A "Herd" of Immigrants
You've got questions about discovering, preserving and celebrating your family history; our experts have the answers.
Q. My father came through Ellis Island on a cattle ship from Slovakia when he was 12 years old. How were such passengers recorded when they landed at Ellis Island? Or is there no record?

A. Without knowing the name of the ship, it would be impossible to tell whether your father actually came over on a "cattle ship," or it just felt  like the passengers were herded onto the ship like cattle. Some vessels were not originally designed to carry passengers, but cargo, such as iron, anvils, salt, coal, and even cattle. These ships' masters installed temporary rough pine berths for passenger voyages, and dismantled them when it was necessary to carry cargo instead of humans.

If you know the name of the ship, you may be able to find out specific information about it in these reference sources:

  • Ships of Our Ancestors by Michael J. Anuta (Genealogical Publishing Co.)
  • Great Passenger Ships of the World (5 volumes) by Arnold Kludas (Stephens)
  • Passenger Ships of the World Past and Present by Eugene W. Smith (George H. Dean Co.)
You also can research ships in subscription site Ancestry.com's ship pictures database and using EllisIsland.org's Search by Ship feature.
As for the manifest, or passenger list, regardless of what else was transported, all human passengers were to be recorded on immigration passenger lists before a ship left its port of departure. Immigration passenger lists were in use between about 1891 and 1954. Arrivals from 1820 to 1890 would be recorded on less-detailed customs passenger lists.
Ellis Island received and processed newcomers starting in 1892. Upon arrival, the lists were turned over to the authorities on Ellis Island.  You can search the free Ellis Island database online.
Ancestry.com has digitized surviving lists for both time periods for Ellis Island and other US immigration ports. Remember, spelling doesn't count when searching online immigration databases. If you don't find your father under the spelling you expect, be creative and try several variations.
Get more help tracking down your immigrant ancestors in our on-demand webinar Online Immigration Records: Retracing Your Ancestor's Journey, available from ShopFamilyTree.com. Our downloadable guide to searching immigration records on Ancestry.com is just $4.