We'll show you how to make the most of Ellis Island's free online passenger search to discover your immigrant ancestors.
Pictures of immigrants passing through Ellis Island, lugging all their worldly possessions toward the promise of a better life, are iconic images of American history. A 27.5-acre island off the tip of Manhattan, Ellis Island was the entry point for 71 percent of US immigrants between 1892 and 1924. Almost half of Americans have someone on their family tree who arrived there.
Shipping companies kept detailed passenger lists, called “manifests.” Before the Ellis Island passenger lists were indexed, finding your ancestor on a microfilmed manifest was nearly impossible if you didn’t know the ship’s name or approximate arrival date.
In 2001, the American Family Immigration History Center opened on Ellis Island and launched a website <www.ellisisland.org
> with a database of 25 million passengers and crew who entered through the Port of New York between 1892 and 1924. Volunteers from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints transcribed microfilmed lists to create the online index; names in the database link to images of the passenger lists on which they appear. You can search the database and view the lists for free, and purchase immigrant certificates, copies of passenger manifests and photos of ships.
Even if your immigrant ancestors arrived before 1892, you might still find relatives at EllisIsland.org. The 25 million indexed passengers include 8 million ships’ crewmembers and US citizens returning from abroad. Our guide will help you find your ancestors who stepped foot onto Ellis Island.
You’ll need to create a free registration to view search results on EllisIsland.org and to take advantage of options such as saving searches and annotating records. To create a user name and password, click Sign In at the top right, then Yes, I Am New To This Site on the right. Then get oriented by going to the home page and hovering your mouse over the links at the top of the page for a pull-down menu with related options, including:
Passenger Search: Click on New Search to run a basic search, Advanced Search for more options or Saved Search to retrieve a previous search. You also can search by ship, view search tips and access search results, ship manifests and ship images you’ve found before.
Ellis Island: Resources here include a history and photos of Ellis Island, plus visitor information.
Genealogy: This section has advice for starting family history research, including links to genealogy websites and tips for hiring a professional researcher. You also can read about Americans from different backgrounds who are researching immigrant ancestry.
About Us: For a contribution of $150, you can have your immigrant ancestor’s name inscribed on the American Immigrant Wall of Honor at Ellis Island—even if he came through another port. The wall has more than 700,000 names. To search them, select Wall of Honor from the About Us menu and click on Search Names.
You also can read the latest newsletter of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, become a Sustaining Member and see sponsoring organizations of the American Family Immigration History Center.
Gift Shop: Items available for purchase include posters, maps, books, ornaments and pictures of ships.
Donate: Contributions support not only EllisIsland.org, but also the preservation of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.
Searching passenger lists
Finding your relatives’ names in ships’ passenger lists is exciting, but not always easy. It’s a myth, though, that Ellis Island immigration officials purposefully changed immigrants’ names. Rather, the volunteers who transcribed passenger records to create the database made the occasional mistake, or had difficulty interpreting the records. Some of the lists were illegible and couldn’t be transcribed at all. Or your relative may appear under a name he used in the old country—not the one you know from US records. Finding him or her may require some creative searching.
If you can’t find a passenger, maybe the name is there, but not spelled the way you expect. Neither the basic nor the advanced search supports wildcards, but you don’t need to spell out the whole first name. The basic search finds first names that begin with what you enter in the box: Search on Joh and matches include Joh., Johann and John. In the advanced search, you can choose Starts With for the First Name field (see a demo in Search Secrets).
Names were transcribed as they appear on the original passenger list, even if they were abbreviated. So search on Chas for Charles, Eliz for Elizabeth, Geo for George, Jas for James, Jno for John, Joh for Johan or Johann, Jos for Joseph, Patk for Patrick, Thos for Thomas and Wm for William. Also, try nicknames such as Ed, Tom or Will and foreign versions of names (for example, Pierre or Pietro for Peter).
If a last name may be more than one word, search with and without the space, as in Dewitt and De Witt. The First Name search box doesn’t allow spaces; you won’t get any matches if you enter a first name with a middle name or initial. Capitalization doesn’t matter. Here are more tips for running each type of search:
On the EllisIsland.org home page, you can search for a passenger by first and last names, year of birth (plus or minus seven years, if you choose) and gender. You also can access these basic search options by going to the Passenger Search menu and selecting New Search. All fields except the last name are optional.
You might begin your search with just a surname, if it’s uncommon. If the name is common, add a first name and year of birth. If you get too many matches to browse easily, hit the Refine Search button to access the Advanced Search options.
Advanced search: Select Advanced Search from the Passenger Search menu for search options including similar-sounding names, year of arrival, town of origin and ethnicity. Almost all the records in the database include at least a last name and year of arrival, if these details were legible on the original list, but the other fields may have been left blank. If you choose a term in a field such as ethnicity or town of origin, you won’t get matches on passengers for whom that field is empty. So if you get too few matches, search on fewer fields. You can search on just a middle name or initial if you select the “contains” option for the first name.
Searching by ship name: Let’s say you know your ancestor arrived July 18, 1921, on the Celtic. You can use “Search by Ship” to drill down to a list of all the passengers on board; see the Search Secrets section for an example of how to do this. Among the 1,182 Celtic passengers that day was F. Scott Fitzgerald, age 27, with his wife Zelda, age 20, whose name is Lelda on the passenger list.
Searching alternate sites
If you don’t find your relatives on EllisIsland.org, try searching the same lists on other sites offering different search options. Steven P. Morse’s One-Step Web Pages and FamilySearch are free, but you’ll need a subscription for Ancestry.com
($155.40 per year), or see if your library offers Ancestry Library Edition.
One-Step Web Pages: This site from Stephen P. Morse
provides some search functions that are unavailable on EllisIsland.org. The site links your search results to the record images on EllisIsland.org. Choose from two One-Step search forms—White or Gold. The Gold form is usually the better choice because it lets you search on similar-sounding first names and towns of origin, traveling companion, marriage status and exact arrival date. Note that the field for Port Name refers to the ship’s port of departure.
Like EllisIsland.org, the One-Step site lets you search on just a middle name or initial if you select the “contains” option for the first name. A search on a first name that “starts with” Joh matches Joh, John and Johann. A search on a first name that “contains” J matches John W and William Joseph.
Unlike EllisIsland.org, which ignores periods, the One-Step Gold Form searches on a period: A search on J. finds J., but not John, and a search on J finds both J. and John. Also, the Gold Form allows spaces in the First Name box, so you could enter John W. or C. Randall. If you want to search on both a first name and a middle name or middle initial, use the Gold Form.
When you select the Gold Form’s “sounds like” option for names, it uses Daitch-Mokotoff Soundex, an improved version of the standard Soundex. The option to find phonetic matches on a last name also finds similar-sounding names, but reduces the number of false hits.
Still can’t find your ancestor? Search for all arrivals during a particular day or month. Or if you know his or her town overseas, specify the town name on the Gold form and leave the last-name field blank. You’ll find a list of every passenger from that place.
To search just the Ellis Island database on the Record Search Pilot Site
, click Browse Our Record Collections, then on Canada, USA and Mexico. Select New York Passenger Arrival Lists for Ellis Island. You can search on a first name and a middle name or initial. The site does a good job finding alternate spellings of first and last names, as well as abbreviations of first and middle names. But the Event, Year Range and Location fields don’t apply to this database, so leave them blank. Search results link to record images on EllisIsland.org.
You also might want to try the same database on FamilySearch Beta
(click All Collections, then the database title), which will replace the search engine on FamilySearch
. Only the First & Middle Name(s) and Last Name search boxes apply to this search—don’t fill in any other boxes or you won’t get any matches.
If you don’t find a passenger on the free sites, it’s worth using the New York Passenger Lists, 1820 to 1957 on Ancestry.com
or Ancestry Library Edition (free at many libraries). One-Step Web Pages and FamilySearch use the same index as EllisIsland.org, but Ancestry.com
has its own index, so names may be transcribed differently. This subscription database includes passenger arrivals at Castle Garden from 1855 to 1890 and Ellis Island from 1892 to 1954, as well as earlier and later arrivals in New York. Search results are linked to images of the passenger lists.
If you uncheck the Exact box, Ancestry.com
finds alternate spellings and other forms of the name. You also can use wildcards on both first and last names. A question mark substitutes for one letter, so a search on Ols?n finds both Olson and Olsen. An asterisk substitutes for zero to five letters, so Rob*son finds Robeson, Robinson and Robertson.
Ancestry.com, like the One-Step Gold Form, lets you search on port of departure—usually, the last stop, not necessarily the starting point. An immigrant from Germany could be on the list for a ship from Liverpool, England. You also can browse Ancestry.com’s passenger lists by selecting the arrival date and ship name. If you know only the date of arrival, browse through all the ships on that date.
Using search results
Names in the EllisIsland.org database link to the person’s passenger record (showing basic information from the list), ship manifest and ship image. On the search results page, you can click the blue Save Search button at the top of the page to save your search. Type a title or accept the one automatically filled in, then click OK. Access the search in the Passenger Search menu by clicking Saved Search. You also can click to store the passenger in your Ellis Island file, also located in the Passenger Search menu.
Click a name in your search results to see that person’s Passenger Record. (Names containing points of ellipsis have some indecipherable letters.) Click Ship Manifest to see the passenger list showing that person. Keep in mind that many passenger list forms were two pages long; click the Previous and Next links to see both pages. Hit Click to Enlarge Manifest to view a larger version in a new window.
Usually, if you right-click on an image on the Web, you get an option to save the image, but that function is disabled here. Selling manifests is one way EllisIsland.org is funded. A passenger certificate with transcribed information from the record costs $29. An 11x17-inch copy of the manifest costs $29 per page; a 17x22-inch copy costs $39 (for both pages of a two-page manifest, that’s $58 or $78). A $155.40 subscription to Ancestry.com
lets you save the manifest to your computer, and you get access to the site’s other genealogy records.
EllisIsland.org’s Passenger Record has easy-to-miss links to Create an Annotation and View Annotations. I’ve added notes to my relatives’ passenger records, but there’s no field for contact information. The field for Other Relatives in US is for relatives in America when the passenger arrived, but I entered my name and e-mail address so people researching the same passengers can contact me. Be sure to check for annotations on your ancestor’s record.
If your relative was among the throngs arriving at the nation’s busiest immigration port, EllisIsland.org just may hold the key to a “golden door” of family history finds.
Ellis Island Website Vital Statistics
The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, Inc., 17 Battery Place #210, New York, NY 10004, (212) 561-4588, firstname.lastname@example.org
- free searching and viewing records
passenger record certificate: $29
ship manifest: $29 (11x17 inches) or $39 (17x22 inches) per page
ship image, $10 (5x7 inches) or $12.50 (9x12 inches)
records of 25 million passenger arrivals at the port of New York from 1892 to 1924
images of more than 8 million passenger ships
- 700,000 names on the American Immigrant Wall of Honor
The Ellis Island Immigration Museum opens to the public
LDS Church volunteers begin transcribing passenger records
The American Family Immigration History Center opens; EllisIsland.org launches
EllisIsland.org reaches 3 billion hits; One-Step site temporarily closes after Ellis Island complains about “deep linking”
2004 EllisIsland.org relaunches with improved searching and educational content
From the August 2010 Family Tree Magazine