Branching Out: Polishing the Golden Door

By Diane Haddad Premium


The online home to a free database of 22 million Ellis Island passenger records, <>, has just relaunched with a more efficient ancestor search. “After three years of watching, listening, learning, we’ve got some great data about what folks want to see online and at the island,” says Dan Lynch, a consultant to the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation (SOL-EIF).

When the database — a product of millions of volunteer hours — debuted in April 2001, eager researchers logged on to the tune of 10 million hits per day. It remained a popular online destination, counting its 6 billionth visit last June. As the honeymoon ended, though, genealogists complained about problems catching variations of their ancestors’ names. Some researchers felt hamstrung by the site’s original first name/last name/gender search — they could narrow results by characteristics such as ship name and port of origin, but couldn’t search on those terms. “Back door” Web sites — including Stephen Morse’s One-Step Search Tools <> — sprang up, offering quicker, more-detailed searches of the Ellis Island site.’s new search is vastly more user-friendly than before, Lynch says. Now you can frame your query around what you actually know about your relative, and effectively narrow or broaden your results. The basic search offers 11 data fields that match the facts — arrival year, port of departure, age — recorded about each immigrant. If you don’t know when your ancestor immigrated, you’ll find the recently added year-of-birth field, which you can expand up to a range of 10 years, especially handy. An all-new advanced search lets you enter parts of a name and an ethnicity.

Although spelling variations will be easier to find, Lynch cautions that they won’t disappear. Transcribers copied passenger names as they appeared on original ships’ lists. To preserve the integrity of those historical records, SOL-EIF doesn’t alter names in its database. (That’s not to say mistranscriptions didn’t occur as volunteers interpreted difficult-to-read handwriting — it’s always important to check the original record.)

Widespread publicity about attracts genealogy neophytes who, unaware of other resources, may view the site as a clearinghouse of immigration information. Its new Genealogy Learning Center offers those surfers basic how-to articles and downloadable blank genealogy forms. SOL-EIF also spotted an opportunity to connect the site’s millions of visitors with the genealogical community. Researchers can use’s new Society Links Network to get contact information for genealogical organizations matching their geographic, ethnic or other interest areas. A similar feature will guide those wanting to hire help to groups such as the Association for Professional Genealogists <>.

The site’s easier to get around now, too, with just two primary navigation tiers. “We wanted to put as many features as possible one mouse click away,” Lynch says. He adds that more changes are planned.
From the December 2004 issue of Family Tree Magazine.