The Key to the Golden Door

By David A. Fryxell Premium

Annie Moore, a 13-year-old Irish immigrant who came to these shores in 1892, was looking to land in a new country, not in a cutting-edge computer database. But there she is, on the World Wide Web and in new multimedia kiosks at Ellis Island — along with the 17 million immigrants who followed her through the “golden door” into America.

More than 100 million Americans have at least one ancestor who came through Ellis Island, the famed “island of hope, island of tears.” It served as the nation’s main immigration gateway from Jan. 1, 1892, when young Annie Moore was the first to pass through Ellis Island, until 1924. But the records of those “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” have been accessible only on microfilm and have been only partly indexed — until now.

In late April, the American Family Immigration History Center launches on the Web <> and opens to the public in the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, the former main building of the immigration facility. The new Web site and the multimedia visitor stations at the center will let users easily search and access the ships’ passengers manifest records of everyone who entered the US through the Port of New York from 1892-1924. For the first time, the actual pages showing your ancestors’ arrival in America will be only a few mouseclicks away.

Tour Tips

Your visit to Ellis Island will be a good deal more comfortable than your immigrant ancestors’ was — but you can still get a feel for what they went through. Today, Ellis Island is a popular, attractive, high-tech tourist attraction, run by the National Park Service of the US Department of the Interior.

The former main building of the immigration facility has been transformed into the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. In addition to the new American Family Immigration History Center, the museum includes more than 200,000 square feet of artifacts and historic images. Two theaters feature Island of Hope, Island of Tears, a half-hour movie documentary, and a small stage showcases a play, Embracing Freedom, based on interviews with immigrants and Ellis Island inspectors. The movie is free. The museum also includes a bookstore, gift shop and cafeteria.

For advance reservations, go on the Web to <>.

To get to Ellis Island, you take the same ferries that serve the nearby Statue of Liberty. Ferries depart from Battery Park in Manhattan (tickets sold at Castle Clinton) and Liberty State Park in New Jersey from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. daily, with extended hours in summer. Round-trip tickets are $8 for adults, $6 for seniors and $3 for children. If you want to include a climb to the Statue of Liberty’s crown in your trip, be sure to catch the first ferry of the day. For more information on the ferry, call (212) 269-5755.

For more information on the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, write 52 Vanderbilt Ave., New York, NY 10017, call (212) 883-1986, fax (212) 883-1069, or see <>.

The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation spent five years and $22.5 million developing the database; 12,000 volunteers from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) contributed 5.6 million volunteer hours painstakingly inputting the passenger records. First, ship passenger logs were scanned from microfilm and printed out on paper. Volunteers then hand-typed the data into computer files. Each manifest page was entered twice, by two separate volunteers, and any discrepancies were scrutinized by a third volunteer for maximum accuracy.

The database encompasses 12 million immigrants processed through Ellis Island, 5 million other Port of New York immigrants whose first- or second-class tickets enabled them to skip the Ellis Island ordeal, and 5 million ship’s crew and other non-immigrant passengers (including such famous US visitors as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, whose names appear next to each other on one log). Each person’s entry contains up to 11 transcribed fields of information:

  • first name
  • last name
  • ethnicity
  • date of arrival
  • age on arrival
  • gender
  • marital status
  • ship of travel
  • port of departure
  • whether the passenger was already a US citizen
  • whether the person was a member of the ship’s crew.

The facts recorded on ship manifests varied through the years. These 11 types of data were selected from about 35 possible blanks for information on various logs because they best identify the passenger and occur most consistently. Once you find your ancestor’s digitized entry, however, you can click and see an image of the actual ship’s log, which may contain more clues for tracing your family both back to the “old country” and as they spread across America.

The database also includes images of more than 800 ships that carried passengers to Ellis Island. So you can obtain not only a copy of your ancestors’ manifest page but also a picture of the ship they came on.

But that’s only the beginning of the multimedia aspect of the American Family Immigration History Center. Both on the Web and in special multimedia booths at Ellis Island, members of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation ($45 annual membership fee) will be able to create and share a Family History Scrapbook including scanned photos, sound and video clips, and genealogy data.

“Anything you can do on the island, you’ll be able to do on the Web,” says Gideon D’Arcangelo, interactive design manager for Edwin Schlossberg Inc. (ESI), which designed the Web site and kiosks. “It’s a seamless experience of Ellis Island. You can create a scrapbook on the island, then call up Grandma in Seattle and say, ‘Look at what we made,’ and Grandma can even add to it via the Web.” The Web experience, he adds, has been streamlined to account for the speed limitations of home-computer modems, without sacrificing any functionality.

Since it reopened as a national monument in 1990, visitors to Ellis Island have enjoyed the re-creation of the immigrant experience — but gone away frustrated at the inability to access their ancestors’ records there. Staff at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum have had to direct disappointed would-be researchers to the microfilm at the National Archives and Records Administration or at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. The first five years of Ellis Island records were not indexed, making finding your immigrant ancestors a time-consuming, eye-squinting challenge.

That’s all changed with the opening of the American Family Immigration History Center. Now, visitors to Ellis Island receive a card that lets the center’s “interactive stations” gather up their findings for printout options at the end of the visit. (Web site visitors will also need to register before starting to search — it’s free — so the system can keep track of your finds.) After a multimedia introduction to the island and its history, visitors are led through the steps to search for their ancestors.

Searching at the island or on the Web at <> works identically: An opening “Search Passenger Records” screen asks, “What is the passenger’s name?” and has blanks to fill in first name and last name and check off gender. You can also enter just a first initial in the “First Name” field or even leave it blank. (Because of the sheer size of the database, however, you can’t search without at least a last name to start with. Searches of, for example, all passengers ages 20-25 on the ship Acropolis in 1902 won’t be allowed.)

The search doesn’t use the Soundex system familiar to experienced genealogists, in which similarly spelled names are assigned a code to help ferret out misspellings and variations. But it does have a built-in filter that in many ways outdoes Soundex. “It’s a computational linguistic search filtering that’s sensitive to ethnic linguistic patterns,” D’Arcangelo explains. “This was an essential feature, since there are so many places in the process where spelling errors can be introduced.”

Next you’re prompted to supply a year of arrival. (Again, remember, you’re trying to narrow down 22 million database entries.) But if you don’t know the exact year, you can enter a range of years or a term such as “before 1905.”

Finally, you’re shown a list of ethnicities (for example, “Gt. Britain Irish” or “Australia British”) with entries that match the information you’ve already entered. You can then check any ethnicities that might fit your ancestor.

One more click and up comes a list of passengers who match your search. You’re shown exact matches as well as lists of close matches and matches with alternate spellings; country of residence, year of arrival and age on arrival are displayed beside each name. Clicking on any name takes you straight to the digitized record.

Or, if your search turned up too many names, a box on the left of the results page lets you easily refine your “Passenger Search Profile.” Here you can also search the database by age on arrival, port of departure and name of ship. (Savvy searchers with gaps in their family tree will be tempted to play around here: First cast a wide net with only surname, ethnicity and a broad range of years, then see who’s there with the right age to be your ancestor, for example.)

Do You Have An Ellis Island Ancestor?

“Ellis Island” and “immigrant” have become synonymous. But not all immigrants entered America through the famous federal immigration facility in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty.

The federal government didn’t even start keeping track of immigrant passenger arrivals until 1820. A number of references, however, do compile state and local lists of arriving immigrants. For a guide to these and other tips on tracing your immigrant ancestors, see the December 2000 issue of Family Tree Magazine.

From 1855 to 1890, some 8 million immigrants via the Port of New York came through Castle Garden <>. These records, along with those dating from 1820, are available on microfilm at the National Archives and Records Administration <>, 700 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20408, and its 13 regional offices. Copies of the microfilm are also available from the Family History Library <> and its local Family History Centers nationwide. Pre-Ellis Island records are indexed only from 1820 to 1846, however. (This is important because not all the other ports are completely indexed pre-Ellis Island.)

Ellis Island opened in 1892 and served during the peak years of US immigration, until 1924, when immigration processing was moved abroad under the direction of US consulates. If you’re not sure whether your ancestor came through Ellis Island and thus is included in the new <> database, your family’s ethnicity offers a good clue. Though Ellis Island welcomed immigrants from everywhere, it opened after the largest influx from Germany, Scandinavia, Great Britain and Ireland. And by 1900, emigrants from Austria-Hungary, Italy and Russia had supplanted northern Europeans as the chief sources of new Americans. Immigrants from these three nations alone made up 75 percent of the Ellis Island traffic in its busiest year, 1907, when more than 1 million came through. In short, if your ancestors came from eastern or southern Europe, the odds are good they’re among the 17 million in the new Ellis Island database.

Keep in mind, though, that New York was the largest but not the only doorway into America. From 1910 to 1940, 250,000 mostly Asian immigrants entered through the “Ellis Island of the West” in San Francisco, Angel Island <>. Boston and Baltimore were other popular ports. Passenger arrival lists for these alternate destinations are kept at the National Archives.

From ship to shore

Once you’ve found a passenger who might be your ancestor, you just click to view the relevant section of the ship’s manifest. The digitized text version of the manifest shows each person’s name, age on arrival, marital status, ethnicity and original place of residence; highlighting the name also brings up date of arrival and port of departure. You can easily page backward and forward in the manifest to look for other relatives or neighbors who might have sailed on the same ship, which might provide other clues.

Either on the Web or at Ellis Island, you can also easily toggle back and forth between the transcribed text view and a scanned image of the actual manifest page — the database contains more than 3 million page images. A magnifying-glass icon lets you zoom in and out to better decipher the handwritten entries.

The designers at ESI have also created innovative ways for users to interact with the database once you’ve found your ancestors’ records. Your personal Ellis Island File lets you keep track of manifests and ship images of interest; you can even order and purchase framed copies.

A Community Archives feature, in person or on the Web, lets you add annotations and anecdotal information to the database. You can fill in the blanks about your immigrant ancestor’s spouse, where he or she settled in the US, occupation, religious affiliation and so forth. Others can contribute information you may not know. (Community Archive data will not be verified, but will be attributed to the visitor who supplied it; no contact information will be included, for privacy reasons.) “We see the passenger database becoming a growing, living record,” says D’Arcangelo.

Saving and sharing

The Family History Scrap-book takes interactivity one step further. Foundation members can create a virtual family album, in person or online, that encompasses but also goes beyond the Ellis Island records.

Before arriving at Ellis Island, you can go online and reserve one of the center’s special scrapbooking rooms. These high-tech rooms accommodate up to seven family members — “this is meant to be a group experience, not a solitary one,” says D’Arcangelo. Once at the island, you can then use your room’s scanner, microphone, camera and keyboard to digitize your family photos and documents, capture family stories, take a group picture, even scan in an image of Grandpa’s pocket watch or record a favorite family song. An on-screen “host” walks you through the process, so even the most technophobic can join in.

Next you assemble the elements you’ve input, along with items from Your Ellis Island File, into a virtual scrapbook. Web users can create or add to scrapbooks, too, scanning in your own images or recording your own soundbites at home. Online or in person, you can add captions and pick what goes on each digital page. Then you review your creation, selecting from four different page formats and various cover designs. Finally, you can get a printout of your scrapbook or a multimedia version on CD-ROM.

Your files are stored for posterity, and you can add to or update your Family History Scrapbook at a future visit or via the Web. You can also invite contributions from far-flung family members; each password-protected scrapbook can have up to 10 different users.

You can choose to keep your scrapbook private, or to let Ellis Island and Web-site visitors view it. You can even link your scrap-book to other public scrapbooks, such as those created by other relations or by descendants of your ancestors’ shipmates.

Fresh off the boat from County Cork, Ireland, young Annie Moore was treated to a gala reception and given a $10 gold coin by the commissioner of immigration. The millions of immigrants who came after her got a rougher welcome to Ellis Island, which could be a terrifying experience for a newcomer to America who typically spoke little or no English. (For more on the history of Ellis Island and the immigrant experience there, see the January 2000 issue of Family Tree Magazine.) Some of them found their own fortunes in the land they’d been told was paved with gold, where they’d been promised “free education, free land, free speech, free ballot, free lunch.” Many others found a life almost as hard as what they’d left, in brutal tenements or on unforgiving prairies.

Pauper or prince of industry, though, each of our immigrant ancestors has a rich and fascinating story. With the opening of the American Family Immigration History Center, we can all begin to tell it.

On the Web

Immigrant Ships Transcribers Guild


Volunteer project transcribing ship passenger lists.



Order prints of your ancestor’s ship.

Immigration and Ships Passenger Lists Research Guide


Step-by-step how-to.

Cyndi’s List: Ships and Passenger Lists


Excellent starting point.

Books and CDs

Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life by Roger Daniels (HarperCollins)

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

Ellis Island and the Peopling of America by Virginia Yans-McLaughlin and Marjorie Lightman (New Press)

Ellis Island Interviews: In Their Own Words by Peter Morton Coan (Checkmark)

Guide to Naturalization Records of the United States by Christina K. Schaefer (Genealogical Publishing Co.)

Immigrant and Passenger Arrivals: A Select Catalog of the National Archives Microfilm Publications, second edition (National Archives Trust Fund Board; also online at <>)

Passenger and Immigration Lists Index: A Guide to Published Arrival Records of about 500,000 Passengers who Came to the United States and Canada in the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries by P. William Filby (multi-volume reference, available in libraries)

Ships of Our Ancestors by Michael J. Anuta (Genealogical Publishing Co.)

The Ellis Island Immigrant Cookbook by Tom Bernardin (Tom Bernardin)

They Became Americans: Finding Naturalization Records and Ethnic Origins by Loretto Dennis Szucs (Ancestry)

They Came in Ships: A Guide to Finding Your Immigrant Ancestor’s Ship, revised edition, by John Philip Colletta (Ancestry)

Family Archives: Passenger and Immigration Lists Index: 2000 Edition, 1500s-1900s (Family Tree Maker CD #354, order from 800-567-2730 or <>).

From the June 2001 issue of Family Tree Magazine