Locating Ancestors Who Arrived Before 1865

Boat5x5Finding individuals who arrived in Canada before 1865 is tough. Lucky researchers find passenger lists of ships that positively identify family members or at least give them a place to start. Early immigration records, however, are spotty. Sometimes the only clue a researcher has to go on is knowing—through a land or vital record—that the person arrived in Canada during a general time period.

For instance, I know my Appleby ancestor was in Canada in the mid-1800s. I can narrow that down to between 1835 and 1840. I had originally thought he arrived around 1847 because that was the first known record of him in this country. When I discovered one of his sons had been born in Canada in c.1840, that changed the years in which I searched for his arrival. Still, with so many ships arriving with new immigrants, poor record keeping and lost records, it’s been a struggle to find him.

The Immigrants to Canada Database, located on the Library and Archives Canada website, is geared towards helping researchers locate those hard to find records. It states, “In 1803, the British Parliament enacted legislation to regulate vessels carrying emigrants to North America.” Every ship carrying settlers to Canada was to create a passenger list. Many lists did not survive, leaving records between 1803 and 1865, with lots of holes.

The online database is searchable by surname, given name, year of immigration and keyword (such as a place name or ship name). Visitors can choose to view the records with the description only (great for people on dial-up) or with a digitized image. Images reveal who else came on that particular ship, perhaps another family member. It can also provide details not noted in the description.

For example, additional information might simply state “& family”. Checking the image may reveal such details as number of adults and children included in the family. If no male or female adult is found within a family with small children, it may be assumed the spouse was a widow.


Circumstances surrounding an immigrant’s arrival are occasionally provided. For example, Henry McDonald, age 7, who arrived in 1847, travelled with other orphans and was given to his Lordship the ArchBishop of Quebec. Viewing the image reveals he arrived on June 19th aboard Lady Gordon. It appears his brother, John, age 5, was with him. Unfortunately, the boys didn’t stay together. Henry was adopted by W. Thos. Bogue, and John became the son of W. Curtain.

Images are not available for all records. When I searched for Appleby and mistakenly didn’t check the box to find the image, one result was found: Robert Appleby, age 21, who boarded the vessel Two Friends “to go out of this kingdom from any port in England…from the 28th February 1774 to the 7th of March 1774”, bound for Nova Scotia. When I attempted to search for the image—hoping to find more information—I found no results. If your search produces no answers, search again and leave the image box unchecked.

Although I can’t view the actual ship’s passenger list, I can enter the ship’s name—Two Friends—in the key words search box (leaving all others blank) and find a list of 103 individuals.

If help is needed searching the database, check out the search help page.


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