That’s the rhetorical question offered by John P. Colletta in the preface to his classic volume “They Came in Ships: A Guide to Finding Your Immigrant Ancestor’s Arrival Record.”
The answer, at least for those arriving in America between the late 16th and early 20th centuries, is simply: “How, indeed?” Transatlantic air travel was a marvel yet to be invented. But unfortunately, for many genealogists, including this one, the trail goes cold when attempting to trace our forebears back to the old country via ocean going vessels of the past.
But I don’t know enough about any of them to determine exactly when and where they departed from; what ships they sailed on; when they arrived; or precisely what port they arrived at when they got to America.
Well, Colletta’s volume aims to change all that as he serves up specifics on exactly how to go about researching further to pinpoint those ship arrival records. In this slim, compact, advice-driven manual laden with tips, warnings and suggestions, Colletta gives us hope as he systematically takes us on our own journey researching through genealogical records.
Short answer: your ancestor’s full original name, approximate age upon arrival, and approximate date of entry.
From there Colletta moves on to distinguishing between available passenger arrival records pre- and post- 1820; and hints on searching for colonists, slaves, stowaways, crew members and those who died at sea. The National Archives as well as indexes, directories, databases and more—including the nitty gritty of how to go about searching them—are all offered up as resources.
In Chapter 5, Colletta touches on a variety of topics including U.S. departure records, entry points from Canada and Mexico, changes in immigration laws, and even how to obtain a photo of your ancestor’s ship.
His final chapter highlights more than 300 years of immigrant processing from 1624, when there were no processing stations in America, to 1954 when Ellis Island was officially closed. Castle Garden (1855- 1890) the predecessor to Ellis Island; and the Barge Office, a temporary processing center (1890-1891 and 1897-1900); are also put into context.
Colletta doesn’t stop there, however. A 23-page “Select Bibliography” supplements his guide which points to record descriptions and research aids; arrival and departure lists and indexes; sources for colonial arrival information; images and information about sailing vessels and steamships; and books on the immigrant experience.
A flowchart entitled “Finding Your Immigrant Ancestor’s Ship” – a simple aid for visual learners like myself, rounds out this handy guidebook.
“They Came in Ships” was originally penned in 1989 and revised and reprinted in 2002. But don’t be fooled by the copyright dates. While much of what Colletta offers may be online in one database or another, the basics don’t change and this little one-of-a-kind volume brings it all together.
It’s an indispensable aid to people like me who still need a little hand-holding when it comes to determining exactly where our ancestors first set foot on this land we call home.
Other Books to Consider
Ships of Our Ancestors
by Michael J. Anuta
A collection of nearly 900 photographs and sketches of ships that brought immigrants to America between 1819 and 1960. Presented in alphabetical order and identified by date, shipping line and source. If you know the name of your ancestor’s ship and an image of it appears in this book, you will be richly rewarded.
As described in its preface: “These ships were the workhorses of mass migration… propeller-driven, steel-hulled leviathans of legend which transported an ocean of humanity across the Atlantic to an uncertain future in America…(They) were at the very center of the European exodus…”
Could your ancestor have been on one of them?
The Famine Ships: The Irish Exodus to America
by Edward Laxton
According to author Edward Laxton, it’s been estimated that seven million Irish left their homeland for America over the past 300 years. One million of them—1 out of 7—did so during the 6-year period from 1846 to 1851—the years of Ireland’s Great Potato Famine.
This book, written for those researching Famine Immigrant ships, deals specifically with Irish owned vessels during those years, including the Irish crews who sailed them and the Irish ports they sailed from. Among the chapter titles: From Dublin’s Fair City, Surviving the Icebergs, Life in America, and Ireland Forever.
The Ships List
Ship descriptions, passenger lists, immigration reports, newspaper records, shipwreck information and more for ships to America, Canada, Australia and South Africa.
The Transcribers Guild
Websites for ships, passenger lists, ethnic research, archives and more.
Search “immigrants + ships” for a host of photos, sketches and other images of immigrant passenger ships. (That’s where I obtained all of the photos that appear in this post.)
A free database of immigrants who passed through it’s gates in New York between 1820 and 1892.
A free database of immigrants who passed through it’s gates in New York between 1892 and 1954.
Copyright © 2013 Patricia Desmond Biallas