December 13, 2001
Ellis Island's records online are at the American Family Immigration History Center. Many people have visited this site. Some have come away disappointed, while others have been thrilled with the information they have found.
Ellis Island A Refresher
The first misconception I see often in remarks from those visiting the Ellis Island site is that their ancestor, who arrived in the United States in 1856, is not found in the online database.
While immigrants have been coming into the United States through the port of New York since before 1820, the fact of the matter is that Ellis Island did not open until 1892. Before this, immigrants were processed at Castle Garden and before Castle Garden opened, the immigrants were processed on ships as they docked.
Although Ellis Island remained in operation until the mid-1940s processing immigrants, the online database presently consist of those immigrants who arrived from 1892 through 1924. This period saw some of the heaviest immigrant activity. In fact, in 1907 alone, 7 million immigrants came through Ellis Island.
Working with the Online Database
When you first get to the Ellis Island Web site, you will be presented with a simple search form asking you for the given name and surname of the ancestor you want to search for. At this point, you must pick one spelling of the surname to have the database use.
What most people do at this point is wait to see the results and then when they don't see their ancestor they leave disappointed. This is a mistake. Often the person they seek is in the database, just the spelling is different or it was so hard to read on the sheet, that the transcribers did the best they could with it.
A perfect example is Irving Berlin. He came from Russia, as a child, via Belgium to Ellis Island in 1893. However, his name on the passenger list is not Irving Berlin. While many know that he changed his name, the published name listed for him is most often found as Israel Bailin. It would be natural to search the Ellis Island database using Israel Bailin. You will not find him using this spelling though. He and his family are listed on the passenger list under the surname Beilin.
When your search does not come up with the person you were hoping, you need to sit down for a second and think of potential variable names. You can actually get some help with this aspect of your search as the Ellis Island site will give you a list of possible alternatives. You can only select one at a time, so you may want to look at the list and write down the most possible alternatives then run the searches one at a time and see what you find.
You may also want to extend your research by not including a given name. You can always narrow the search after you discover that the surname results in so many hits that you need to narrow it.
While the Ellis Island online database is a great tool, if you have exhausted it and still have not found your ancestor, but are sure they came through Ellis Island, you may want to turn your attention to the microfilmed index, that covers the years 1897 through 1943. You may find your ancestor that way and then be able to find them on the passenger lists on the Ellis Island site.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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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