Behind the Golden Door

By David A. Fryxell Premium


If you’re among the more than 40 percent of Americans with at least one ancestor who immigrated through Ellis Island, a crucial part of your family history is about to hit the Internet. In April, The American Family Immigration History Center will open its doors both on Ellis Island and on the Web. The center will provide easy access to the ships’ passenger manifest records of the more than 17 million people who entered the United States through the Port of New York and Ellis Island from 1892 to 1924.

Until now, these records have been available only on microfilm at the National Archives <> and on loan through local Family History Centers (which you can find at <>).

It’s taken more than four years, millions of volunteer hours and nearly $25 million to painstakingly input and double-check the passenger records. Each immigrant’s entry will contain up to 11 fields of digitized data, including name, ship name and port of origin, arrival date, gender, age on arrival, marital status and last residence. You’ll also be able to obtain a reproduction of the ship’s manifest on which your ancestor’s name appears and a photo of the ship.

The new center, developed by The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, originally hoped to open late last year with data accessible only at kiosks at Ellis Island. Internet access to the records was promised to follow. Now, however, the database will open to the public simultaneously on the island and online. The center itself will be housed in the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, the former main building of the immigration facility.

How do you know whether you have an ancestor who passed through Ellis Island? The famed federal immigration facility didn’t open until 1892, so if your ancestors arrived before then they entered through a different “door,” such as Castle Garden <>, which served the Port of New York and 8 million immigrants from 1855 to 1890. Immigrants also came through other ports, such as Boston, Baltimore and San Francisco, where Angel Island <> served as the “Ellis Island of the West” for 250,000 newcomers, mostly from Asia, from 1910 to 1940.

But most immigrants during the peak years of US immigration arrived through the Port of New York and Ellis Island, “the island of hope, island of tears” — more than 1 million in 1907 alone. Emigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe in particular poured through Ellis Island; newcomers from Italy, Russia and Austria-Hungary made up 75 percent of the record 1907 influx.

Immigration processing was moved abroad, under the direction of US consulates, by the National Origins Law in 1924. Ellis Island was closed in 1954. The historic buildings were abandoned and grew dilapidated until a nearly $170 million restoration was completed in 1990.

Current microfilm records at the National Archives cover immigration through the Port of New York from 1820 to 1957; only records from 1820 to 1846 and 1897 to 1948 are indexed, however. The American Family Immigration History Center’s computerization project will enable Ellis Island records to be easily searchable for the first time ever.

For more information on the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, you can write 52 Vanderbilt Ave., New York, NY 10017, call (212) 883-1986, fax (212) 883-1069, or see <>. For more on the database project and the history of Ellis Island, see the January 2000 Family Tree Magazine and <>.

Watch for a hands-on review and how-to guide on the new Ellis Island database in the next issue of Family Tree Magazine.

From the April 2001 issue of Family Tree Magazine