Saturday, July 5, 2014

Telling an Immigrant’s Story by Researching Ships – Introduction

Until the age of modern jet travel, the immigrants or ancestors you are researching came to America in a ship. And, if like me, the immigrants you are researching came to America in the early 19th century or before, unless you are super lucky, there is very little data to either understand the context of their migration or flesh out their journey for your family history. 

There is one avenue of research that can be quite fruitful and that is to investigate the ship on which they sailed. Immigrants could spend many months at sea in the ships that brought them to America. This journey was one that brought many emotions: excitement, worry, a sense of loss, and hopefulness. These crossings could be routine and uneventful or awful: they could get caught in storms and blown of course or disease could break out aboard.

Of course, the trick to this project is to find out the name of the ship and for many immigrants this will not be possible. If your immigrant came to America after 1821 you may find them in a passenger list, many of which have been digitized and indexed by If you are researching immigrants who came prior to that date you will probably have to rely on oral and printed histories.

The 1879 county history for Columbiana County, Ohio states that Charles Rose, Francis Grimes, Alexander McGillivray and their families came to America aboard the Brandywine in 1804. According to the account the ship’s Irish captain, Mark Collins, was “jolly.” From other research I know that Charles Rose was from Daviot and Dunlichity parish near to Inverness, and came to America with his wife and seven children. Alexander McGillivray, who was also from near Inverness, travelled with his wife and at least of two their children. Not much is known about Francis Grimes except that he and his wife and son were in Pittsburgh in 1810. While I know generally what forces propelled these individuals in emigrate and what happened to them in America, how can I find the ship that took them from Scotland to America? 

There are three main sources for information on ships – newspapers, Lloyd’s Register, and the internet – and we will look at each one in an installment of this series. In the final installment, we will put everything we’ve learned together.

The series continues: Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, and Part Five.

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