Ellis Island, Without Tears

Ellis Island, Without Tears

Still can't find your Ellis Island ancestors, even with the new online passenger lists database? Try these tips for unlocking the "golden door" to the immigration records you're after.

Some 17 million immigrants passed through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1924, but those “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” are far outnumbered by their millions of descendants logging on to the Ellis Island Web site to look for them. Since the site <www.ellisisland.org> launched in April 2001, it’s recorded more than 2.5 billion hits, and 60,000 users visit every day.

For some researchers, finding their immigrant ancestors in Ellis Island’s massive database of passenger arrival lists proves to be a snap. But for others, Ellis Island’s sobriquet of “Island of Hope, Island of Tears” takes on new meaning. You know your ancestors are in that giant computer file somewhere — but where? And why can’t you find them? Or you do find them — you think — but the records don’t show what you thought they would. You’re tired, you’re poor, and you’re yearning for some answers.

Don’t give up! Ellis Island’s records can still open a golden door into your past — if you know some essential strategies for turning those tears into hope. First, it helps to understand how passenger records were created, how immigrants were processed at Ellis Island and how the records were preserved, which in turn will help you figure out why you might be having trouble finding your ancestors.

The name’s the same

Ellis Island officially opened its doors as an immigration receiving station on Jan. 1, 1892, and the arrival records created from about 1891 to the 1950s are referred to as immigration passenger lists. These lists were printed in the United States, but completed at the port of departure, and then filed in America after the ship docked. The information provided in immigration passenger lists varied over the decades. As the influx of immigrants became greater, more details were recorded. For example, in 1893, passenger lists contained 21 columns of information; in 1906, 28; in 1907, 29; and in 1917, 33. All of these details are valuable to your research, but in particular, items such as last residence, final destination in the United States, relative’s name and address (if the passenger was going to join a relative), personal description, place of birth and name and address of closest living relative in the native country will give you information you may not find anywhere else.

When immigrants arrived on Ellis Island, they went through a number of screening tests, many of which were medical examinations. But at one point, each immigrant — whether traveling alone or with a family — had an “interview” with a registry clerk. These clerks, who spoke several different languages, questioned arrivals in the immigrant’s native tongue, asking them the same questions from the passenger list that the immigrants answered when they left their homeland. Armed with the passenger list that was compiled at the port of departure, clerks merely compared the answers the immigrants told them. If an immigrant’s answers produced any discrepancies, the clerk could detain the person. But the clerk had instructions not to change any of the information on the passenger list, unless the inspection revealed the original information contained an error.

That means, despite popular belief, names were not changed on Ellis Island. As Immigration and Naturalization Service historian Marian L. Smith’s online article “American Names/Declaring Independence” <www.ins.usdoj.gov/graphics/aboutins/history/articles/nameessay.html> explains, “the Ellis-Island-name-change-story…is as American as apple pie,” but the facts of immigrant processing just didn’t allow for name changes.

So, in order to find your ancestors on passenger lists, you need to know your ancestor’s original name back in his or her ancestral homeland, which may not be the name your ancestor later adopted in America. The name your ancestor gave when he or she purchased the ticket to America is the name that you’ll find on the list. Of course, just as with any document, the name could have been accidentally misspelled or appear to be spelled a different way because of the clerk’s handwriting — an a looks like an o or an e, for example.

Paths to passenger lists

After the original passenger lists for the Port of New York during the Ellis Island years were microfilmed, they were destroyed. You can get prints of microfilmed passenger lists in three ways:

1. By mail from the National Archives for a fee, using NATF Form 81. You can request forms by e-mail at inquire@nara.gov or by writing National Archives and Records Administration, Attn: NWCTB, 700 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20408. (You may also find copies of National Archives request forms at its regional records services facilities — see <www.archives.gov> for a complete list.) The fee is $17.25 per record.

The National Archives will not do research for you, however. The minimum information required for a search of the index is the person’s full name, the port of arrival and the month and year of arrival. Additional facts, such as the passenger’s age and accompanying passengers, are also helpful. If the list isn’t indexed, NARA needs more specific information, such as the exact arrival date and ship name, to look up your immigrant. (For more on using the National Archives, see the October 2002 Family Tree Magazine.)

2. By visiting a repository and searching the microfilmed lists yourself. Passenger lists on microfilm are available for researchers not just at the National Archives in Washington, DC, but also through the Family History Library (FHL) and its local Family History Centers (FHCs) <www.familysearch.org>. A number of public libraries with large genealogy collections have some of these microfilms, too. Or check with a National Archives regional records services facility that would have films for its corresponding port, such as NARA’s Northeast Region in New York City for the Port of New York passenger arrival lists.

3. By finding the list on the Ellis Island database at <www.ellisisland.org> and ordering a print of the passenger list from the American Family Immigration History Center. You can also view an image of the list right on your computer screen.

Database search strategies

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.)


Got a family story of Great-grandpa being a stowaway on a ship bound for Ellis Island? It would be extremely rare for an ancestor to slip by all the inspections upon arrival. Once a stowaway was discovered, his name would get recorded on the list and indexed like anyone else. Of his fate once he was discovered … ah, that’s another story. He might be deported, so check the list of those detained and those held for the Board of Special Inquiry.

When you’re stumped

Clearly, you sometimes need to get creative when searching for an ancestor in the Ellis Island database. But what do you do if you still can’t find your ancestor? Here are five key questions to ask when you’re stumped:

1. Did your ancestor actually come through Ellis Island? Because Ellis Island was the leading immigrant receiving station of its day, many people think their ancestors came through the Port of New York, when they might have come through one of the other major US ports or Canada. Going back to Angela Vallarelli, she had six siblings who all immigrated to America, presumably through Ellis Island. I could find all but one. After wearing down my teeth from grinding them each time I’d get a negative search result on the Ellis Island database, I began to wonder if he might have come through another port. Sure enough, he came through the Port of Boston, not New York.

2. Did your ancestor arrive during the right time span? Remember that the database covers only 1892 to 1924 — after the largest influx from Germany, Scandinavia, Great Britain and Ireland. If your ancestor came before Ellis Island opened, you’ll need to search the National Archives microfilms (see box, page 31).

3. Are you checking for immigrant women under their maiden names? While this custom was more prevalent in Catholic countries, it never hurts to try this strategy even if your ancestor wasn’t Catholic. Regardless of whether the woman was traveling alone, with her spouse or with her children, she might be recorded on the list by her maiden name. Don’t know what her maiden name was? If she did travel with her children, they should be recorded under their father’s surname. So look for the kids.

4. What age was she when she arrived? To avoid latching on to the wrong immigrant in the database — another person with the same name or initials, for example — you’ll need to know your ancestor’s approximate age when she (or he) came to America. It’s also helpful to know the town of origin. Any other identifying information can help find the right immigrant.

5. Have you checked for transcription-related spelling variations? Keep in mind that you’re at the mercy of the transcriber who looked at the microfilmed copy of the passenger list and tried to interpret the name to enter it into the database. A transcriber unfamiliar with the German clerk’s script may convolute a name or place name you’d find easy to read because you’ve looked at records with that type of script before. Take, for example, Angelina Vallarelli from Terlizzi, Italy: The transcriber had problems reading Terlizzi because the clerk’s T looked like a C. So the transcriber wrote the place of residence as Cerlizzi. If that happened to your ancestor’s name, you won’t have a prayer of finding your ancestor in the database. But all is not lost — you can still do it the old-fashioned way.

On a roll to records

For the Port of New York, indexes to the microfilmed passenger lists span the years 1820 to 1846, 1897 to 1902, 1902 to 1943 and 1944 to 1948. Some of these indexes are alphabetical; others use the Soundex code, which turns each last name into a letter and numbers so that similarly spelled (and misspelled) names are filed together. In Soundex, for example, Lenin and Lennon are both L550. The alphabetical indexes may not be in strict alphabetical order, however, or may be misfiled. Here’s how the Port of New York’s indexes are supposed to be arranged:

• 1897 to 1902 — Alphabetical by surname, then by given name.

• 1902 to 1943 — A through D surnames: Arranged by Soundex code, then alphabetically by the first letter or first two letters of the given name, then by date of arrival (or volume number when date is not given).

D through Z surnames: arranged by Soundex code, then alphabetically by given name, followed by those whose ages were not given (for the years 1903 to 1910), then by age at arrival.

If you don’t find your ancestor, check for him or her by initials, instead of a full given name (Patrick Murphy as P. Murphy), and check for variant spellings. As in the computerized database, women might be recorded under their maiden names, not their married surnames. The microfilmed index cards will look different, depending on the arrival year. Some cards have all the fields written out and are straightforward, giving name, age, group number, list number, sex, citizenship, steamer, line, date and port. But other cards may baffle you. Finding the name is no problem, but what are all those other numbers? The Soundex code number is always in the upper left corner.

Below is a guide to the other information during different years. This pertains primarily to the cards for the Port of New York; other ports may have their own irregularities.

December 1903 to June 1910

name, group number, list number, vessel, date of arrival (example shown top left)

July 1910 to 1937

name, age/sex, list number, group number, volume number

1937 to June 1942

(top line after Soundex code) month/year (center line) name, age/sex, list number, group number, volume number (bottom line) vessel

July 1942 to December 1943

(top line) Soundex code, vessel or plane, date (center line) name, age/sex, list number, group number, volume number

find it on the web

• American Family Immigration History Center

<www.ellisisland.org>: The online home for Ellis Island’s 22 million records.

• National Archives and Records Administration

<www.archives.gov>: New Web site for the nation’s storehouse of history, including immigration records.

• Ellis Island Database Name Permutations

<erosenbaum.netfirms.com/eidb.shtml>: Web site for a $9.95 shareware utility that automatically searches the Ellis Island database for alternate surname spellings, including Soundex. A free trial version is available.

• Immigrant Ship Transcribers Guild

<istg.rootsweb.com>: Volunteer effort transcribing passenger lists from a variety of eras and ports.

• Ellis Island Records

<www.ellisislandimmigrants.org>: Unofficial site with background on immigration and Ellis Island.

• American Immigrant Wall of Honor

<www.wallofhonor.com>: How to immortalize your immigrant ancestor on the commemorative wall at Ellis Island.

on the bookshelf

A Genealogist’s Guide to Discovering Your Immigrant & Ethnic Ancestors by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack (Betterway Books, $18.99)

Ellis Island Interviews: In Their Own Words by Peter Morton Coan (Checkmark Books, $16.95)

Ellis Island and the Peopling of America: The Official Guide by Virginia Yans-McLaughlin and Marjorie Lightman (New Press, $19.95)

Gateway to Liberty: The Story of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island by Mary J. Shapiro (Vintage Books, out of print)

They Came in Ships by John Philip Colletta (Ancestry, $9.95)

From card to list

Once you’ve found a mystery immigrant in the index, copy all of the information from the index card. Next, go find the full passenger list on microfilm (or you may now know enough to find your ancestor online as well).

The arrival date is given on cards prior to June 1910, so let’s look at these first. The microfilm rolls for the passenger lists will be catalogued differently in different repositories, so check with the librarian to find the roll with the date you need. Regardless of how the films are catalogued, however, they’re all microfilmed in rough chronological order; some lists may be out of order.

You’ll typically find two to three “volumes” filmed on one microfilm roll. A title sheet precedes each volume, giving you the volume number, the arrival dates, the names of the steamships in the order they’ve been microfilmed, the ports of departure and the number of sheets in each manifest.

Once you find the ship’s list, use the other information from the index card to find the exact page. The “list number” refers to the line number on the manifest, running down the left side of the sheet. The group number is the tricky one. You’ll probably note several numbers on each passenger-list page: stamped numbers, numbers handwritten in grease pencil, numbers on the bottom of the page and numbers at the top. Once again, the placement of the group number varied by year. Here is the breakdown for the Port of New York:

Look for records of aliens who were held by the Board of Special Inquiry at the end of the passenger list.

Location of Croup Number on the Passenger List

• 1897 to 1902 — usually top right comer

• 1902 to 1908 — usually greased pencil or stamped numbers at top left

• 1908 to 1943 — usually stamped numbers at bottom left

To decipher the information on the cards after 1910, on which no date appears, you’ll need to do an extra step. Consult the finding aid Immigrant and Passenger Arrivals: A Select Catalog of National Archives Microfilm Publications (see box, next page) to find the appropriate volume number, which will list the date of arrival for that volume, along with the National Archives microfilm roll number. If you’re at the FHL in Salt Lake City, consult the immigration finding-aid binders in the reference section of the United States/Canada floor. Look for the volume number, which gives you the date of arrival, followed by the library’s microfilm call number.

Anyone who’s used both microfilm and Web sites knows it’s far faster to crank through a roll of microfilm than it is to download computerized images of passenger lists, one page at a time. Sometimes, the lists span two pages, so it takes several minutes to view your ancestor’s full list. And some of the pages, for whatever reason, were digitized out of order. So you might land on the second page of information; then you need to figure out whether to click on Next Page or Previous Page. The images of pages that don’t include passenger information were also digitized, making it time consuming to view the whole ship’s list.

Microfilm also makes it easier to see tilings in context. Passengers traveling in first and second class were recorded in a separate section of the same list for that ship. So on microfilm, you’ll find a page or two for the first class passengers first, then a few pages for the second or saloon class, then multiple pages for the steerage or third class.

Perhaps the biggest disadvantage I’ve found in using the computerized images is that it takes forever to get to the end of that ship’s list. Why would you need to see the end? That’s where more good stuff is hiding.

The end of the list

Beginning about 1903, the passenger arrival lists began to include a supplemental section for detainees. Many immigrants were detained for short periods of time at the port of arrival until relatives came to claim them; this was particularly true of unescorted women, whether or not children accompanied them.

Detainee lists, or Records of Detained Aliens, that have survived were microfilmed with their corresponding passenger lists at the end of the lists of arrivals. They contain each detainee’s name, the cause for detention and the date and time of discharge. The number of meals the detainee was fed during detention was also recorded. If the emigre was deported before being released from the immigrant receiving station, these records stated the reason and the deportation date. The abbreviation LPC meant “likely public charge” (that is, likely to wind up on the public dole), and LCD signified “loathsome contagious disease,” two main causes for deportation.

Check subsequent passenger lists and indexes for aliens who were deported — they might have entered the country later when they were able to pass inspection. Another common way for aliens to re-immigrate was to save enough money and re-enter as a first-or second-class passenger, who underwent less stringent exams aboard ship.

Following the Record of Detained Aliens will be a page or pages of the Record of Aliens Held for Special Inquiry. This form noted the cause of the detention or rejection, along with actions taken by the Board of Special Inquiry, the date of hearings and the number of meals eaten during detention. For deportees, you’ll find the date and the name of the vessel and port from which they returned to their native land. If a rejected immigrant was waiting for someone, the form will also include the name and address of the American contact.

Don’t get me wrong — the Ellis Island database is a good starting place and perhaps the greatest thing to come along since reduced-fat cookies. For those who hit the nail on the head, instantly finding their forebears, the database is a dream come true. But if you’re having problems tracking down your Ellis Island immigrants, the Island of Hope and Tears can be just as challenging for you as it was for your ancestors. Not to worry. You still have ways to trace your Ellis Island ancestors. And the worst of ’em is cranking a roll of microfilm.

before Ellis Island

Prior to the mid-19th century, the United States had no immigrant inspection stations. Then, in 1855, Castle Garden <www.nps.gov/cacl> opened on the southern tip of Manhattan. Here, short inspections and medical examinations of arriving passengers took place. Castle Garden gave way to Ellis Island in 1892.

Passenger lists from 1820 to about 1891 were known as customs lists. They were usually printed in the United States, completed by ship company personnel at the port of departure, and maintained primarily for statistical purposes. So they contain only bare-bones information: the name of the ship and its master, the port of embarkation and the date and port of arrival, plus each passenger’s name, sex, age, occupation and nationality. These lists (with some gaps) have been microfilmed and are available through the National Archives, and through the FHL and its local FHCs. Generally speaking, NARA’s regional records services facilities have films for the ports in their jurisdiction. The guide Immigrant and Passenger Arrivals: A Select Catalog of National Archives Microfilm Publications details more fully the availability of records and indexes for each port. You’ll find this catalog on the National Archives’ Web site at <www.archives.gov/publications/microfilmcatalogs/immigrant/immigrantpassengerarrivals.html>, or you should be able to locate a copy at most genealogical libraries.

From the December 2002 issue of Family Tree Magazine.


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