When I was young, my family moved a lot – from Ireland to Canada, Canada to Ireland, Ireland to Canada, Canada to New Zealand, New Zealand to Canada – all before I was 11 or 12. Consequently, I had trouble putting together a coherent time line for myself – what year did we live in Port Hope, which year was Streetsville, which year was Orangeville, exactly when did we go back and forth to Ireland.

Part of the problem was that I didn’t know where to look for information that would help. And then I found the ship manifests records on Find My Past, and a lot of my problem was solved. I found us on many ship manifests – six or seven, if I recall correctly. The first set of journeys was the one that caused my jaw to drop, and helped me understand exactly why my childhood memories seemed to be such a jumble. We (mother, sister, brother, and I) had gone to Canada by ship, back to Ireland by ship, and back to Canada, all in the same year!

Even if you are not trying to sort out your personal timeline, shipping manifests are a great resource when you are researching your ancestry. Many of them give you a lot of extremely helpful information. Some will list passengers’ birthdates and birthplaces. Some American manifests stretch across two pages and tell you where the passenger came from, name a relative there, and where and who they are going to meet in the US.

While many ship manifests are found on sites that require you to pay for a membership or to buy credits to see records, there are alternative sources that you can check before you decide to buy any credits or memberships.

Ellis Island, which opened in 1892 and took over US immigration control from Castle Garden, lets you search for passengers and view ship manifests for free. You also may find some ship manifests on FamilySearch, and on Olive Tree Genealogy, which focuses on ship manifests and other immigration records relating to Canada.

If your ancestors came to Canada, visit the Library and Archives Canada site. It lets you search through the names of Irish immigrants who landed first at the Grosse Ile Quarantine Station in the St Lawrence River. Grosse Ile had been established in 1837 and operated until 1937. “The database contains 33,036 references to immigrants who stayed, were born, married or buried at the Grosse Île Quarantine Station between 1832 and 1937. The database also includes references to immigrants who were born or died at sea during those years. It also includes references to immigration workers and their families who were living on the island.”

Like Ellis Island, Grosse Ile is now a national historic site. “The Grosse Île and the Irish Memorial was erected in 1997 to commemorate the massive arrival of Irish immigrants who were victims of the Great Famine. It provides the names of 8,339 people of various nationalities who were buried in the Grosse Île cemeteries from 1832 to 1937.”

Library and Archives Canada also has other search engines that you may find helpful in tracking the journeys of your ancestors. There is a database of immigrants from the Russian Empire, for example. A database of immigrants from China 1885 to 1949, lets you search through 139,458 references found in three key data sources stored at LAC.

In an earlier post, I talked about the value of creating a timeline of information about your ancestor’s life – and this can be particularly helpful if you decide to buy credits, but not necessarily a membership, on one of the fee-based sites. If you have found an ancestor on the 1911, 1916 or 1921 Canadian census records, for example, make a note of where their children were born. If some were born in Ireland or Scotland, for example, and then some in Canada, it is a safe bet that the family emigrated in the years between the two sets of births – and this narrows done the years you search.

One caution about the information on ship manifests, especially earlier ones. It reflects what the passengers told the shipping authorities. In working with a South African cousin to research our shared ancestors, I discovered the manifest for the journey our ancestor and her children made from Scotland to South Africa. The children’s ages did not match what I already knew about four of the five children, however. It turns out that the shipping companies charged less for younger children than for young adults, so some creative energy had gone into making the children seem younger than they were.

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