Ellis Island Search Strategies

By Sharon DeBartolo Carmack Premium

The Ellis Island database includes the digitized passenger lists of more than 22 million passengers and crew members who entered through the Port of New York between 1892 and 1924—the peak years of immigrant arrival. Among them are records of 17 million immigrants. Supposedly, finding your immigrant ancestor online is as easy as typing in a name. But for many of us, it’s a bit trickier than that. To demonstrate, let’s look for someone I know is on an Ellis Island passenger list.

In the days before the database, I found Angelina (Vallarelli) Ebetino the old-fashioned way, using microfilmed indexes and lists (more on how to do this in a minute). Angelina arrived on the Verona, which left the Port of Naples on Feb. 5, 1910, and arrived at the Port of New York on Feb. 18, 1910. In the new Ellis Island database, I typed in Angelina Ebetino. The results: “No records in the archive match the name Angelina Ebetino.” According to the site, my choices are to:

  1. Widen the search by using the last name with only a first initial. I tried that and still no matches for an A. Ebetino.
  2. Widen your search by using only the last name. This found just one record, and it was for Salvatore Ebetino, Angelina’s husband. He came in 1906, but Angelina and their children came in 1910.
  3. Search on alternate spellings of the last name. There were six alternate spellings, and still no Angelina.

I guess it’s not so easy, is it? That shouldn’t be too surprising, and it’s not the fault of the zillions of volunteers and programmers who built this amazing database. After all, we’re talking about millions of handwritten records.

So let’s take a deep breath and stew on this a minute. Obviously, I’m doing something wrong. I know she’s there. But remember, I said that you need to know the original name the immigrant went by in the old country. One of the problems is that I haven’t been searching under the original name Angelina used in Italy. Back in Italy, as in some other Catholic countries such as France, women were recorded in all legal documents by their maiden names, not their married names. Let’s try Angelina Vallarelli. Nope. Still didn’t get a match. What if I broaden the search to A. Vallarelli? Aha! There she is, but recorded as Angela Vallarelli. (Research in Italian records revealed that this was in fact her original name.)