Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Aboard the Bark Thames

It always seems to be cause for genealogical rejoicing when we find documents loaded with dates pertinent to the existence of one of our ancestors. I had thought I found such a document when, several years ago in Indiana, I located Irish immigrant John Stevens' declaration of intention to become a citizen of the United States.

The details of the document laid out the route of John Stevens' journey from his homeland quite clearly: that he was from County Mayo in Ireland; that at the time he completed the document in 1851, he was twenty seven years of age; that he took passage on a ship originating in Liverpool, England; that his port of arrival was New Orleans; that his arrival in port was in December of 1850.

What more could one want? (Well, besides readily accessible and legible passenger records for the port of New Orleans.)

After years of slogging through indexes and microfilmed records, I can now rest my weary eyes and celebrate the discovery of those now-searchable digitized films at

One would think this means yet another research task crossed off the old genealogy to-do list. But no, it seems the court clerk in Lafayette, Indiana, did not check with the immigration officials down in New Orleans. For whatever reason, nothing on available passenger records seems to match up with those details on John Stevens' declaration.

Could someone have gotten something wrong?

Pretending that perhaps someone forgot the exact date of arrival, I was able to manage a possible alternate record last week, when I revisited this long-languishing research assignment. Out of a list of many Stevens travelers, with dates ranging from the late 1840s through the early 1850s, I could only find one John Stevens coming from Liverpool.

Oh, there were more John Stevenses on that list. A popular point of departure for New Orleans seemed to be Cuba, from which more than one John Stevens emerged. Of course, I'll have to keep an open mind about that; what if our man from Ireland made a midway stop in the Caribbean before continuing to New Orleans?

But that sole candidate coming from Liverpool straight to New Orleans in that tight time frame has me troubled. Why? His dates just don't add up right. See, though his declaration—drawn up in August, 1851—states he was twenty seven when the correlating passenger list could possibly add up to the right age, the date of the journey was not in December of 1850, as his declaration states, but in January. That's nearly a year earlier.

Think someone just made a mental note that it was in mid-winter, but couldn't remember the exact month? Or forgot to change the date, right after New Year?

I so desperately want to call off the search, declare a winner, and award the honors to "the Bark Thames." Yes, I know there are many records yet to be digitized and placed online, and for that I need to restrain myself and remember to be patient.

But I want results now. Couldn't this be our John Stevens? Pretty please?

Oh, how much I wish those old passenger records contained a few more hints than the mere entry for name, gender and age. With a name like John Stevens, there are too many mind-boggling possibilities.

Above: Excerpts from the passenger list for the voyage of the Thames from Liverpool to New Orleans, arriving in port January 15, 1850; courtesy


  1. I feel your pain. That's my problem with passenger lists too. "Mary Sheehan 17 spinster" is not helpful.

    1. Yeah, I bet you've seen a lot of Mary Sheehans in your search, Wendy. With as little detail as those lists included, it sometimes makes me wonder what the purpose was of keeping a list, at all.

    2. "After 1820, passenger traffic to the U.S. started to increase tremendously, and ships were now being built just for this passenger traffic. Regular scheduled sailing dates replaced the earlier practice where the captain would wait until his cargo hold was full before he sailed. Then.after the 1840's, trans-oceanic steam powered ships started to replace the sailing vessels which reduced the travel time from one-or-two months or more to about two weeks.

      Due to the increased number of passengers and the increase in sickness and deaths in transit, the Federal Government passed legislation in 1819 to limit the number of passengers on each ship. The Custom Service was designated to then monitor immigration. Starting in 1820, Customs Passenger Lists were prepared by the ship's captain and were filed with the collector of customs at the port of arrival. These lists were initially meant to serve for statistical purposes."

  2. I vaguely remember reading somewhere that "slaver ships" went to Cuba - to circumvent some sort of "importation law."

    Judging by:

    Havana was a common stop on the way to New Orleans back in the day...

  3. I indexed some passanger lists the other day, no port was given hopefully it fits with what some one else is indexing:)


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