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Overheard in GenForum: Wrong Records at Ellis Island
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.

May 09, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: Can anyone suggest how can find out details on my great grandmother? According to the Ellis Island records, she arrived in America on September 24th 1908. The ships manifest says she was on the Carmania sailing from Liverpool. I can't find any records for her on the Carmania. If I look at the passenger records on Ellis Island it says she was on the Campania, but I can't get any details for that ship. How do I find records for the Campania in 1908 from other sources other than Ellis Island? -- Janet

A: Publishing the searchable index on the Ellis Island Records Web site was a major undertaking and genealogists all over have been plugging in their ancestors' names in hopes of finding them. This remarkable index is a compiled database created through human efforts. Since many people were involved in creating this index, some information may have been indexed incorrectly.

It is also important to note that some passenger lists have not yet made it into this collection. There isn't a list of which ship records are not available, or of those that have not been indexed in this project, but my own research has revealed some that are not included. With that said, though, there are alternatives to help you with your research.

Ellis Island online is a good start but isn't the end of your search.

Ellis Island Online

The release of the Ellis Island records online was another step forward in online genealogy. The fact that we could not only search the index but then view the page of the passenger list online fed the "I want it now" gene of every genealogist. However, as we have gotten more familiar with using the index, some limitations have been discovered.

The biggest limitation is the spelling of surnames. Many times the individual we are looking for is in the index, but we are looking for their name under a different spelling. Even with the choices supplied when a find shows no results, we must pick one surname spelling at a time. No doubt this is to keep the load on the servers to a minimum. Ideally at some point perhaps they will add a Soundex search ability.

Another limitation is that some of the index entries do not show you the original passenger list. Instead you get a message that the image is not available. When this happens, be sure to look at the text version of the manifest, as that is available. At the least it will give you an idea of who else was listed along with your ancestor.

Head for the Microfilm

When you are unable to find the information that you're looking for online, you should look into microfilmed passenger lists. Microfilmed by the National Archives, these films are available through many repositories including the Family History Library, and therefore to local Family History Centers.

First, there is an index to the passenger lists for the year in question. The index actually begins in 1902, and is arranged by Soundex code. In order to use this index, you would need to know the code for the surname of your great-grandmother. You can find out more about Soundex coding a surname from the National Archives.

The Soundex cards in this index will be arranged by Soundex code, and then by given name and then by age. So if you know how old your grandmother was when she arrived in 1908, then you can ignore those cards for individuals of the same name who are not of the right age. The reason I mention this is because the cards seldom list the name of the ship or even the date of the arrival. Usually you will find they list the Soundex code, the name of the individual, the age, the gender, the page and/or line number and the volume number. The volume number is the clue to the film you need to order to get the right ship's passenger lists.

The volume numbers are numerical and go up as the chronology goes up. So the larger the volume number the later the date of the passenger list. For ships arriving on September 24, you will want to look at volumes 2518-2519, which begin on September 22, 1908.

Carmania vs. Campania

Both the Carmania and the Campania were ships for the Cunard line. They traveled from Liverpool to New York on a regular basis. Since you mentioned both ships, I investigated to see when they arrived in New York in September 1908. According to the Morton Allan Directory the Carmania arrived on September 24. The Campania arrived on September 26. The volume numbers for the passenger lists for ships arriving in New York on September 26, 1908 are 2523-2524.

I couldn't tell from your message, but I got the feeling that you expected your great-grandmother to show up on one ship and instead she was showing up on the other ship. If this is true, you need to examine the record or resource that supplied you with the name of the first ship. If it was just the Ellis Island online index, and you are viewing a page from the passenger list of the other ship, this could simply be the result of a mislink.

In Conclusion

It sounds like your next step should be to turn to the microfilmed version of the index and passenger lists. This would allow you to peruse other entries in the Soundex that may not have been included in the online index. You can also look at all the pages of the passenger list for both ships and see where the problem is with the information you found online.

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 rhondagen@thegenealogist.com.

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