Axel R. Widerstrom, Alaska, 1919, holding salmon caught from ship Star of France with dog, Mickey.
SAFR 22053, P77-040a, P50-36,617p
Do you have ship's passenger lists?
We have some passenger lists (the majority are at the National Archives). If you know the name of the ship and the date of the voyage you are interested in, you can contact us to see if we have any resources about the passengers.
The majority of passenger lists for arrivals in the West Coast are at the National Archives in San Bruno, which has made available an Adobe Acrobat .pdf file describing which ship's lists are held in Record Group 85, Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. (More detailed information on passenger lists at the National Archives is also available.) Please note that the records are for arrivals only, not departures, as records for departures were not kept. The dates of their records are 1891-1953. Other passenger lists can be found in Record Group 36, Records of the United States Custom Services.
Another source for passenger lists is Ancestry.com, which is a subscription based database, but you can get access at most public libraries.
Sometimes, lists of arriving first class passengers were published in newspapers. The California Digital Newspaper Collection is a good place to look for these. You can do a keyword search for your relative. Be aware that for the most part, it is only a last name and a first initial. Children and steerage passengers were not listed.
A source for passenger lists during the Gold Rush is the four volume set of San Francisco Ship Passenger Lists by Louis J. Rasmussen. These volumes list first class passengers of some ships between the years 1850-1875, taken from newspapers and journals for the time. The bulk of the listings are 1850-1853. We have this work in the Maritime Research Center and it is available for browsing. It is indexed by both vessel name and passenger name.
My relative was a sailor. Can you help me find information on him or her?
If they were based on the west coast of the United States, it's likely that we have a picture of the vessel on which they served. Less likely, but still possible, is that we have a crew photo. You must provide us with the name of the vessel, as most crew photos are not indexed by personal name. Please refer to the Park's Duplication Services policy for information on ordering photo reproductions.
It's also possible that they were mentioned in one of our books. Titles like The H.W. McCurdy Marine History of the Pacific Northwest often have brief biographies of noted mariners.
We have some ship's articles (contracts signed by the captain and crew outlining the agreed upon work conditions) and crew lists here as well. They are indexed by vessel name only, so you must provide us with the name of the vessel and the dates of their voyage for reference requests.
The National Archives in San Bruno is the repository for Pacific Coast ship's articles and crew lists. They can be found in Record Group 36, Records of the United States Custom Services. They also have Master Certificates, which are official documents issued to captains stating that they are qualified to take command of a vessel.
If the relative you are researching lived in more modern times and had a connection to Bay Area maritime activities, you might find them in our oral history collection. Please contact us for further assistance.
If your relative was the captain or master of a vessel, they might be listed as such in ship registers. (Mystic Seaport has an example of a register page with masters listed.)
I'm interested in learning more about the ship on which my relatives traveled--how can you help me?
If you know the name of the ship, we might be able to find on ore more pictures. Our photographic collection has over 400,000 images. We might also have a history of the ship or be able to tell you something that makes the ship (or its voyage) unique.
We also have material that describes sailing conditions and life on board ships during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. You might gain some understanding of your relative's life by reading a first person account of a sailor's seafaring life or an account of an immigrant's experiences on a clipper ship.
I'm not sure of the name of the ship on which my relatives traveled--can you help me?
Without a ship name, it is difficult for us to assist you, as maritime collections are traditionally arranged by vessel names. To find a ship name, there are steps you can take. If you know the approximate date of the voyage, you can use the California Digital Newspaper Collection to browse the "Shipping Intelligence" section of the paper within your date range. Be sure to consider routes of ships, for instance, someone might have started from Australia, but the last port the steamer entered was in Hawaii, therefore the Shipping Intelligence article would list the steamer as arriving from Hawaii, not from Australia.
We do have sources on microfilm such as The Guide or Shipping and Commercial List that state the departure and intermediate ports.
You could also use a genealogical database like Ancestry.com or HeritageQuest (both are subscription based and available in many public libraries) and see if your relative is noted as a passenger on a named ship.
Lastly, you could use a source like Passenger Ships of the World and see which lines were active in the departure port for the estimated time of immigration, then use one of the above sources to track the movements of those ships.
My relative worked in a shipyard--can you help me find information on him or her?
We hold extensive collections relating to West Coast shipyards. Some of these records have employment information and some do not. If you are researching someone who worked in a shipyard, please contact us and we can check if we have any personnel records for the shipyard in question. Please be advised that some records might be restricted due to privacy concerns.
We also have runs of employee newsletters for shipyards such as Kaiser Shipbuilding, California Shipbuilding, and Mare Island Naval Yard.
My relative served on a Navy ship--how can you help me?
The National Archives holds our nation's military records, but we do have a fairly large collection of cruise books. (A cruise book is a memory book of the voyage, similar to a high school year book.) If you know the name of the ship on which your relative served, you can search our Keys catalog and see if we have cruise books from that ship.
We might have a picture of the ship on which they served; please contact us for further assistance.
You may also wish to consult the resources of the Naval History & Heritage Command, which holds many photographs, cruise books, etc.
What's a deck log, and will it contain information about the voyage my relative(s) made?
A deck log is a formal account of a voyage kept by an officer of the ship. The information contained within confines itself to ship movements, weather, crew schedules and information of that nature. Major incidents such as a death aboard ship or an accident would also be recorded; however, it is not a personal account and should not be confused with a diary or journal. If you are looking to see what food was served or who wore a scandalous dress to dinner, it would not be found in a deck log (unless the dinner poisoned everyone or the dress was so shocking, the wearer was thrown overboard!).
Where can I find pictures?
Our photography collection contains over 400,000 images, our manuscript collections contain many drawings, and our museum object collections contain many art works. If you have a vessel of personal name you would like searched, please contact us.
Other collections of interest, rich in images related to U.S. maritime history, include:
San Francisco History Center: located in the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library, some of their resources include newspapers, an outstanding photograph collection, archives, and manuscripts.
Naval History and Heritage Command: an excellent resource for photos of military vessels, as well as some merchant vessels.
Mystic Seaport Museum: over a million images relating to maritime history.
Online Archive of California: database containing catalog records and finding aids for hundreds of California museums, libraries, and similar institutions, such as the Bancroft Library (UC Berkeley) or the Huntington Libraries, including ours.
What research services do you provide?
Unfortunately, we are not able to provide research services. We can provide answers such as where to look for information, and we assist in fulfilling duplication orders. We are not able to browse documents or collections, or conduct in depth research. If your query requires such research and you cannot visit the Maritime Research Center, then you can hire a professional researcher. The National Archives has an approved list of professional researchers. The California Genealogical Society does research as well.
Where do I go from here? What are some other good sources?
"California as I Saw It:" First Person Narratives of California's Early Years: full-text, searchable database compiled by the Library of Congress, containing, as the title states, early first person narratives; search by keyword to find a relative, event or place of interest.
California Digital Newspaper Collection: free, full-text, searchable database of California newspapers dating from 1848-1922.
California Genealogical Society: genealogy reference materials from California, the U.S., and around the world; research services, online genealogical indexes and databases, and research library. Also sponsors the SF Genealogy website's transcribed passenger lists.
Chronicling America: newspaper database collection provided by the Library of Congress containing information such as ship movements, passenger arrival lists, and other items of interest.
Internet Archive: highlights include some early San Francisco city directories (full-text searchable) and some early footage of San Francisco in the online movie collection.
Mystic Seaport: many online resources including and linking to ship registers, crew lists, oral history catalog, American Offshore Whaling Voyages and the Whalemen's Shipping List.
Naval History and Heritage Command: includes many photographs of naval ships and other resources for researching naval history such as ships histories.
National Archives: the official record keeper of our nation, containing federal records in the main branch in Maryland or in various regional locations, such as our regional branch in San Bruno. Of particular interestare Record Group 85, Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and Record Group 36, Records of the United States Custom Services which includes letters sent and received, records of entrances and clearances of vessels, cargo manifests, impost books, journals and logbooks of privateer vessels, passenger lists and abstracts, crew lists, hospital accounts and returns, wreck reports, reports of seizures, fishing agreements and journals, shipping articles, revenue cutter and revenue marine records, vessel documentation files, and records relating to warehousing, drawbacks, and nonintercourse and embargo bonds.
Online Archive of California: detailed descriptions (catalog records and finding aids) of primary resource collections maintained by institutions such as libraries, special collections, archives, historical societies and museums through California and the University of California campuses.
Ships List: includes immigration reports, newspaper records, shipwreck information, ship pictures and descriptions, shipping line fleet lists and passenger lists.
Society of California Pioneers: museum and library focusing on early California history.