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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Our Fascination with Ships
by Rhonda R. McClure

April 04, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Genealogists have a fascination with ships. We want to know about the ship that brought our ancestors to America. We want to know how big the ship was. We want to know what the ship was made of. I have often wondered about this fascination. I have few personal ancestors who came over after the mid-1600s, but I have done enough research in the mid-1800s to the early 1900s for others now that I feel I too have been bitten by the Ship Bug.

Perhaps it is because the ship is tangible proof of our ancestor's journey. The ship itself is different than the passenger record that lists our ancestor. We spend so much time working in records that our ancestors become mere abstracts of those written records. Pictures and information about the ship they traveled on though, bring the trip to life, and we are often struck by the harsh realities of their trip. I often marvel over the conditions on board and what these daring travelers endured in their quest for a fresh start. Some researchers, though, don't know where to find information about these ships. There are some online avenues and some published avenues that should be explored when looking for a picture of the ship or details about the ship.

Ships bring the voyage to life.

Online Resources

While anyone who has read John Colletta's They Came in Ships is probably aware that ship museums exist, you might not be aware of their online offerings. Some of them have published online some useful information about what is needed to locate a ship in their archive, or how to request a photograph of the ship.

  • Mystic Seaport, The Museum of America and the Sea
    Founded in 1929 to help preserve the disappearing maritime past of America. They offer a valuable informational pamphlet on "Conducting a Vessel Search". They are also home to the Rosenfeld Collection, one the largest archives of maritime photographs in the United States.

  • Peabody Essex Museum
    The Peabody Essex Museum has an extensive collection about maritime history. The holdings include many 19th and 20th century images, but according to the site, they are strong in pre-1860 history.

  • The Mariner's Museum
    The Mariner's Museum site includes many pages devoted to past exhibitions, giving online viewers some great information and a few graphics from the exhibit. The Mariner's Museum also offers an online catalog of their book holdings.

  • The Steamship Historical Society
    The Steamship Historical Society's museum is devoted to the history of engine powered vessels and their collection is housed at the University of Baltimore. They also offer an online catalog of many of the Transatlantic Passenger Ships for which they have photographs. The entries are arranged alphabetically by the name of the ship and include the date the ship was built and the shipping line. You can search this online list and then print out the order form and mail it with the indicated charges. Please note that these fees are for personal use, not commercial use.

The Ellis Island Site

Many researchers are finding the Ellis Island Records site to be a great help in researching their immigrant ancestors. Be careful not to stop looking after you find your ancestor in the passenger list. Upon further inspection, you'll find an image of the ship that you can view and a wonderful write up about the ship. In this week's Rhonda's Tips there was a question about an immigrant to New York who arrived through Ellis Island in 1924. I searched for the immigrant in question on the Ellis Island site and discovered that she came over on the S. S. Celtic. During my search, I found I was touched by the image of the ship and the write up:

Built by Harlan & Wolff Limited Belfast, Northern Ireland, 1901. 20,904 gross tons; 700 (bp) feet long; 75 feet wide. Steam quadruple expansion engines, twin screw. Service speed 16 knots. 2,857 passengers (347 first class, 160 second class, 2,350 third class).

Built for White Star and Dominion Lines, in 1901 and named Celtic. Liverpool-New York service. Largest ship afloat 1901-03. Stranded in Cobh harbor and declared a total loss and scrapped in 1928.

As I read the end of the description, I was saddened by the loss of this magnificent ship that brought so many ancestors to the United States, each one hoping for a fresh new start.

In addition to viewing the ships online, you can also order a print of the ship in question. What a great way to enhance the family history. The pictures are $10.00 for a 5x7 print and $12.50 for a 9x12 print.

Books about Ships

While the Internet is certainly convenient, if you are like me, there are times when you would like to curl up with a good book. Colleta's They Came in Ships tells us how to access the passenger records and there are a number of good books that include pictures of the ships.

  • Anuta, Michael S. Ships of our Ancestors. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1993.
  • Cutler, Carl C. Queens of the Western Ocean. Annapolis, Maryland: United States Naval Institute, 1961.
  • Kludas, Arnold. Great Passenger Ships of the World. 6 volumes. Great Britain: Patrick Stephens Limited, 1976.

These are just a few of the books that have been published over the years with photographs and drawings of the ships that brought our ancestors across the ocean. Including what you learned about a ship in your family history brings the trip to the new world to life. Rather than being noted as just a boring date, now your family history can share information about the ship and perhaps even hazard a guess as to where your ancestor stayed on the ship.

In Conclusion

Online resources offer us many special glimpses into the history that our ancestors lived through. Getting to see pictures of the ships they traveled on and learn the history of the ship is just one of those glimpses into their history. The next time you find yourself asking questions about the ships that brought your ancestors to America or what type of journey they had, take a look at what is available at these various museums.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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