Whatever Floats Your Riverboat

By Allison Dolan

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Q. My German ancestors arrived at New Orleans in 1853 and traveled to Ohio by river boat. I’ve found their passenger list to New Orleans, but how can I find record of the next segment of their journey?

A. Congratulations on finding your ancestors on a New Orleans passenger list!

“It was pretty much a given that when traveling from New Orleans to anywhere up river or out west one took passage on a riverboat,” says “Riverboat Dave,” Webmaster of Riverboat Dave’s Paddlewheel Site. Early boats, powered by burning wood, were called steamboats. In 1811, the New Orleans was the first one to sail on the Mississippi from New Orleans to the mouth of the Ohio (read more on the Army Corps of Engineers’ steamboat navigation page).

Most boats did keep passenger lists along with freight lists and crew lists, but they often weren’t thorough. “Many boats were rather lackadaisical about their business,” Dave says. “Riverboats were much like a Greyhound bus is these days. People were getting on and off at all manner of landings and towns—must have been a job keeping track of the comings and goings of all of them.”

Not all passenger lists survived, and they’re not in the same type of organized location or familiar standardized format of post-1820 immigration lists. Steamboat records are usually in archival manuscript collections. Start with public and university libraries, historical societies and museums near your relatives’ stop in Ohio (if you don’t have that information, research backward from their last known location).

Also check libraries and historical societies in “river towns” such as St. Louis and Cincinnati. The Public Library of Greater Cincinnati and Hamilton County special collections department is home to the Inland Rivers Library, which contains photographs, maps, freight and account books, crew registers and passenger lists for specific vessels. The Missouri Historical Society in St. Louis has a Steamboats and River History Collection spanning 1802 to 1986.

You can search for materials in 10,000 libraries worldwide using WorldCat; see the May 2007 Family Tree Magazine for information on using it.

Knowing the dates of your ancestors’ journey and the boat they took will help in your search. Bookstores, libraries and the Internet are full of information on steamboat history to help you. Way’s Packet Directory 1848-1994: Passenger Steamboats Of The Mississippi River System Since the Advent of Photography in Mid-Continent America, revised edition, by Frederick Way Jr. (Ohio University Press; out of print) is a directory of boats with photos, years in operation, rivers covered, captains’ names and other details.

Riverboat Dave’s site also has an alphabetical boat index, as well as articles, maps, queries and more. I recommend starting with the site guide. You’ll find more Mississippi River resource recommendations on

A steamboat’s arrival often was an exciting event. Search local newspapers—usually at local libraries, but sometimes digitized in subscription newspaper databases such as GenealogyBank—where your ancestors landed when you think they arrived.