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How to find your ancestor without a passenger list

passenger lists

No Passenger List?

No official U.S. government passenger lists exist prior to 1820. What miscellaneous lists that have survived and been transcribed or published cover only a fraction of the immigrants who arrived in the Americas before 1820. If you do not possess a passenger list for your immigrant ancestor, are you at the end of your hunt? Not necessarily.

Let’s say that you have traced your Scottish immigrant ancestor to the city of Baltimore in 1816. You are hoping to continue your research abroad, but you don’t have a passenger list stating the name of your forebear, his/her ports and dates of embarkation and disembarkation, and so forth. What can you turn to in place of the missing list? The identity of the ship that disembarked in Baltimore close to the time your ancestor was living there.

According to immigration authority David Dobson, “If the vessel that the immigrant sailed on can be identified, then the ports of arrival and of departure may also follow, and in turn this may indicate the locality from which the immigrant originated, thus narrowing the search. . . . What kind of ship was it? What was its tonnage? Where was it registered? Who was the skipper? All these questions are of interest to the family historian . . . .”

To continue with the above example, if you were to learn that a vessel carrying passengers sailed from Aberdeen to Baltimore in or around 1816, you might be able to circumvent the missing passenger list and extend your research to Scotland itself. For one thing, at that time it is quite likely that your forebear was living in the vicinity of the Port of Aberdeen (before the advent of the Scottish railroad). In that case, you would want to look at the records for Aberdeenshire, like church records, tax records, local cemeteries and borough records among others. Some of these records will be available on the spot, while others have been centralized in Edinburgh, and still others may even be available on the Internet. For a handy breakdown on the availability of such records, you can visit The point of course, is if you know a bit about the immigrant ancestor – age, relations, occupation, etc. – you might just be able to match him/her up against the records available in the Mother Country.

Search by the Name of the Ship!

With this in mind, Mr. Dobson has set about to identify the majority of vessels that are most likely to have transported emigrants from Scotland and Ireland to the New World during the 17th, 18th, and first half of the 19th centuries. He has found most of his information in contemporary newspapers like the “Aberdeen Journal” and “Greenock Advertiser,” often in the form of advertisements from shipmasters and merchants. In some cases, the compiler was able to correlate newspaper sources abroad with reports in American and Canadian sources.  Other fruitful sources included primary sources found in the Scottish Record Office, the Public Archives of Ontario, and so forth, as well as published sources such as “Transactions of the Dumfries and Galloway NHAS” and “Cape Breton Historical Essays.”

The results of these labors have been published in a series of volumes identifying thousands of vessels known to have sailed from either Scotland or Ireland to America between 1628 and 1850. Each entry in these books indicates the name of the vessel, ports of departure and arrival, the date of departure and/or arrival, and the source of the information. In many cases, however, researchers will also glean the name of the captain, number of passengers onboard, ship’s tonnage, type of ship, and more. The following is a representative entry from one of the books:

“FRIENDSHIP OF GLASGOW, master Joseph Hardy, arrived in Port Glasgow from Virginia 3, 1681, from Port Glasgow to New England 16.4.1681; master John McColl, arrived in Port Glasgow from New England 12. 1681, from Port Glasgow to Boston 2. 1682. [SRO. E72.19.1/2/5]”

If you had abandoned hope of ever finding your immigrant ancestor, Mr. Dobson’s findings of the comings and goings of 250 years of the passenger vessels might just provide you with the clue you have been waiting for in order to resume your hunt.

Following are the editions available by country:



Image credit: Immigrants on deck of S.S. “Amerika,” H.C. White Co., publisher, c. 1907. Library of Congress .