When your ancestors came here from the ‘old country’ they likely did so on a boat--and before boarding and departing the ship, they would have been recorded on a ship manifest. These manifests usually recorded where they were sailing from, aboard what ship, on which day, their name, their age, sex, etc., More importantly, many manifests (depending on what ship line and when) contain extremely important information for Genealogists, such as where their last residence was, their occupation, and the name and address of the family member or friend they are staying with in the United States.
Many of these ship manifests are already online--and a great deal more have been indexed, making them searchable through sites such as FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com. Anyone who has found family on these manifests can attest to the struggle of finding individuals whose names changed or were spelled incorrectly; making index-searching very difficult. However, researchers who have access to citizenship records fair better. Depending on when your ancestor applied for citizenship, their paperwork can include the date the arrived in the US, at which port, and on which ship, making the search much more efficient and, hopefully, more successful.
To illustrate, we’ll use my great-great-uncle Gustav as an example. In reality, his name was indexed correctly, so finding him was much easier but--we’ll just pretend that’s not the case to show you how to find him without the use of indexes. First, we need to find what ship he came on, in which port, and when. For that, we turn to his Petition for Naturalization.
Here we can see that he arrived at the port of Baltimore on the 13th of April 1904 on the S.S. Brandenburg. We’ll need that information to find his manifest.
As a side note, there is a great website called Norway-Heritage which holds one of the most comprehensive databases on immigrant ships. There, you can find images of ships and other information on their service--some even have schedules of trip arrivals which can help if you know the name of the ship, but not when and where it arrived.
Next, we turn to Ancestry.com which has a browsable manifest database under the “Immigration and Tavel” tab located below the search button. Once on that search page, we need to go to the right and click the Passenger List link.
Click on USA since that’s the port he arrived at.
Next, we need to click on the passenger list collection for Baltimore, 1820-1962.
On the right of the page, we can select a date (in this case 1904) and when we do, links to roll numbers for that year appear. Now, if you’re lucky and your ancestor came through New York, you’ll actually be able to search by a month and day in a particular year, and then a list of ship names that arrived in the port for that day are listed with links. In the case of the Baltimore manifests, you’re given roll numbers. Much less efficient but still fairly organized.
The rolls have multiple ship manifests on them over a particular amount of time. In order to figure out if the ship manifest you’re looking for is in within a particular roll number, use the arrows on the microfilm viewer to find a ship contents page. Here, we can see that this particular roll number has the S.S. Brandenburg arriving on the date we found via Gustav’s petition.
And here we have it--his name listed on the manifest. When I first found this, it gave me lots of amazing information, including confirmation of the village where my Saleker family lived.
For those who are missing other pieces of the information, you may need to rely on the indexed searches, trying different spellings, dates, etc., Others may find success searching through manifests one by one, if they have a date and port of arrival. Regardless, the search for the manifest can be well worth it, especially if the manifest for your ancestors ship had detailed information included--other manifests simple list name, age, sex, and country of origin, making the long search less fruitful in the end.