My father, John McNamara, emigrated from Ireland to the United States in 1904.  I was recently invited to give an address to a genealogical society, and to mark the centennial of my father's passage across the Atlantic I presented this talk on how my son and I searched in microfilms of U.S. government shipping records to find my father's arrival in Boston. 

A Trip Across the Atlantic, by Robert S. McNamara

Presented to the Halifax Genealogical Society

Ormond Beach Public Library, Ormond Beach, Florida

March 11, 2004

            Iím very happy to be back speaking to your club.  I really enjoyed being here a few years ago, when I spoke about research conducted using microfilms available in Daytona Beach and the trips my family and I made to Ireland.  In total my wife Marie, my son Robert, and I have made four trips to Ireland, and weíve learned more about my ancestors there than I would have ever thought possible.

            Rather than talk about my own trips today, I thought Iíd talk about another trip across the Atlantic, as the centennial of it is actually coming up in a few days.  My father, John McNamara, left a very rural part of County Clare, Ireland a hundred years ago this month.  He actually sailed from Ireland on March 16th 1904, so the 100th anniversary of him leaving Ireland will be on Tuesday.  He sailed from what was then called Queenstown, which was the port near the city of Cork, on the southern coast of Ireland.  He crossed the Atlantic on the Cunard liner Saxonia, and landed at the port of Boston on March 25, 1904.

            I know those precise dates, the name of the ship he sailed on, and some other interesting details about his voyage, because we found the records of his voyage on microfilms of shipping manifests.

What Iíd like to do today is talk a bit about Irish emigration to America.  But more importantly, Iíll give you what I hope will be some practical pointers on how you can search shipping records to look for ancestors who landed in America.  Iíll use my fatherís voyage, and the records we found of it, as an actual example.  Now, the procedures my son and I used to find my fatherís arrival at the port of Boston in late March 1904 may not work in your own specific cases, but I hope it will give you inspiration for tackling your own problem of locating an ancestor arriving in America.  As you have all done your own genealogical research, you know that things can often get a little tricky, but I hope I can point you in the right direction.

Now, a lot of the background information on Irish emigration you probably already know, if not from doing your own research than just from watching all the documentaries that turn up on PBS or History Channel around this time of year.  There were really two great waves of Irish coming to America.  The first, of course, was during the time of the Great Famine, in the late 1840s and early 1850s.  The second wave was roughly fifty years after that, in the 1890s and the first decade of the 20th Century.  And my father was part of that great migration.

And of course everyone knows that all these Irish immigrants came through Ellis Island.  Well, thatís not quite true.  I hate to go against everything youíve always heard from Lee Iacocca and all the other supporters of Ellis Island, but that isnít totally accurate.  A lot of Irish did land at Ellis Island, including some relatives of mine, who Iíll talk about in a little while.  But many Irish immigrants landed in other cities, and a great many of them landed in Boston.  And I always knew that my father, though he settled in Paterson, New Jersey, which is only about ten miles from Ellis Island, actually landed in Boston.

Why would the Cunard Line be taking people to Boston?  The answer is fairly simple if you look at a globe.  Itís not real obvious by looking at a map, but if you look at a globe and just run your finger from Ireland to New York in a straight line across the north Atlantic, you realize that Boston is actually on the way.  And if you were going by ship a hundred years ago, the trip to Boston was a few days shorter than the trip to New York.

So whatís the big deal about a boatload of immigrants getting to the United States a few days sooner?  The answer is that it was just more profitable to go to Boston, as the shipping companies had to feed the people while they were on the boats.  And if you have 1,500 hungry people on board, you would just as soon maximize your profits and set them on land in America as soon as you can.  So a lot of immigrant ships coming from England and Ireland were scheduled to go to Boston and never had any intention of going to New York.

So thatís something right away to be aware of: not every immigrant came through Ellis Island, and if you searched in the Ellis Island database and canít find someone, that doesnít mean they stowed away.  Like many thousands of other Irish immigrants, they may have landed in Boston and then taken a train to wherever their final destination would be.

I knew my father had landed in Boston, because he used to mention it by saying that his mother had a relative in Massachusetts, and he had stayed in Fall River for a little while before coming to New Jersey to join his older brother in Paterson.

            What I just said there -- landed in Boston, motherís relative in Fall River, and a brother already in Paterson -- is about all I knew at the outset of this search.  That wasnít a lot to go on, but each little fact was important to know.

            One thing I didnít know was the date when my father came to America, but we were able to narrow it down using census returns we had found on microfilm.  In the spring of 1901 he was listed in the Census of Ireland, living with his family in a rural townland in County Clare, in the west of Ireland.  And in the spring of 1905 he was living with my uncle in Paterson, New Jersey, according to a census taken by the state of New Jersey..  So thatís a four-year window.  He must have crossed the Atlantic between 1901 and 1905.  Incidentally, a good tip is that if you can find someone in an federal census, that will usually say how long the person has been in the country.  So thatís another way to narrow things down.

            I had absolutely no idea how to find the immigration records of someone who had arrived in Boston about a hundred years ago, and this is where a little searching on the internet came in useful.  My son and I discovered a very informative web site aptly titled ďFinding Passenger Lists   By reading the pointers on that web site we were able to plot out our own strategy.  Weíve prepared a printed sheet with the address for the ďFinding Passenger ListsĒ web site so you can refer to it yourself.  Itís a private web site that a researcher set up just for the love of it, and itís free to use... itís a great example of someone who is serious about this kind of research and shares his knowledge.  In fact, the fellow who created the site is affiliated with a group interested in German genealogy, so the information you will find there applies to immigration in general, not just Irish immigration.

            What we discovered is that we actually had to get two separate reels of microfilm to find the record of my fatherís arrival.  Before we could get to the really interesting stuff -- the actual shipís manifest -- we first had to search through a reel that contained images of index cards.  Incidentally, these index cards were created by the US government so federal workers could search shipping records to verify claims on citizenship applications.  If someone said they had arrived on a specific ship, someone could check the index of arrivals and check out their story.

If we were on the right track, we would find an index card for my father.  That card would tell us the date he arrived in Boston.  And once we had the exact date we could then find the precise reel of film that would contain the images of the shipís manifest.  Those are the big sheets on which the immigration officers wrote all the information about the new immigrants who had just come off the ship.

            It turned out there are 11 reels of microfilm containing the index to the passenger vessels arriving in Boston between January 1, 1902 and June 30, 1906.  That happened to cover most of the time frame we were targeting, and there was one reel of film that would have contained anyone with the last name McNamara.  So we went to the Family History Center in Holly Hill, which Iím sure many of you are familiar with, and we ordered that reel of film.

            When the film arrived from Salt Lake City we began reading it, and sure enough, there were dozens and dozens and dozens of McNamaras who had come into Boston during that period.  Scanning through all the cards, we eventually came to a John McNamara.  The card said he arrived on the S.S. Saxonia on March 25, 1904.  It also said he was 17 years old, which would not have been quite correct, but it was in the ballpark.  And while this always sounds a little odd, itís a fact that the Irish at that time werenít too concerned about birthdays or ages, and they often gave approximate ages for themselves.  Youíll see that happen time after time.  So if you do research on Irish ancestors and the ages seem off by a few years, donít be alarmed, thatís just the way it was.

            As I recall, there were other John McNamaras listed among the many index cards, but that was the only one who was a teenager, and the only one who was single.  So while we werenít yet sure if that was my father, we decided to order the reel of film that would cover arrivals for the port of Boston on that particular day, March 25, 1904.

            Once again, the ďFinding Passenger ListsĒ web site was very helpful.  It turns out there are 454 rolls of microfilm containing passenger lists for ships that arrived in Boston between 1891 and 1943.  But if you know the exact date of arrival, thereís a page on that web site that provides the catalog number for the particular film in the LDS family history library.  In other words, thatís the number you need to order the film from the local family history center.  So, we ordered the film that should contain the manifest for the Saxonia.  The film actually covered a period from mid-March to mid-April, 1904.

            While waiting for the film to arrive in town, my son and I did a little research on the Saxonia.  We discovered that it was a Cunard liner, and it spent years sailing from England and Ireland to Boston.  The normal route in those days is familiar to you if you know the story of the Titanic: the ships would be loaded with passengers first in England, and then theyíd stop at Queenstown in Ireland briefly and pick up passengers before sailing out into the north Atlantic.  If you remember, thereís a famous old photo of the Titanic on the horizon, leaving Ireland... and that was the last anyone saw of the ship until the 1980s, when it was found on the bottom of the ocean.  And hereís a little extra steamship trivia: the Saxonia  would be identifiable right away as a Cunard liner because the names of Cunard ships at that time ended with the letters ďia.Ē  For instance, the Saxoniaís sister ship was the Ivernia.  And another Cunard ship from that era is remembered as the ship that rescued the survivors of the Titanic.  Anyone remember that?  That was the Carpathia.

            Speaking of the Titanic, when we think of ocean liners of that period we generally think of the Titanic or some of the large ships that followed her.  And by comparison the Saxonia would not have looked very impressive.  It only had one smokestack, and it didnít have a lot of decks like the later ships did.  The steerage area on the Saxonia, where most of the immigrants coming to America would have been, was not luxurious, but it really wasnít horrible.  The steerage cabins would resemble a barracks, with steel bunk beds, and you didnít have a lot of room to yourself.  But the ships were known to be kept pretty clean.  Taking people to America was a big business for the steamship companies, and keeping the passengers healthy was good for business.  Compared to how people had crossed the ocean say in the mid-1800s, crossing a hundred years ago really wasnít all that bad.

            By the time the film that would contain the shipís manifest arrived in town, we had a pretty good idea of what we might find aboard the Saxonia... which essentially would be a lot of passengers from all over Europe.  When we got the film we put it on the microfilm viewer, and cranked forward, until we got to March 26, and sure enough, we found the manifest pages for the Saxonia.  These were large printed forms, and the immigration officers at the ports would write in all the information about the passengers.  The Saxonia carried 1,608 steerage passengers on that particular trip, so there are many pages listing the passengers.  Whatís interesting is that youíll find passengers from the same country on the same page... in other words, all the people from Germany will be together on the list, all the people from England, and so on.  The reason for that is easy to figure out: thatís how they loaded the ships.  A company like Cunard would actually hire trains to pick up immigrants in Europe, they would then be ferried across the Channel to England, moved on train again to the ports, and finally theyíd be put onboard a ship.  And as I mentioned earlier, the ships would stop at Queenstown, on the southern coast of Ireland, near the city of Cork, and would pick up the Irish passengers.  As all the people from a particular country would wind up being loaded on the ship together, they would tend to be together onboard.  In one part of the ship everyone might be speaking German, in other part theyíd be speaking French, and so on.  And when they got off in Boston the American immigration officials interviewed the passengers as they got off the ship, so people from the same ethnic groups wound up together on the pages of the shipís manifest.

            As we began reading the microfilm of all the passengers on the Saxonia, we could skip ahead until we began to hit pages of people from Ireland, and then we had to slow down and read each line carefully.  It was on the 73rd page of passengers on the ship that we found John McNamara, whose age was listed as 17.  Again, that didnít seem right, but it wasnít too far off.  But the clincher was that the people arriving at the ports had to list a sponsor in America, and John McNamara said he would be going to see his brother, Pat McNamara, at 68 Pearl Street in Paterson, New Jersey.  Now, I knew that neighborhood, as I grew up a few blocks away.  So I recognized Pearl Street.  I also knew very well who Pat McNamara was.  He was my uncle Pat.

            My father said the place he was coming from in Ireland was Tulla, which is the name of the closest village to where he lived.  And whatís interesting is that there was another boy listed right after my father who also said he was from Tulla.  His name was Patrick Ryan, and he said he was on his way to see his sister in America, Mrs. McNamara at 68 Pearl Street in Paterson.  I knew her... that was my Aunt Delia.  Now, I never had any idea that my aunt had a brother who had come to America with my father, but there he was in the documents.  The boys traveled together.

            And right there you have a typical situation: you have a married couple in America, living in Paterson, and each one is sponsoring their younger brother to come over from Ireland.  Thatís the way it would often work.

            And what was very interesting to me personally was that there was always  something of a legend in our family that Uncle Pat and Aunt Delia had known each other in Ireland and had fallen in love and gone to America.  Now whether it was all that romantic, I donít know.  But finding my auntís brother traveling with my father, and the two boys saying theyíre from the same place, means the families did know each other in Ireland.  And they must have lived close to each other.

            As a little sidelight to finding out my auntís brother on the shipís manifest, we later went back to microfilms of Irish census returns, and we determined that the Ryan family did actually live about a half-mile from where my father grew up, essentially on opposite sides of the same crossroads.  So that family legend was proven true: my aunt and uncle must have known each other since childhood.

            And something thatís worth mentioning is that here you have a classic situation where you can really see the value of reading the actual document for yourself.  Had someone gone through the manifest for the Saxonia and transcribed it, and put all the names in alphabetical order, it would not have been apparent to me that Patrick Ryan had anything to do with my father and our family.  McNamara and Ryan would not have appeared together.  But by seeing the actual document, where the two boys have their records placed together because they stepped off the ship together, itís all quite clear.

            As I mentioned earlier, I remembered my father mentioning that his mother had relatives in Fall River, Massachusetts, and he said he had stayed with them when he first came to America.  So even though he told the immigration officers he was planning to go to his brother in Paterson, New Jersey, I thought that perhaps an uncle had met him and Patrick Ryan in Boston, taken them first to Fall River, and then they must have traveled on to Paterson.

            I wasnít exactly sure who the relative in Fall River would have been, but as luck would have it, the answer came to me.  My son had created a web site where we posted a lot of my research, and someone doing research on the Nestors -- the family of my fatherís mother -- came across the web site and e-mailed me.  The woman, who was writing from Connecticut, said she had looked at the documents we put on the web, and she was sure she was related to me.

            Now I must say I was skeptical at first, as Iíve run into situations where people think theyíre related, but theyíre really confused about it.  Itís almost like they want to find their family tree so badly that they want to climb into yours!   Weíve all run into this, right?

But this woman told me her great-grandfather was named John Nestor, and he had lived in Massachusetts.  I knew from Irish baptismal records that my fatherís mother had a brother named John, so it seemed possible that her John Nestor could be my fatherís uncle.

            I wrote the woman a polite e-mail, and I asked her where John Nestor had lived... and I specifically did not mention Fall River.   I wanted to see if she would bring that up on her own.  She wrote back and what did she say?  Her great-grandfather John Nestor had lived in Fall River.   That really seemed to clinch it, her John Nestor had to be our John Nestor.  The lady in Connecticut, whose name is Laura Sullivan, and I kept exchanging occasional e-mails, sharing various bits of research.  She gave me an exact address where John Nestor lived in Fall River: 506 Peckham Street.  And she even sent along some snapshots of the house, which is still standing.

            And hereís where a shipping record ties that whole story together...

            When we had been in Ireland we met people who remembered my grandfather, whose name was Patrick McNamara.  He lived until 1941, and people told us that as an old man he would sometimes mention that he had come to America, but then returned to Ireland.  And I had heard the same thing from my father.  So I knew there was this story that my grandfather had been in America, but I didnít have any details on when that might have been.

            After we had done our research with the microfilms of Boston immigration records, the web site for Ellis Island opened up.  Iím sure many of you have visited the Ellis Island site, and youíre familiar with how you can search for ancestors and see images of the ship manifests online.

            I checked the site for Ellis Island, and among the many Patrick McNamaras listed was one from a place I knew: the townland of Maghera in County Clare, Ireland.  I checked the manifest for the ship, which was the SS Majestic, a White Star liner, and there was my grandfather, along with three of my fatherís siblings: my Aunt Annie, my Aunt Bessie, and my Uncle Mike.  They landed at Ellis Island on November 9, 1905.

            And guess who my grandfather said they were going to see?  His brother in law, John Nestor.  I even recognized the address.  It was the same address Laura Sullivan had already found in records in Massachusetts: 506 Peckham Street, Fall River, Massachusetts.

            This points out a funny situation regarding documents and what people told immigration officers... or some people might say it illustrates the Irish sense of direction.  My father landed in Boston and said heíd be going to New Jersey, and a year and a half later his father landed at Ellis Island -- within site of New Jersey -- but  said he was going to Massachusetts.

            But a real serious point is that these immigration records are so valuable because they often contain information that confirms other things.  In this case, it provided absolutely ironclad evidence that the woman in New England who contacted me by e-mail is indeed a distant cousin I never knew I had.     

And just to add a little extra to this: Laura and her family really appreciated the research that my son and I had done, and last summer she visited Ireland with some relatives and they used our research to visit the exact place where the Nestor family lived and where her great-grandfather grew up.  Thereís a little stone bridge in the townland thatís actually named Nestorís Bridge, and Laura sent us some snapshots of herself and her daughter and some cousins posing by the bridge... the one person on the trip who wasnít a Nestor descendant took the photo, but everyone in the photo is a descendant of the Nestor family.  The idea that people we never actually met could use our research and have such a good time with it was very gratifying.

            Speaking of visiting Ireland....   Earlier I mentioned the port near the city of Cork.  It had been called Queenstown -- the British actually named it in honor of Queen Victoria, when she visited -- but when Ireland achieved independence in 1922 they couldnít wait to change the name of the town, and it now goes by its original Irish name, Cobh.

            For many years, that was the main port for immigrants leaving Ireland.  The actual logistics, and the method my father, and his friend and neighbor Patrick Ryan no doubt used 100 years ago, was that people would get on a train in the nearest town and travel to the port to board the ships to America.  It will be 100 years on Tuesday that my father sailed, so I suspect this weekend would mark 100 years that he and Pat Ryan got on board a train in the city of Ennis, in County Clare, and began the long trip that would eventually take them to New Jersey.

The train station in Cobh that millions of immigrants passed through has been turned into a beautiful museum by the Irish government.  It commemorates the Irish immigrant experience, and if you go to Ireland I really recommend that you visit.

            And there are various exhibits in the museum showing what conditions were like aboard the ships.  In a gallery showing posters from the various steamship companies we found a poster advertising passage to America aboard the Cunard liner Saxonia... my father no doubt once saw a very similar poster.

            Cobh is a beautiful little town, and itís rich with history.  And if you have already done your research and you know your ancestor passed through the port, itís really quite an experience to see the harbor from which the immigrant ships sailed.

            As I said at the outset, the method we used to search the microfilms of records from the port of Boston may not work in your particular case.  Obviously, the farther back youíre looking, the more difficult it will be.  But there are some very good immigration records, and if you do what we did and find some good advice and follow it carefully, you can discover a surprising amount of information.  So I would encourage you not to be intimidated, and make your own effort to search in those records... Iím hardly an expert at this stuff, and I found out a lot and had a good time doing it.

            Thanks again for inviting me, and thanks for listening.  And if you have a few questions, Rob and I will try to answer them for you...

Related materials: 

To see excerpts from the my father's shipping records, click here.  

To read about my grandfather's shipping records and see the manifest from the SS Majestic, click here.


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