Finding your Ancestor in a Passenger list is one of the most exciting parts of researching because it’s a time of transition. But it’s not easy. Continue reading for tips on searching on both sides of the pond!
Start with American Clues
Before you attempt to find your ancestor in any passenger lists, do a little American research to narrow down a possible year of immigration for your ancestor. Commonly, you can find clues in Federal Census Records, or in the Naturalization papers (if your ancestor applied for citizenship in the United States). Having that little bit of information will help separate your ancestor from other passengers with similar names. See if you can also uncover what age your ancestor might have been when the ship sailed. It’s not uncommon for travelers to be listed with the wrong age, but if you are lucky, this fact can make all the difference in identifying the correct person.
Finding the Port of Entry
Ellis Island (New York) was the main entry point to the United States between the years of 1892 and 1954. You can search their database online for passenger records, and if you know the name of the ship your ancestor traveled on, you can search for that as well. If you ancestor arrived before 1892, he or she may have entered through Castle Garden, which was open from 1820 – 1892, and was the predecessor to Ellis Island. You can search the Castle Garden records online. There were also many other ports in the United States that welcomed immigrants, such as Boston, and New Orleans. Ancestry has a comprehensive database of most of these ports available here. Also, be sure to check out Canadian border crossings and passenger lists for your ancestor’s name. Travel to Canada was cheaper than travel to the United States, and many immigrants had a Canadian point of entry. Ancestry has those records available here. If your Swedish ancestor arrived in America in the early 1800s, the book Swedish Passenger Arrivals in New York 1820-1850 by Nils William Olsson (ISBN 978-9995149512) is a very good resource. You can also search Ancestry’s comprehensive database of passenger lists with your subscription.
Finding the Port of Origin
The port of origin is most likely not where your ancestor actually lived. Many emigrants traveled a long way to reach a main port, leaving very few traces of their home parish. However, finding the main port should still be on your to-do list as it could reveal the details you need to find that home parish.
The Path Most Commonly Traveled
A big part of locating the right passenger list is having an approximate year of emigration available. Gothenburg (Göteborg) was a major shipping and emigration hub in the 1800s and early 1900s, and though statistically most emigrants departed from Gothenburg, you cannot assume that your ancestor took the same path. If you ancestor traveled before 1915, you will probably need to look for more than one stop as there was not yet a direct line of travel from Sweden to North America. Common ports of departure during this time included Copenhagen, Liverpool, Southhampton, Hamburg, Bremen, Cherbourg, Le Havre, Kristiania (Oslo), and Glasgow. Don’t be surprised if you find your ancestor on a passenger list from Liverpool, England – it was actually quite common!
In 1915, things changed. The Swedish American Line (Svenska Amerika Linjen) started a direct route between Gothenburg and New York, greatly improving travel time. To document passengers, they kept their own records, including lists of passengers traveling in both directions. Many of these records have been digitized into a database now known as EMISAL, and is available on a CD called Emigranten Populär. This CD database also includes passengers leaving from other major Swedish ports, such as Malmö, Helsingborg, Kalmar, Norrköping, and Stockholm. You can purchase this database CD (in Swedish) through Sveriges Släktforskarförbund (Federation of Swedish Genealogical Societies), or have me do a lookup for you. To access the full Swedish America Line (SAL) archives you will have to visit the Regional Archives in Gothenburg.
Important! You will not find your ancestor in EMISAL unless that ancestor traveled on the Swedish America Line because there were plenty of other ports in Scandinavia and the rest of Europe, which are not included in this database.
You can also find many of the Gothenburg emigration records in Arkiv Digital, which is an online service for accessing digitized Swedish records. The records are listed chronologically by year, and shows the name of the ship and the passenger list. In many cases, it states the passengers final destination, i.e. where the passenger was headed upon arriving in the United States.
Look for Family Members
In many cases, one family member followed another one’s emigration path, so if you find a sibling that traveled through Liverpool to get to America, start by looking there for your ancestor. People who had left for America would often write home about their journey, and family members who decided to follow suit sometimes decided to make the same journey as they had someone who could give advice about what to expect. Naturally, this was not the case with everyone, but it wasn’t uncommon either, so consider information like this a clue worth investigating.
First Time Traveling?
Contrary to popular belief, many emigrants traveled back and forth quite a bit, especially if they had made a bit of money in their new country, so don’t be surprised if you find your ancestor on several passenger lists, including on ships going to back to Sweden. This could be a valuable clue as to the original port of origin, especially if your ancestor traveled often. If the date of immigration doesn’t match up with the year on the passenger list, and you are positive you have the correct person, this is most often the case. The list you find is not necessarily that of your ancestor’s first journey.
Emigrants Leaving Norway
Olso, or Kristiania as the city was called at the time, was also a hub for emigration, and some Swedes, perhaps finding the route to be a closer one, left for America on a Norwegian ship. EMIWEB, which is an online database service, has indexed approximately 18,000 Swedish passengers leaving Norway between the years of 1867-1886. Their work is ongoing, and when finished, will include the years up until 1930.
Emigrants Leaving Denmark
The Danish police kept detailed emigration records from 1869 until 1940, and if your ancestor lived in southern Sweden, chances are that you will be looking for a Danish port, most likely Copenhagen. You can find the records for the time period 1869-1908 in the Danish Emigration Archives (De Danske Udvandrerarkiv). These records are also available to EMIWEB subscribers. If you can find your ancestor here, you will a lot of details, including the person’s name, age, date of birth, place of birth, status, residence, destination, name of ship, ticket number, registration date, and who issued the ticket.
What’s in a Name?
As it turns out, a lot! When searching passenger lists, you have to be flexible. Misspellings were common, and just like in census records, names were at the mercy of the record keepers and their ability to listen, read, and write. Many record keepers spelled names phonetically, so variations are extremely common. Searching online records with asterisks (*) will be your best bet. You can also try searching for a family members, if they were known to travel together. Many Swedish immigrants will have similar names, i.e. Nilsson, Andersson, Olsson, etc. because of Sweden’s patronymical naming customs, so you may find several Anders Larssons traveling on the same ship. Anglicization was also common; the decision to start fresh in America inspired many immigrants to change their names to fit the English language better, so you may actually be looking for an Anderson instead of an Andersson. The changes may be subtle or dramatic – there’s no way of knowing until you find the right person, but keep it in mind nonetheless. For female ancestors, try searching for the maiden name. You never know. This is why starting with the American clues is so important; having as many details as possible will help you identify the correct person.
The Perished Passport
Could you find a passport record for your Swedish ancestor? Well, it depends. During the height of emigration to America, from the 1860s until the beginning of the 20th century, Sweden’s borders were open and citizens were not required to carry passports for traveling abroad. This changed with the start of World War I in Europe. Therefore, you will most likely not be able to find a passport record if your ancestor was a part of the wave of emigrants that left Sweden between 1860 and 1914. However, Emigrants who left Sweden before that time may show up in EMIPASS, which is a database register available on the Emigranten Populär CD. It contains passport records for the years 1783-1860, taken mainly from the Naval Pension Fund (Flottans Pensionskassa), from SCB (Statistiska Centralbyrån), and from the police journals in Gothenburg, which was the main emigration port at the time. If you are lucky enough to find a record here, take a good look at it because it may reveal the home parish of your ancestor as a passport was also required for travel within Sweden.