Research guide – Tracing your ancestor’s voyage to South Australia

Australia developed as separate colonies and much of the early information is now maintained within state collections. This guide is intended to assist with locating information to people who arrived within South Australia only.

Tracing shipping arrivals in South Australia can be fascinating but also time-consuming.  There are many sources of information available, including primary and secondary sources, that will assist in pinning down that elusive date of arrival.

Starting out:

It is helpful, to begin with as much information as you can glean about your ancestors.

For example:

  • Did they arrive as a single person and get married in Australia?
  • Is there an obituary or death notice that gives an approximate arrival date or the number of years living in South Australia?
  • When did their name first appear in Directories/Telephone books/Council rate records or other residential lists?

To establish these details, try visiting the State Library of South Australia or State Records of South Australia. Their staff may also be able to suggest other possible sources. The State Library has a substantial collection of ships’ diaries written on the voyage and has access to records such as crew desertion lists and other printed and online sources which may help pinpoint your ancestor’s arrival.

Online passenger lists:

It can be difficult to find conclusive shipping arrival information. Lists may lack precise details, or quite often there are no lists at all. It is estimated that only between 10% and 15% of 19th century South Australian shipping lists have survived. The place to begin researching ancestors coming to South Australia is our Passengers in History Database. It includes entries for over 250,000 passengers who arrived between 1836 and 1961. Museum volunteers are continuing research to bring the database up to 1975 when the Australis brought the last assisted immigrants to South Australia.

Access the database by searching online here.

You can search by the name of the ship or the surname of a passenger. The entry will give you information on the ship’s specifications (size, build date, owner), dates of voyages to South Australia, passenger lists, ports visited and notes on the voyage. Passengers in History draws from the National Library’s Trove website linking to newspaper articles relating to ship voyages.

Log of Logs is a catalogue of surviving ship logs, journals and diaries, letters and all forms of voyage narrative covering emigration to Australia. These resources were written by passengers and crew and can provide information about voyages and immigrant ancestors. SAMM volunteers are currently updating Passengers in History with these resources as well.

There is an opportunity to add your own information and images linked to individual passengers and the site will continue to grow.

Original shipping lists:

Original official lists up to 1940 are held at State Records of South Australia. To view a digital copy of a passenger list dating from 1845 – 1940, you can visit their website here

Other sources:

Searching Online historic newspapers:

The most comprehensive 19th century shipping lists were published in newspapers.

These can be searched for free on the Trove website of digitised historic Australian newspapers, including the major South Australian newspapers of the time.

Newspapers such as the South Australian Register, Adelaide Times and South Australian Advertiser contain the most detailed shipping lists and information.

A simple keyword search such as ‘shipping arrivals [surname]’ is a good place to begin.

You can also add a year range to the search, e.g. ‘shipping arrivals [surname] 1850-1860’

Images of ships:

Remember that photography did not begin until the 1850s. Prior to this date a painting or drawing of the ship may exist.

You can view images of some ships on our Passengers in History website.

The State Library of South Australia has two major collections of ships images: the AD Edwardes Collection (19th century) and the Arbon/Le Maistre Collection (20th century).  You can search in the catalogue for photographs of the ship your family arrived on by the name of the ship. The best approach is to do a keyword search. For example, for images of the HMS Buffalo type: ‘buffalo ship‘.

Crew members:

Details of some ships’ masters are searchable on our Passengers in History website.

Records of British and Foreign crew from the 19th and 20th centuries can be searched at National Archives of Australia.

A range of records which document the licensing and qualifications of masters, mates and engineers, as authorised by the Marine Board or related agencies can be searched at State Records of South Australia.


It was not uncommon for crew to desert once they arrived in South Australian ports. The State Library of South Australia has South Australian deserters indexes listing those who deserted between 1852-1876, 1877-1882 and 1883-1890 (available on microfiche).

State Records of South Australia has a Deserter’s Index which records offences by mariners, usually desertion or refusal of duty for 1856 – 1860.

As these men were contracted to the ships, desertion was classified as a criminal offence and warrants were sworn out against them. From 1862 onwards, more information may be found in the South Australian Police Gazettes, held by either the State Library of South Australia or State Records of South Australia.

Further research:

If you need to broaden your search, there are databases in some other states and overseas that you may find helpful:

Britain’s National Archives presents an online database of passengers leaving the United Kingdom for ports including Australia, New Zealand and others outside Europe. The database, called Ancestors Onboard, is free to search but there is a small charge to view records.

State Records NSW offers a number of searches online for passengers arriving in NSW as convicts, or assisted immigrants.

Queensland State Archives includes several indexes to passengers arriving in particular periods of the state’s history.

Public Record Office Victoria includes indexes to passengers arriving through most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The Archives Office of Tasmania offers indexes to convict records online.