How To Find Your Ancestors On A Ship’s Manifest – Part 2

Preparing to find you ancestors on a ship’s manifest takes as much nerve as it did to sail on that ship! I will show you how to do it, but it will require perseverance. Getting used to the incongruities of ship’s manifests is akin to gaining your sea legs, your equilibrium will be challenged as you try and decipher foul handwriting, foul information, and foul copies. However, if you stay on course and weather this storm of research, you will arrive safely to port in the harbour of knowledge. Ok, that was a bit of a cheesy metaphor, but you get the point.

In Part 1, we went over FINDING THE YEAR and IMMIGRATION RECORDS, you should review these first before reading further.

Finding the name of the ship your ancestor came over on is of vital importance and as I’ve stated finding a Certificate of Arrival is the golden egg. This is very crucial because a Certificate of Arrival is much more reliable than information found on a Declaration of Intention or a Petition for naturalization for the sole reason that the Certificate of Arrival was filled out at the time the immigrant landed and passed through Ellis Island.


By contrast, a Declaration of Intention could be filled out by an immigrant YEARS after they were in the United States. Many people chose to fill these out immediately; however, others chose not to and by the time they did, the name of the ship was either forgotten or entered incorrectly.



At this point you should have a YEAR and a DOCUMENT that clues you in to the ship you will be looking for. Now you will be searching through record databases to find that ship and find the name of your ancestor on it.

Always remember: if you find your ancestor on the first try, you’re awesome! If not, that’s normal! Don’t give up, keep it scientific, and you will find them. I spent up to 6 months trying to locate a particular ancestor.

Begin your search of ship’s manifests through Ancestry and Family Search. Even if you think found who you are looking for, keep searching around similar records to make sure you are not leaving other possibilities by the road side.

Again, experience dictates that there were many different people with very similar names on many different ships arriving in the year(s) you are looking for.

The benefit of Ancestry’s and Family Search’s search algorithms is that you can play with their soundex parameters. This is super important because you cannot expect that your ancestor’s name will be spelt as you expect it to be!

For example, my great-grandfather who came from Lithuania has the last name of Stanišauskas. According to his naturalization documents, he came over on the S.S. Canopic. After tirelessly searching every record and basically reading every page of the Canopic’s manifests for 1906 I struck out! Come to find out that he actually came over on the S.S. Cassel under the name Stanilsawski and was listed in the search database index something closer to Wilchesky.

If I can be successful, so can you, using the techniques I’m sharing.

If Ancestry and FS doesn’t work then here’s a TOP TIP: use the Statue of Liberty – Ellis Island website to search for your ship’s manifest. Their search engine is kind of fussy to me but you can preview any manifest you like by zooming in. The resolution is not always where you would like it to be but it’s a great place to start searching by specific parameter: ship, year, port, etc.

The trick is once you think you’ve identified the actual ship and manifest you want, go back to Ancestry or Family Search and find it there through a specific records search. You can examine it in high-resolution via their browser. Keep doing this until you’ve found what you’re looking for.


Even after all that, if you still are unable to locate your ancestor on a ship’s manifest yet know they came over to the US via Ellis Island, you will have to broaden your research. You will need to investigate every aspect of their life during this time in the US, find as many supporting immigration documents from State Archives obtaining original scans, learn about how and why people emigrated during the time your ancestor left, understand which ships left from which ports and the routes they traveled, join a research group on social media to find others who know the specifics of the country of origin your ancestor came from.

That’s a lot, but it MUST be done. You must keep detailed records of each ship’s manifest you come across which should be placed in well-organized files on your computer. Each manifest should be labeled by year; person’s name; and ship.

You might be pleasantly surprised as well. For one person I was researching I found 2 ship’s manifests which looked like the same person yet appeared to be conflicting records. I couldn’t figure out what to do; turns out, both WERE him! One was his ship’s manifest when he first came to the US, and the other was when he went back to Lithuania to visit family.

Only through keeping meticulous records was I able to score 2 records instead of 1.

Another TOP TIP and lifeline for me has been focusing my searches on the TOWN that my ancestors came from. It seems like a long shot but since all of my ancestors came from rural farming villages, redirecting my search parameters towards specific locations actually helped me successfully find who I was looking for, and more! This technique has been so successful that through a single search I’ve found a few other potential relatives – you can’t be from a small hamlet have the same surname and not be related.


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