Immigration to Canada:
Ship Manifests / Passenger Lists

Before air travel, the only way to get to North America was by ship. Ship manifests, or passenger lists, therefore are important sources of information on when our ancestors arrived in Canada.

Up until the 1900s, there were few controls over who came to Canada, as compared to today, although once here, there was a naturalization process in place for those whose country of origin was not the United Kingdom. (See my page entitled Naturalization in Canada for further details.)

For those born in the United Kingdom, however, no naturalization was required. They could move freely from the UK to any British colony. As far as tracing their arrival in Canada, therefore, there are only a few options.

One source of information is their petitions for land grants (see the section Canadian Land Grants and Homesteading for more detail). However, not everyone applied for free land.

Some of the census documents also indicate date of arrival, although they are not as reliable as an actual ship's manifest.

That is, the census document is completed several years after the event occurred, while the other is recorded at the time of the event, often by people with no connection to the family, for their own purposes.

To give an example, one of my relatives, who migrated from Canada to the US, gave two different US arrival years on two different US census documents! I don’t think he was deliberately trying to mislead the government; rather, the exact date and year of arrival had faded in his mind with the passage of time.

In contrast, his border crossing to the US (which I found on Ancestry) provided his father's name in Canada, the name and address of his sister-in-law in the US where he would be staying, and even the date of the family's arrival in Canada from England and the name of the ship they sailed on, some 12 years before! He must have had that documentation with him when he crossed the border to the US, as I was able to locate the family on the ship's manifest, based on that information.

"Behind Bonsecours Market", Montreal by William Raphael. c. 1866 Originally titled "Immigrants at Montreal". Public Domain

Ship Manifests

The most important source of arrival information for these UK citizens - and, indeed, for all immigrants to Canada - is the ship manifest, which listed a ship’s passengers for a particular voyage.

From 1803 on, under British law, the ship’s master was required to keep a list of all passengers, and to leave a copy of that list with the government where the passengers disembarked.

The few passenger lists, or ship manifests, that survived before 1865 are indexed by name in the Library and Archives Canada (LAC) “Immigrants to Canada” database.

The information contained on these ship manifests varied considerably, as there was no set format in the early years. When a format was developed, it was changed every few years, to reflect changes in government requirements or policy.

Some passenger lists simply listed the head of the family’s name and the number of males and females, adults and children, in the family grouping. Other ship manifests gave detailed listings (especially in more recent years) of each family member’s name, age, gender, place of origin, name and address of closest relative in former country of residence, intended place of settlement, occupation, and name and address of closest relative, contact, or employer in Canada.

Canada did not begin consistently saving and archiving ship manifests until 1865 in Quebec, although undoubtedly they were prepared for most voyages from 1803 and on. Quebec was the first port to begin archiving these records; other ports did so at later dates.

European immigrants to Canada generally boarded ships at international ports such as

  • Liverpool, England;
  • Glasgow, Scotland;
  • Hamburg, Germany;
  • Rotterdam, the Netherlands; and
  • Le Havre, France.

Pre-1865 Ship Manifests

The general consensus, until recently, was that very few of the ship manifests from the period prior to 1865 had survived.

However, some passenger lists have surfaced dating from this time period. As noted above, those in the possession of Library and Archives Canada are searchable by name at LAC's “Immigrants to Canada” database.

The Ships List database also has a number of ship manifests for this period online.

The Ships List's most recent project involves indexing the St. Lawrence Steamboat Company’s records for the period from 1819 to 1836. These records relate to new immigrants who arrived at the port of Quebec, and were taking the steamboat to Montreal, the first Canadian leg of their journey to their destination.

This is an exciting proposition, as it provides a better picture of the time period before 1865, when Canada began archiving the ship’s manifests. In the absence of the actual ship’s passenger list, how much closer can one get to the actual arrival time of an ancestor during this time period?

Perhaps I can finally find out exactly when my Scottish ancestors came over. My current research tells me they came in several different groups, over a 20-year period, but all were siblings and their spouses or extended family members.

Another thing to keep in mind, of course, is that for many ships, the final destination was not Canada.  Before returning to the port of origin, a majority of ships stopped in both Canada and the US. Checking US listings for your ancestors' arrival period therefore may prove fruitful, as the manifest may have ended up in the US, as the last stop on the outbound journey.

The Ship’s List, by the way, is an excellent, completely free genealogy resource for anything related to ships in genealogy. It also has a list of links to related websites, in both the US and Canada.

Pier 21, Halifax, NSPier 21, the main center for processing immigrants in Halifax, NS from the early 1900s to 1970. It is now a museum. Public domain

1865–1919 Ship Manifests

On the west coast of Canada, ships arrived carrying passengers from Asia and Australia. They docked at Vancouver or Victoria.

Most passengers arriving on the East Coast of Canada during this time period disembarked at Quebec (which includes Quebec City and Montreal). However, given the location of these ports - inland along the Saint Lawrence River, which froze over during the winter - they operated only about 24 weeks a year.

Many passengers heading for the American mid-West or Canadian Prairies came via the Quebec or Atlantic Maritime ports, and traveled, by train and/or lake and river steamers, from Quebec through Canada to their ultimate destination.

No records were kept of train passengers. I know that my great-grandparents journeyed to northern Ontario in 1899, from Quebec, by train and then by river boat, as I have a copy of my great-grandmother’s trip journal. Fascinating reading!

Ships arriving during the winter months would use American ports located at New York, NY, Boston, MA, and Portland, ME, and more recently, Canadian ports at Halifax, NS and Saint John, NB. It therefore is entirely possible that you may find your Canadian ancestors’ arrival in a US archival record.

If you’re searching in the Library and Archives Canada databases, however, the American ship manifests are not there in their entirety. LAC lists only those passengers disembarking at US ports who specifically stated they were headed for Canada.

If you are interested in seeing the full ship manifest, you will need to search other databases, such as the American Immigration Records (Ship Passenger Arrival Records).

For New York arrivals, two databases are relevant:

Boston arrivals can be found at Boston Passenger Manifests 1848-1891

1919–1924: Ship Manifests and Form 30As

From 1919 to 1924, Canada required that passengers headed for Canada complete individual Form 30As.

Rather than having to search through a ship manifest, then, these documents are organized by each individual’s surname. They were microfilmed in what the LAC describes as "semi-alphabetical" order. By that, they apparently mean that all documents beginning with a particular letter are grouped together, but not necessarily in strict alphabetical order. The Manifests are located here (see #1 and #3).

Up until 1922, however, some shipping companies continued to complete the shipping manifest. You therefore will find that, if there is a Form 30A filed for your ancestor, s/he may also be listed on a ship manifest.

Searching the ship manifest, with all the passengers listed, has the advantage of providing the names of the passengers that your ancestors sailed with. It is quite possible that there were a number of relatives on board the ship that you might not otherwise have known about. Or, you might discover that ancestors who later married met aboard the ship!

Photo:  Replica of the HectorReplica of The Hector, which carried many Scottish immigrants to Canada, at Pictou, Nova Scotia. Wikimedia Commons

1925-1936 Ship Manifests

As of January 1, 1925, Canada stopped using the Form 30A immigration forms. The ship’s manifest again was used at all Canadian ports.

The passenger lists for these years contain more details than the earlier ship's manifests, such as:

  • the immigrant's place of birth;
  • the name and address of the relative, friend or employer to whom they were going; and
  • name and address of the nearest relative in the country they came from.

The LAC has passenger lists from 1865 to 1922 which have been digitized and are available online. The database allows you to access the passenger lists by name of ship, port and date of departure, and/or port and date of arrival.

For 1925 – 1935, see Microform Digitization. This collection allows you to browse the microfilm of the various passenger lists.

The LAC is in the process of indexing these records by passenger name. They expect to have the project completed (i.e., up to 1936) by the end of 2011.

Databases searchable by passenger name are available as follows:

  • Immigration, 1925 – 1935;
  • Passengers – Quebec – 1865 – 1900; and
  • Grosse Ile Immigration - This is a list of passengers who came off the ship ill, and were quarantined at Grosse-Ile. I found a direct ancestor here. Ann (Hall) York was ill for most of the trans-Atlantic journey in 1844, spent a few days at Grosse-Ile, and then passed away, leaving her husband Henry with five young children in the New World. My heart sank when I read this. How could he survive on his own, with all those children to care for?

When searching the online index, keep in mind that these lists were prepared by British pursers, who were not necessarily familiar with spelling conventions in other languages, and perhaps not those in their own! Be open-minded about spelling.

Also, many of the lists were difficult to decipher, and therefore may be subject to transcription errors. The original (that is, the digitized copy) will contain much more information than the version in the index, so wherever possible, always consult the actual document, rather than the index.

Photo:  Inside of Pier 21.Pier 21, Halifax: Interior Reconstructed as it was when Immigrants Passed Through. Wikimedia Commons

Other Resources

In addition to those already cited above, resources outside Library and Archives Canada include the following free genealogy websites:

  • Theshipslist has an extensive list of other resources with respect to Canadian and US passenger lists and other immigration-related matters.
  • Immigrant Ships Transcribers Guild - This website is staffed by volunteers who index passenger lists from various countries, including Canada.
  • Immigrants to Canada - A University of Waterloo project, which provides indexes for some passenger lists, as well as information about ships, immigration handbooks, and journals of voyages.
  • Pier 21 National Historic Site Pier 21 was the main Halifax dock at which immigrants disembarked, and then were processed by Canadian immigration officers. The site provides information about the history of the Pier in Halifax, ship photographs, and immigrant stories.

A few examples of free genealogy databases related to specific ethnic groups and their immigration patterns include the following:

  • Immigrants from China database, located at the LAC;
  • The Hamburg Passenger Departure Lists 1850-1934 (passenger lists and departures from Hamburg, Germany, part of the German Roots website);
  • The Nordic Emigration (deals with emigrants from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden);
  • Odessa, A German-Russian Genealogical Library, including ship and immigration records; and
  • Scottish Emigration Database - contains the records of over 21,000 passengers who embarked at Glasgow and Greenock for non-European ports between 1 January and 30 April 1923, and at other Scottish ports between 1890 and 1960. (May 31, 2014 - I have temporarily removed the link, as the database currently is unavailable).

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