More than 40 percent of Americans are related to an immigrant who arrived at Ellis Island. The famous immigration station’s records from 1892 to 1924 are searchable for free online. Get acquainted with the database by following our sample search for the hard-to-find Mike Haddad, who arrived at Ellis Island in 1900 with his wife, Mary.
1. Skip the home page search and go to the Advanced Search (look under Passenger Search in the navigation bar), which gives you more parameters and flexibility. You can specify the passenger’s birth year, arrival year, gender, ship name, town of origin and/or ethnicity. Use the drop-down menus to search an exact name spelling (“is”), variations (“sounds like,” “contains”) and other options. Note that you can’t enter a middle name or initial, though—you’ll get zero results.
After unsuccessfully searching for Mike, we chose “ignore” for the first name to leave it off. Then we ran an alternate-spelling search on the last name only, with ranges for the birth date and arrival year (it’s not unusual for dates reported later on in census and other records to be off by a few years).
2. One result is Fadlo Hadad—a first name Mike used in a later record—who arrived Nov. 4, 1900. Many immigrants changed their names once they got to America, but passenger lists were filled out at the port where the immigrant left (those stories of “our name was changed at Ellis Island” aren’t true). That means your ancestor will probably appear on a list with the name he used in the old country, not the one you’ve found in American records.
3. Clicking on the match first brings up an Ellis Island certificate you can buy; a link to the right of that lets you view the original passenger manifest. The list shows Fadlo with “wife Maria.” Continue searching in other records, too, for clues that can help you in immigration-record research. Around the time we located the passenger record, for example, we found Mike’s naturalization record and were able to confirm his original name and arrival port.
4. Transcription errors and unexpected spellings mean that finding your ancestor is often a trial-and-error process of searching on different variables. If you don’t have luck on the Ellis Island site itself, try Stephen P. Morse’s Ellis Island search forms, which offer additional fields and more “sounds like” options, and let you search one month at a time.
From the December 2009 Family Tree Magazine