Southern California Genealogical Society

Problem Solvers: Using newspapers effectively as a source for passenger arrival and departure lists
By Peter E. Carr

The United States is a nation of immigrants from all over the world. Therefore, it is logical that one of the main goals of any American genealogist is to cross the water and find the ancestral homeland. Besides using the U.S. census and naturalization records for this purpose, many use passenger-arrival lists kept by the U.S. Customs during the 19th century. Many of these lists are available for most major U.S. ports, such as New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston and New Orleans, as well as many smaller ones. However, many lists have disappeared for one reason or another.

Researchers may give up once they discover that the lists they seek are not available. However, the persistent researcher always looks for ways around this stumbling block. The best way to do this is to look in newspapers. Most U.S. newspapers during the 19th century published lists of arriving and departing passengers. This was especially true of newspapers from the major arrival ports mentioned above. However, almost all coastal newspapers published them, too.

Port cities were always concerned with maritime affairs, so almost always, they published lengthy lists of vessel arrivals and departures. Usually these appeared under the heading of "marine intelligence". In some cases, the off-loaded cargo was also listed by name of consignee. Along with the vessel arrival data, the names of arriving and departing passengers were printed for each ship. Normally, the names were from ships arriving or departing from or to a foreign port. But in many cases, such as the Charleston Daily Courier, Alta California, Tampa Tribune and many others, coastal passenger data was also given.

For example, picking a newspaper from New York at random, the New York Tribune of 13 April 1866, one discovers lists of arrivals from Greytown, Nicaragua; Liverpool, England; Savannah, Georgia; and Havana, Cuba. As previously stated, the arrivals were not the only lists published. In many cases, lists of departing passengers were included, too.

One caution about any of these lists is that they usually, but not always, only showed the first- and second-class passengers by name. The steerage passengers were shown at the end of the lists in statements such as " . . . and 322 in steerage".

While this may sound discouraging, it is not. Because, while the name of a particular ancestor may not appear, most other data about the ship, place and date on which he or she arrived may be found.

The column of “Marine Intelligence” or “Shipping News” usually gave other details about all ship arrivals and departures. The usual information published for departing ships was: ship type, i.e., steamship, schooner, brig or others; ship name; flag, if not U.S.; name of master (captain); destination port; and local agents.

For arrivals, the information consisted of the same basic items, plus the dates of departure from the various ports, we well as information about whether it was carrying cargo and/or passengers or both. At the end of the column, details were provided about any marine disaster anywhere in the world. In some cases, weekly lists were published by ports and geographical areas, showing the details or arrivals and departures at foreign ports in Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia and South America. For smaller ports, it may have included several days’ data and was published weekly.

Locating newspapers should not be difficult. Modern guides such as Ayer’s Directory of Newspapers and Periodicals and R. R. Bowker’s National Directory of Weekly Newspapers provide information about newspapers presently being published. To locate older newspapers, consult Winifred Gregory’s American Newspapers, 1821-1836: A Union List of Files Available in the United States and Canada. For newspapers on microfilm or microfiche, try Newspapers in Microform United States, 1948-1972 (these dates have nothing to do with the dates of the newspapers). This guide was published by the Library of Congress in 1973. A supplement is also available. This compilation by states and localities provides data about which newspapers have been microfilmed and which institution or library has it in its collection. The same type of compilation is available for foreign newspapers held by American institutions.

Many newspapers have been indexed. For example, among others there are A Personal Name Index to The New York Times, 1851-1974, by Byron A. Falk, as well as A Guide to Newspaper Indexes in New England, published by the New England Library Assn.

Besides these guides, there is the United States Newspaper Program, which is an attempt by each state to collect and microfilm as many of the newspapers published in their state as possible. Though not all states are participating, it is an invaluable resource. One may write to the Library of Congress for a list of participating states, as well as more information about the project.

Many online resources are available through a computer. The RootsWeb Guide has newspapers and city directories at If all else fails, go to Cyndi’s List at Wait for it to load, then access the link for newspapers.

Many other resources for passenger lists, not related to newspapers, are also available on the Web. This list keeps growing every day, so check it often. The Family History Library in Salt Lake City and through its branches has an excellent collection of newspapers, too.

Don’t be discouraged if your local library does not have the newspaper you need. Use their interlibrary loan services, and, for a small, fee, if any, the microfilm will be brought to your library within a few weeks.

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