do you know about him? Did he have other siblings besides the brother you mentioned? Who were his friends, associates, and neighbors (sometimes called a 'cluster' or FAN club)?

The reason I ask is that it is easier to make good progress on a problem if you work from what you know in small steps toward the unknown, instead of trying to make large leaps. It also helps to start with a recent point in the timeline and work backwards. You have research opportunities in between 1920 and 1912 that could be explored first, including the 1920 Census. The US National Archives has a guide Clues in Census Records 1850-1940 which lists places you could find clues about whether your great-grandfather entered the US, and when he might have been naturalized:


  • The 1900 census (column 16), 1910 census (column 15), 1920 census (column 13), and 1930 census (column 22) each indicate the person's year of immigration to the United States. This information should help in locating a ship passenger arrival list.


  • The 1900 census (column 18), the 1910 census (column 16), and 1920 census (column 14), and 1930 census (column 23) indicate the person's naturalization status. The answers are "Al" for alien, "Pa" for "first papers," and "Na" for naturalized.

  • The 1920 census (column 15) indicates the year in which the person was naturalized.

    These clues may lead to naturalization records.

Another principle to keep in mind is that you cannot prove or confirm something by finding only one record. The more information you can gather, the more clues you might have. What the goal is, when you find a passenger list, is to recognize that you have found an entry that belongs to your great-grandfather, and not someone else who happens to have the same name. You already have some information that suggests that he changed his name after he arrived in the United States -- if you can narrow down the time frame in which that occurred, by putting the records you have in chronological order, and looking for a pattern of what name appears on each of them, that might be an important clue to finding his naturalization papers (if any exist), and eventually, his passenger list.

So what kind of information should you be on the lookout for? The passenger lists for people arriving in the US changed over time, as different information was required and collected by the government. You can see a copy of the list that would have been in effect in 1912 at the website of the Capital Area Genealogical Society (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania): Ships Passenger List Extract Form [1907-1918] (downloadable PDF).

Some of the questions ask for:

  • Full Name
  • Calling / Occupation
  • Last Permanent Residence
  • Name of address of nearest relative / friend in original country
  • final destination
  • whether joining a relative or friend (name and address of relative / friend in the US)
  • place of birth

For a good overview of the entire process (and an explanation of why you might not find any records), see the handout [PDF] for the webinar Why Didn't My Ancestor Naturalize? Navigating US Naturalization Records by Danielle Batson, AG®, MLS. The video for the class I attended has not been posted online, but the Wiki page Classes in the Learning Center has a link to a later class by Batson on United States Naturalization Records.

Alien Registration Records

You could look for Alien Registration files from the Alien Registration Act of 1940 and earlier Alien Registration acts. One easy place to start is on FamilySearch, where they've recently added the database United States, Index to Alien Case Files, 1940-2003 which is an index held at the National Archives Regional Office in Kansas City, Missouri. These files are described in this article from the Spring 2013 issue of Prologue magazine, The A-Files: Finding Your Immigrant Ancestors. Family Search's description says:

Files from aliens living in the immigration districts of Guam; Honolulu, Hawaii; Reno, Nevada; and San Francisco, California are housed in the National Archives Regional Office of San Bruno, California and are not included in this index.

If you find a hit in this database, FamilySearch sends you to NARA's page Researching Alien Files (A-Files) at the National Archives at Kansas City. NARA's page says:

NARA's holdings of A-Files will grow annually at Kansas City as the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service continues to transfer records. Currently there are more than 450,000 files available belonging to individuals born 1910 and prior. The A-Files are contained within RG 566, Records of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service [USCIS].

The page also has a link to Search the National Archives Catalog and some of the files can be viewed online, such as this file for Sigrud W Pearson. The video How to Use the New National Archives Catalog demonstrates how to search the new catalog and how to register so you can transcribe any records you find.

Other resources for studying Alien Registration records include:

  • Aliens among us by Judy G. Russell, The Legal Genealogist
  • The forms of 1918: Hoosier-style by Judy G. Russell, The Legal Genealogist includes hints on finding alien registrations in local repositories. The WPA's Historical Records Survey might be helpful in finding WWI-era registrations, although the information is only as good as the time the Survey was created.
  • Legacy Family Tree Webinar: Martha Benschura - Enemy Alien (Free through May 27, 2015; by sub or purchase afterwards) a case study and lecture on Alien Registration Records

USCIS's Registry Files

Another thing to consider -- make a request for an index search via the USCIS's Genealogy Program. If you can make any of the live broadcasts, the webinar Genealogy Program Introduction explains how the program works and the possible benefits to submitting a request for an Index Search:

This 30-minute webinar introduces the USCIS Genealogy Program and familiarizes attendees with the services, fees, website, request processes, and how/where to get help/more information. General public genealogists (beginner to advanced).

For example: an index search would reveal if your great-grandfather ever corresponded with the the federal government about his immigration or naturalization status. As part of your request, you would need to include all the name variations you know about, because a document might be indexed under any of those variations.

The page Historical Records Series Available From the Genealogy Program outlines the records available through the program. For example, you might find your great-grandfather in the Registry files:

Registry Files are records, which document the creation of immigrant arrival records for persons who entered the United States prior to July 1, 1924, and for whom no arrival record could later be found. Most files also include documents supporting the immigrant’s claims regarding arrival and residence (i.e., proofs of residence, receipts, and employment records).

An index search at USCIS will also reveal whether USCIS holds an A-File or whether it has already been transferred to NARA.


Titanic Research

The Original Schedule

Let's start by looking at the timeframe for the voyage would have been, had the Titanic sailed and arrived without mishap. This news item was published in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on Sunday, 7 April 1912, page 46. The Daily Eagle is one of the Brooklyn newspapers you can access via the NY Public Library's Brooklyn Newsstand.

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Shipping news columns and advertisements can tell you which other ships were scheduled to sail around that time -- check the British Newspaper Archive for lists of steamship departures using keywords 'outgoing' 'departures' 'steamships' and so on.

Once you locate possible passenger lists for your great-grandfather, you will want to know about the other ships which were in the area at the time. Many important clues can be gleaned from the Wikipedia article RMS Titanic, including the date she sailed, which ships came to her aid (and which didn't), and the date of arrival in New York for the ships which picked up survivors. The external links at the bottom of the article lead to more information. Since the Titanic has been in the news lately, there have been many special sections on news websites, like these at BBC News, The Telegraph, and the Southampton Daily Echo. Or you could read contemporary accounts of the disaster via historical newspapers on subscription sites like The British Newspaper Archive (newspapers from the BNA are also available on Find My Past) -- or any US site which has historical newspapers. A news story of this magnitude will have nationwide coverage, so as long as a site has some newspapers from 1912 you might be able to find something useful.

A wealth of information about ships and passenger lists can be found by combining information from sites like:

If you need more help with finding your great-grandfather's naturalization records, and the other questions here tagged aren't helpful, please feel free to ask a separate question about finding them.

Don't assume that you can't find help at your local public libraries or from local genealogical or historical societies. I have seen several superb guides about immigration and naturalization created at the local level, like this comprehensive guide to finding both national and local records from the Shawano County Wisconsin USGenWeb site.

Thanks to Hilary Gadsby for the pointer to the Daily Echo's special coverage of the Titanic Anniversary (via a comment on Google+).

The demo video Introduction to Newspapers.com uses the Titanic as one of their examples. While each newspaper site has a slightly different interface, the basic principles of doing the search could be used on any newspaper site. The Titanic demonstration starts at 1:15 in the video.

Ships arriving in New York after the Carpathian

Wikipedia's article RMS Titanic says that the Carpathian arrived in New York on 18 April.

Using Steve Morse's One Step Web Pages tool, Searching for Ships in the New York Microfilms in One Step, I entered a search for April 1912 (that particular tool doesn't allow a search for a specific date) and got a list of 213 search results. If you search for 'Carpathia' the result is this:

search results for Carpathia arriving April 1912

The curious thing here is that the date on the search results is 15 April, not 18 April. Wikipedia's article says "Carpathia took three days to reach New York after leaving the scene of the disaster. Her journey was slowed by pack ice, fog, thunderstorms and rough seas." so perhaps the 15 April date in the index was her original expected arrival date in New York City. The article also refers to ships that warned the Titanic via wireless about the ice field, citing this article:

Ryan, Paul R. (Winter 1985–1986). "The Titanic Tale". Oceanus (Woods Hole, MA: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution) 4 (28).

The search result for the arrival of California (who saw the flares but did not assist) is below:

arrival of California

Using these as starting points, it might be possible to work your way through the nearby search results for New York arrivals around that date. If the user has a subscription to Ancestry, Morse's site allows stepping through the films frame by frame (his controls are far easier to use than Ancestry's).

Another important resource is the New York, Book Indexes to Passenger Lists, 1906-1942 which can be browsed on FamilySearch.

Images of books of indexes to passenger manifests for the port of New York. The indexes are grouped by shipping line and arranged chronologically by date of arrival. This collection corresponds to NARA Publication T612: Book Indexes to New York Passenger Lists, 1906-1942. Additional images will be added as they become available.

It is a tedious task to go through multiple microfilms as you pick out which rolls have April 1912 arrivals for each shipping line, but going through the indexes this way will be much easier than attempting to reconstruct the arrival schedules from the newspapers, and then going through the passenger lists one by one as you discover the names of the ships that arrived.

Keep in mind that the book index is a derivative record, and might not have the names of your relatives spelled in the way you expect -- on the other hand, that might also be true of the original passenger list. In my experience, it's far easier to pick out candidates from a printed transcription that you can scan by eye, no matter how inaccurate it may be, than it is to do the same from the handwriting in the original lists.

Using these resources together, along with Morse's other One-Step tools, may allow you to zero in on good candidates. I've also had good luck searching for people by town of origin, though not all lists have that information.

Titanic Radio information

These sites have tables and transcripts of the radio traffic with the Titanic:

These sites have information about her radio installation:

From The Marconi Wireless Installation in R.M.S. Titanic:

Titanic’s wireless set had a nominal working range of 250 nautical miles, but signalling more distant stations was possible. At night, ranges of up to 2,000 miles were attained with sets of similar architecture. The use of the "T" type aerial afforded greater power and sensitivity both fore and aft, so optimised performance could be expected when the ship was pointed either toward or away from a distant station.

Some 58 miles from the Titanic, Harold Cottam, the radio operator of a much smaller ship, the Carpathia, had heard the Titanic's distress calls at about 12:25 AM. In a heroic effort, the crew of the Carpathia sped through the icy waters to the site of the Titanic's sinking, arriving there in about 4 hours.

If Carpathia took 4 hours to arrive from 58 miles away, then a ship (capable of making the same speed) 12 hours away would have been at least 3 times that distance, perhaps somewhere around 180 miles.

Another possible source of information: The Titanic Inquiry Project:

A small and selfless group of serious Titanic researchers has recently gone to the incredible effort of transcribing the entire texts of the Senate and the British Titanic Inquiries -- each of which is over a thousand pages long -- and has graciously seen fit to post those transcripts on this website for the benefit of Titanic buffs everywhere. These researchers have reaped no financial reward for their self-imposed efforts and have undertaken this project solely in the interest of making hard-to-find historical information available to everyone who might wish to see it.

There is a search box where you can search the inquiries. If you can compile a list of possible ship names, this could be very productive.

Newspaper articles of interest:

  • Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 16 Apr 1912, page 3: In Icy Field, Survivors Spend Hours in Boats is accompanied by a map showing where the Titanic sank, with positions of the Carpathia, Virginian, Baltic, Olympic, Californian, and Parisian.
  • Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 28 Apr 1912, page 1: Titanic Position Wrongly Given has testimony from the captain of the steamer Mount Temple describing the scene when he arrived, including that the ship was eight miles farther eastward than the Titanic's operators had reported.

See NARA's pages on Immigration records for the Carpathia and the Titanic. A sample page from the Carpathia's arrival on 18 April is on the right hand side of the introductory page Immigration Records (Ship Passenger Arrival Records). On the page Immigration Records (Ship Passenger Arrival Records and Land Border Entries) under Part 4: Sample Immigration Records there is a link to a partial list of Titanic survivors and a note that reads:

Partial list of survivors of the Titanic who were taken aboard the Carpathia, which arrived at the Port of New York, NY, April 18, 1912. This list was erroneously filed by the INS with June 18, 1912, arrivals, and can be found in NARA microfilm publication T715, Passenger and Crew Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, New York, 1897-1957, Roll 1883, Vol. 4183.

According to Zack Wilske at USCIS, the original passenger list went down with the Titanic. The list of survivors we have was created by the purser of the Carpathia. It didn't get turned in with the Carpathia's manifest because it was in use by the people investigating the loss of the Titanic. Once the list was turned in at Ellis Island, it was bound along with the lists that were current at that time, which is why it is among the June arrivals. Because of this, for many years people thought the manifest had been lost. It was discovered again in the 1990s, as people were researching the loss of the Titanic for the James Cameron film. (This is according to the live webinar given at USCIS on 21 April 2016.)

Further reading:

  • 2
    This is a most helpful guide. I've now figured a few additional pieces, including a brother that traveled the same year as my g grandfather, and likely the same ship. I also know neither of them was naturalized as of 1940. Still piecing together things, but I think I'm starting to get a picture of how to go about doing this... Commented Dec 1, 2014 at 3:06
  • 1
    @PearsonArtPhoto feel free to edit your question to add more information if you like. And welcome to FH&G.SE!
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Dec 1, 2014 at 3:12
  • 3
    Great answer. I'd just like to add that if you know the town of last residence, on some search engines it's possible to search just on that and first name - sometimes this will turn up mistranscribed or name-changing relatives when nothing else works.
    – nkjt
    Commented Dec 3, 2014 at 18:13
  • 1
    @nkjt Good suggestion! Sometimes I search for the last residence and destination town with no names at all, just to see what turns up. And of course the town names can be spelled and transcribed various ways, too.
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Dec 3, 2014 at 22:12
  • New article on Irish Central about Cobh, the last port of call for the Titanic: irishcentral.com/culture/travel/…
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Feb 13, 2016 at 1:53

I think the quickest route to verifying this family legend will be to determine the ship your great grandfather travelled on to the United States. My understanding (as a non-American) is that this is a detail likely to be recorded on a Naturalization record.

Once you have the ship's name, locating a passenger list for any voyage it may have made in the vicinity of the Titanic's only voyage should become noticeably easier.

I would also like to recommend this answer to What details are needed about ancestor to uncover ship they immigrated to America on?

  • Any suggestions on how to accomplish finding the ship? Commented Nov 30, 2014 at 22:27
  • My answer is suggesting that finding the naturalization record should / could find you the ship. If you do not (yet) have that there are a number of Q&As here tagged naturalization that may assist with that aspect. If he was not naturalized then I would recommend editing your question to mention that avenue as being blocked. Likewise if you have the naturalization record and there is no ship or more precise date of arrival mentioned on it.
    – PolyGeo
    Commented Nov 30, 2014 at 22:37

One potentially very good source of information is the WWI and WWII Alien Registration files. In particular, the later is still mostly in existence, and contains the ship by which the person immigrated. These can be requested from the National Archives. They have a great FAQ to ask how to find the record.

  • This morning, USCIS held a webinar where historian Marian L. Smith answered pre-submitted questions about Immigration and Naturalization records. She confirmed that if you don't already have the A-file number in hand, you can make an index file request via USCIS's Genealogy Program, and USCIS can tell you where you have to go to get the file -- from NARA, via a FOIA request, or by making a USCIS records request. An index search will also tell you all of the files USCIS can make available, not just the A-file or AR-2 file.
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Jul 31, 2015 at 18:52

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