Using Ancestry: Searching Passenger Lists

Muriel Dyer DennisWow! Christmas came early for family historians last week when Ancestry posted a huge addition to its Immigration Collection (which is, by the way, free until 30 November). I began my searches this morning and have not been disappointed! I ran across some interesting items and have a few tips that I’d like to share today.

Low-Hanging Fruit Can Be Sweet
Most of my searches focused on the New York passenger lists that were added for the Ellis Island years. I started with a few family members that I had previously found, but for which I didn’t have printed copies of the record. Ancestry allows you to print either the entire image, or the “current view,” which enables you to zoom in and print enlarged sections of the record. (For these lists, I also set my print preferences to landscape so I can fit more on the page.)

One of the records I needed a print of was for my great-grandmother’s brother, Marton Szkokan. I was able to quickly find his record, but noted that there were actually two entries for the same ship and date. I printed off the manifest and just for the heck of it, clicked on the other entry. What it turned out to be was a “Record of Aliens Held for Special Inquiry.” 

I hadn’t seen this record before. It appears that Marton was detained at Ellis Island, because according to the record, he had “no money.” The record also shows that he was admitted on 24 March at 11:00 but a couple of his fellow passengers were not. Guiseppe Degni was detained with the reason given as “poor physique” and there is no admitted date–only a line. It must have been heart-breaking for him.

Another interesting entry on the page was for Agnes Sponholz, who was detained at the “Request of Miss Wichman,” and under “Departmental and Executive Orders,” it says, “married at Ellis Island 3/23 ’03. Certificate filed in Ex. Office.” Nice! A passenger arrival date and marriage date all wrapped in one!

So if you find what appears to be a duplicate entry in the index, be sure to check both!

Behind the Name
What’s in a name? A lot, if you’re trying to find someone in a database. Variant spellings of your ancestors’ surnames can really complicate your searches. We’ll talk about some search strategies to address this later, but to make matters worse, they may also be coming into the country with a given name that looks different than the name you find in later records.

Some of my Polish and Hungarian ancestors are perfect examples of this. My great-grandparents’ names are listed on their 1903 marriage certificate as John Szucs and Teresia Szkokan. John is listed on his 1902 arrival record as Janos. Among my Polish ancestors, my great-grandfather, John Mekalski, is listed as Jan Minkalski on his arrival record.

I haven’t found Teresia yet; on her death certificate, her name is listed as Theresa, and other variants I will need to search for include Terez, or Terezia. Teresia’s brothers’ names were given to me by family members as Martin and Andrew. Martin arrived with the name Marton, and Andrew will likely be found with a Hungarian variant like Andras, Andreas, Andris, or Endre. Other family names are Susanna, who I’ll look for with Hungarian variants like Zsuzsanna, Zsuzsa, or Zsuzsi, and Elizabeth, or Erzsebet.

There’s a good website for finding given name variants in several languages, called Behind the Name. Wade Hone also has a list of Hungarian name variants on the ProGenealogists website. Another useful table by Paul Kankula can be found on RootsWeb. It includes English given-name cross-references for Czech, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, Polish, Slovak, Russian, and Yiddish and is available on the Oconee County, South Carolina USGenWeb page. 

More help for Hungarian names can be found at Hungarian Names 101. An interesting point brought up here is the Hungarian practice of writing the last name first, followed by the given name. For this reason, it may be a good idea to also to reverse the names in a search.

Try a Web search for:

[your ancestor’s ethnicity] given names

(e.g., French given names, Polish given names, Danish given names)

Gathering Resources
Identifying relatives in passenger lists can be tricky. Even when you’re dealing with what would seem to be unusual surnames, you may find more of them than you’d think. For example, a search for my maiden name of Szucs in the New York passenger lists brings up 1,808 results. There were even three Marton Szkokans listed in various ports. So how do you tell which one is yours?

Gather as much information as you can on your immigrant ancestor using records found here in the U.S. and especially home sources. I first learned of the name of the town my great-grandfather was from in Poland from a notation on the back of an old photograph. Letters, family Bibles, and interviews with older family members can be goldmines of information. The more you can gather, the better your chance of correctly identifying your immigrant ancestor in these passenger lists.

I had heard from my grandfather that Teresa had brothers named Andrew and Martin and I was able to identify Marton because I also knew the family’s town of origin and it matched what he listed on the manifest. Age, occupation, and destination can also help. Manifests may list, “The name and complete address of nearest relative or friend in country whence alien came.” (Example here) or “Whether going to join a relative; and if so, what relative, the name and address.” (Example here) These and the names of traveling companions can help to ensure you have the right family.

Flexible Searching
As we discussed earlier, name variants can be an obstacle, but fortunately Ancestry allows for the use of wildcards. (More information on searching with wildcards can be found in the Ancestry Help Center.  

As I searched for variant spellings for the Szkokans, using the exact search, I used “Szk*”, in the hopes I would pick up mistranscribed names. I also used the wildcard for given names, and found this particularly helpful. For Andrew, I could search for And* and pick up instances of Andras, Andreas, Andres, Andris, Andrias, Andrey, Andrew, etc.

Once I found an ancestor, I also did a search by ship to see if I could browse through and find other familiar names on the same manifest. To do this, I just left the name blank, entered the ship name and year of arrival in both the “Year of Arrival” fields. In the keyword space I entered the date and month of arrival. (Tip: You have to enter it exactly as it is in the database.)

For example, the date of arrival for my great-grandfather was 24 December 1894 on the ship Dania. I have to enter “1894 to 1894” in the arrival fields, ship name Dania, and in the keyword field “24 dec,” because the date fields have the abbreviated version of the month.

Finding the Unexpected
Don’t overlook searches for family members who arrived in the U.S. generations before the Ellis Island era. My mom did a few searches and quickly found her mother returning from a trip to Mexico, where she was visiting her sister Madelon. Madelon’s husband was a mining engineer and worked in the mines in Mexico. This record is a great addition to our family history and complements the photo we have of her on board the ship. (I’ve posted the photo on the blog.)

One Last Story. . .
I actually found my dad’s Dziadzia (Polish for grandfather) in the passenger lists at the National Archives several years ago. I had received a copy of his alien registration in the mail, which said, “I last arrived in the United States at New York, N.Y. on Dec. 24, 1892. I came in by Pretoria German Steamship Co.” After being unable to find him arriving on that date, I found that the Pretoria wasn’t even built until 1898.

Since the alien registration was created forty-some-odd years after his arrival, it’s possible he didn’t remember it clearly, and family legend has it that he went back and forth several times before settling here (although I think he must have swum it most of those times!). So maybe he couldn’t remember the name of the ship. But the date stuck in my head–24 December, Christmas Eve. Maybe the name of the ship was fuzzy, but he would probably remember landing in the U.S. on Christmas Eve. Using the Morton Allen Ship Directory (also available in the Ancestry Immigration Collection, I found an entry for the Dania arriving 24 December 1894, and that’s where I found him.

So, if your family story is a bit fuzzy, play around with the details, and you might get lucky like I did! After all, until 30 November, the price is right.

Click here for a printer friendly version of this article.

Juliana Smith has been an editor of newsletters for more than eight years and is author of “The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book.” She has written for “Ancestry” Magazine and wrote the Computers and Technology chapter in “The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy,” rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e-mail at, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.


5 thoughts on “Using Ancestry: Searching Passenger Lists

  1. This is a terrific article. The passenger lists have provided me with critical info leading me to an abundance of information. But how can we get ancestry to correct the missing pages in the lists? The passenger lists have been invaluable in my research but I found that the NY Passenger lists (many, if not all) are missing the images of the second page of two-page spreads (first page title “List or Manifest of Alien Passengers for the United” and no second page). It took a half dozen emails to explain the problem to tech support in Aug. and still no corrections. My grandmother’s record lists my grandfather as the “friend” she was visiting here but the image of the page with that information is missing. The same newsletter that contains this article also lists under the “Posted the week” section: New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1957 – Updated. After 3 months the lists have finally been updated but the missing images still aren’t there. For all the value of the passenger lists, there is also a tremendous amount of information buried in those missing images.

  2. This information posted on the Immigration site is incorrect:

    Before Castle Garden
    The Erie Canal’s 1825 completion opened up easy travel to the northern United States, thus solidifying New York as the port of choice for U.S.-bound immigrants. But although immigration laws required a passenger list for every ship beginning in the 1820s, New York did not have an immigrant-processing center until 1855.

    Before that time, immigrants at New York did not pass through a screening or examination process; they simply declared any required items to customs and headed into America.

    Emigrants were given a medical examination aboard ship, even before 1855. A doctor would row out from Staten Island for the examinations. There were quarantine stations for the sick/diseased passengers. There is alot of available information about this on the Internet.

  3. It would be nice if the correct facts about Ellis Island were mentioned:

    1. Only third class passengers were processed at the Ellis Island Immigration Center. First & second class were processed aboard ship.

    2. There was a fire and Ellis Island was closed for reconstruction from June 15, 1897 to December 17, 1900. During that period, immigrants were processed at the Barge Office in the Harbor.

    3. The database is based on the Federal Custom Passenger Manifests that had to be surrendered at the first port of entry (New York) in America and includes passengers who did NOT disembark in New York and continued onto other ports. I have this exact in my family history, my ancestors are listed on the database but they actually went on to Baltimore.

  4. Not all passenger list are at Ancestry. The ones that came over on Army transports did not go thur Ellis Island. Those ships lists are in the National Archives copied from the Pentegon Army/Navy files. Our ship USNS Charles C. Muir had 2,188 passengers coming to the USA.I was one of them. Hve your checked the Airline List? A lot of immagrits came over by Air.

  5. I was able to find my paternal grandmother, no one in the family had a clue she came through Ellis Island. All these years we were under the impression that she was the only family member to come to the U.S. I found her sister, sister-in-law and nephew who came a couple of years earlier than she did and I also found where her father, my great grandfather came to visit the sister in 1900. Thank you Ancestry!!!

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