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Overheard in GenForum: Researching Ship Records
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

April 11, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: Searching for information on the ship MARSALA. Port of Departure: Hamburg, Germany. Arrived in New York. Need if for August 1892. -- Kimberlee

A: The Internet has brought many useful resources to our fingertips. This is true of census, compiled family histories, and more. This past year the Ellis Island Records Web site came online and brought us digitized images of passenger lists from 1892 through 1924 for most of the ships that came through the port of New York during that time.

Of course, the Ellis Island site offers much more than just the digitized images of the passenger lists. Most researchers stop after they have run a search of their immigrant ancestor's name. While the search for the ancestor is the most important, researchers should take a little time to see what else the site offers in the way of information.

Ellis Island offers more than just lists of immigrants.

Ellis Island Web Site

When the Ellis Island site came online last year, it was immediately overwhelmed by the number of individuals who wanted to access the information found there. Now, though, you shouldn't have a problem accessing the system but you may need to spend a little extra time with "creative searching" if the individual you are interested in doesn't appear in your original search results.

While you did not supply the name of the individual you were looking for, your message did include the approximate date of arrival, the port and the name of the ship. Based on your name, I settled on searching the Ellis Island site for the surname Henkel.

The initial search revealed 513 exact matches. The Ellis Island site also allows for close matches and alternate spellings that afford researchers the ability to expand a search when an exact match does not reveal the person in question. Of course, when the initial search reveals so many, as in this case, then you can narrow down the search using one of the following choices.

  • Gender
  • Year of Arrival
  • Ethnicity
  • Age on Arrival
  • Port of Departure
  • Name of Ship

One thing to keep in mind when using these choices, is that your choices are based on the results of the initial search. For instance, if you select the Name of Ship link, the list of ships that are displayed are those that were found in the matches. In this case, I did select the name of ship and was not surprised to find the Marsala as one of those listed.

Running the search again revealed one individual, a Johann Henkel, who was a resident of Norka, Russia, and was 30 years old when he arrived in 1892.

The Entry

Clicking on the link for Johann Henkel revealed the sign in form. The Ellis Island Web site offers many items, some of them are free and some cost money. To view the original passenger list is free, simply request a user name and password.

Once logged in I was able to view a transcript of the entry for Johann Henkel. This told me his ethnicity, place of residence, date of arrival, age on arrival, gender, marital status, ship of travel, and port of departure. I paid close attention to this to see if all the information you shared in your message was present. He did travel on the Marsala, and the port of departure was Hamburg, Germany. The arrival date was 12 August 1892. I had already checked the online version of the Morton Allan Directory that lists ships arriving in the port of New York from 1890 to 1930 and was aware that the Marsala arrived in New York six times in the year of 1892; February 19, April 9, June 4, August 12, October 11, and December 6.

Viewing the digitized original passenger list, I discovered that Johann Henkel was a farmer and that his last place of residence was Norka. Unlike the passenger lists of the 1900s, especially those after 1906, there is no indication as to whom Johann was going to visit or his place of birth.

Researchers using the Ellis Island Web site can either order a copy of the passenger list from Ellis Island Records, or go through a local Family History Center and view the microfilmed passenger list to get a photocopy, though not all Family History Centers offer a microfilm/fiche photocopier. The benefit of obtaining your copy through the Ellis Island Web site is that you will get a high-quality print.

The Marsala

In addition to information on an immigrant ancestor, you'll also find information and a picture of the sailing ship on the Ellis Island site. Above the transcript of your ancestor's entry on the passenger list, you will find links to viewing the original manifest and viewing the ship. In the case of The Marsala, the picture is a drawing. Many of the pictures of other ships are digitized photographs. Again, you can purchase a copy of the ship in question, a nice quality print in either 5x7 or 9x12. The site also includes a description of the ship and a little of the history of the ship. Here is what I learned about the Marsala:

Built by Alexander Stephen & Sons, Glasgow, Scotland, 1884. 2,422 gross tons; 320 (bp) feet long; 38 feet wide. Compound engine, single screw. Service speed 11 knots. 600 passengers (600 third class).

Built for Sloman Line, German flag, in 1884 and named Marsala. Hamburg-New York service. Sunk following a collision in Mediterranean on July 2, 1913.

In Conclusion

There is a lot of information available at the Ellis Island site in addition to the search feature. As you search for individuals and learn about ships, you can save the passenger manifest or the link to the ship image. As you can see, you can learn a lot about the Marsala from the Ellis Island Web site when you take the time to branch out beyond the initial search feature.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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