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Overheard in GenForum: How do I find ship list-Boston@1640-50?
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

January 25, 2001
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: I am looking for the arrival of my ancestor George Smith and his wife Temperance who sailed from Plymouth, England to Boston, Massachusetts. He then went to Smith Isles, now the Isles of Shoals and then to Dover, New Hampshire. I believe he would have sailed around 1638-1650. -- Mary

A: We often think that passenger lists have existed since people began to take boats to other countries. This is a misconception and often brings disappointment to those researching their early immigrants.

While there may exist a list that contains the names of those who were on a particular ship, it may not be a passenger list as we have come to know them. Often it is a list compiled at a later date of those who were traveling together. Other times the list may have been compiled as the individuals arrived in the country where they disembarked.

Passenger lists are a contemporary record type.

A Look at Passenger Lists

Passenger lists, those large pages that look a lot like census pages, have not existed for very long, when compared to the length of time people have been using boats to get from one country to another. For those immigrating to the United States, the passenger lists do not begin until 1820.

These early lists were actually Customs Lists as the ships that came into port were under the jurisdiction of the Customs people. These early lists did not supply much information. They cared little about the individuals coming into the country other than to keep track of them.

Over the years the amount of information required for each passenger has grown. The Twentieth Century passenger lists supplied useful information about place of birth and how much money they were entering the country with.

Before 1820

Of course, for many of us our ancestors were arriving in the United States long before these magical passenger lists were created. Does this mean that we are hopelessly lost?

We may not be lost. I won't say that it is possible to find a list of all those immigrants that arrived before 1820, but there are some lists. Usually though they will be found in published volumes. The trick, of course, is to find them.

An Index

In 1985 a new project to help with this endeavor was released. Published in three volumes by Gale Publishing, these volumes were like an answer to a prayer. This index, compiled by P. William Filby continues today.

The Index to Immigrants and Passenger Lists has been updated yearly until many libraries had fifteen volumes. You had to check each new update. Then they combined them into about four sets. This was much better, but still required some hefting on the researcher's part.

It is now possible to search all of these volumes on CD-ROM making it not only easier to search but also affordable for individual researchers. CD #354 Passenger and Immigration Lists Index, 1500s-1900s can be ordered from Family Tree Maker. They are also offering an online subscription. You can read more about it.

In Conclusion

While there may not be actual passenger lists for the time period in question. The individuals who arrived on many of those early ships have been identified and published in a number of different books. Using the index compiled by Filby may lead you to one of these published lists.

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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