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September 29, 2008

A Guide to Searching the Canadian Ships Passenger Lists 1865-1935

The Canadian Ships Passenger Lists 1865-1935 have been online and searchable now for a few weeks. Some genealogists are having trouble finding an ancestor who they know should be there.

I've been playing in the lists since they were published, and thought I would share a few tips for successful searching.

First, be aware that many of the lists are faded and difficult to read. So transcribers may not have been able to read the name of your ancestor. The transcriber may have used ?? to indicate an unreadable entry. You won't have any luck finding your ancestor if you stick stubbornly to "first name" "last name". You must be creative! You must play with the search engine provided and learn how to use it to its full advantage.

* Use wildcards. allows the use of 3 letters plus an asterisk *. So Abigail Johnson for example, can be searched for under first name of Abi* The last name of Johnson can be searched for under John* which will pick up Johnston, Johnson, Johnstone and other variations

* Use only last name, or only first name. This will pick up on any that the transcriber could not read. For example if you search JAMES in the first name field, and nothing else. You get a very long list of "hits" including

James M
Mrs. James P
Inft Wm Jas
?? James
Revd Bro James
?? James
??D James
??Nost James
??Old James

Can you see how you would not find your ancestor if his name was Arnold James and you were typing that full name into the search engine? Since the transcriber has rendered his name as ??Old James, you're out of luck unless you loosen up your search parameters

A search of JAMES in the last name field brings up an entirely different list of "hits" so be sure you try both ways before giving up! Here's a few that came up when I typed JAMES into the last name field

Miss James
Mrs. James
Mr. James
P Hd James

So if you were searching using any first name and the last name James, and one of the above happened to be your ancestor, you're out of luck again! You won't get a "hit" because the first name was not recorded

Don't worry about determining if one of the obscure hits is your ancestor, for the hits also provide you with more detail. See the screen shot above.

* Use other fields such as estimated birth year, estimated year of arrival or birth country If you have searched under variations of first name, last name, and used wildcards and still have not found your ancestor, you may need to try just searching under other fields. But be cautious! For example if you were searching for someone born in England and you typed ENGLAND into the field for birth you will not get a hit if birth country was not recorded! You can see how few names have a birth country in that column in the screen shot above.

There are also Port of Departure and Port of Arrival fields. Try these in combination with other fields. DOn't give up, just try different fields to get different results.

* Be sure to allow a few years on either side of year of birth or immigration year. Even if you know your ancestor was born in 1854, you don't know what was recorded on the passenger list. So give him 5 years on either side. Too many hits? Try 2 years on either side.

Play with the search engine. Use the KEYWORD feature. Try various combinations. A good rule of thumb is to start with a narrow search (first name, last name) then loosen the search paremeters if that does not bring up results you want. I have found an ancestor simply by in desperation searching under an age, and scrolling through every "hit" until I spotted my guy.

You can search the Canadian Passenger Lists by using the Free Trial on this page

The lists include the following ports of arrival (yes, even some Eastern USA ports!)

* Eastern US Ports
* Halifax, Nova Scotia
* Montreal, Quebec
* New York, New York, USA
* North Sydney, Nova Scotia
* Quebec, Quebec
* Saint John, New Brunswick
* Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia and Pacific Ports

For those whose ancestors arrived before 1865 see Filling in the Gaps in Ships Passenger Lists to Canada

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