Using the Ellis Island Database
This article was originally written by Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak
- 1 Introduction
- 2 The Database
- 3 Steve Morse’s Tools
- 4 Morse White Form
- 5 Ellis Island: Final Tips
Recent years have been a boon for genealogists in many arenas, but none more so than online immigrant databases. One of the most conspicuous examples is the collection of digitized passenger arrival records available for searching at the American Family Immigration History Center (AFIHC) website. And while this resource can greatly speed your search, locating immigrant ancestors in it can still be challenging for a variety of reasons. Learning a few useful tactics can maximize the chances of finally finding the details of an elusive great-grandfather’s arrival in North America. Some of the strategies discussed here can also be applied to other online databases.
If you’re one of the more than 100 million Americans with one or more ancestors who came through Ellis Island, the 1 April 2001 launch of the Ellis Island database, with its more than 22 million indexed passenger and crew entries between 1892 and 1924, was a thrill. Thanks to a massive, all-volunteer effort, these records were transcribed, linked to digital images of ships’ manifests, and uploaded to the Internet. In addition to providing easy access to these records, this database also includes the first-ever indexing of 1892 to 1897 New York arrivals.
Many researchers quickly found ancestors simply by entering names at the site, but others faced additional obstacles. Perhaps the name they were seeking was very common, making it difficult to tell which individual was the correct ancestor. Or maybe the surnames were unusual and complex, so that entries could be hidden behind creative spellings. Still others might have found the text version of the information linked to the wrong manifest or a “no image available” message. Fortunately, there are ways to address all of these situations.
Ellis Island: Basic Search
According to family tradition, Patrick Nelligan came to the United States from Ireland as an infant in the 19-teens. To find his record, go to EllisIsland.org and enter his name in the fields provided. This brings up the Matching Passenger Records page, which indicates that just one such individual was found in the database:
- Name of Passenger: Patrick Nelligan
- Residence: Abbeyfeale, Irelalnd [sic]
- Arrived: 1913
- Age on Arrival: 0
Note: Newcomers to the site will need to register to gain access (although there are no fees). On subsequent visits simply enter your user name and password at the beginning of each search session.
Since the information meshes with expectations, click on the passenger’s name to be taken to the Passenger Record, which furnishes several additional details:
- Ethnicity: British, Irish
- Date of Arrival: October 3, 1913
- Age on Arrival: 4 months
- Gender: male
- Marital Status: Single
- Ship of Travel: Adriatic
- Port of Departure: Queenstown, Cork, Munster, Ireland
From here, there are several options including Add to Your Ellis Island File, View Original Ship Manifest, or View Ship. Selecting View Original Ship Manifest will lead you to the Original Ship Manifest page that may lead to additional details.
On this page is a miniature version of the scanned manifest image. To take a closer look, click on the small magnifying glass to the right of the image. A separate page with the image will open, but it is the second half of the two-page record. Maneuver to the first page of the manifest by using previous or next on the Original Ship Manifest page. In this case, it’s necessary to click next to go to the first page, even though you would intuitively expect to find it by clicking previous. Since some rolls of microfilm were scanned in backwards, this is a fairly frequent occurrence, so it’s helpful to get in the habit of trying both previous and next.
Once you’ve opened the first page, speed the search by noting the line number listed at the top of the image. This particular image says that Patrick will be on line 13, and using the scroll bar, he is quickly found. A glance at the page says that—not surprisingly—four-month-old Patrick was not traveling alone. With him were his mother, Catherine, and sisters, Josephine and Margaret. In addition to their ages and last residence of Abbeyfeale, there is information that the closest relative they’ve left behind is Patrick’s grandfather, Patrick Collins, and that they’re traveling to join his father, Martin Nelligan, who’s apparently residing in Ansonia, Connecticut. A quick peek at the last column will also reveal the interesting tidbit that Patrick’s sisters were born in Ansonia, while he was born in Abbeyfeale. To obtain a copy of this genealogically-packed document, either order a copy from AFIHC via the website (see the site for current prices) or note the source information and make a copy from microfilm at your closest National Archives branch, Family History Center (FHC), or other major repository.
Ellis Island: Tactics
The preceding example was very clear-cut, but not all searches are quite this easy. Because of certain nuances of the database, employing specific tactics will improve the odds of obtaining the best possible results, regardless of your circumstances. The following suggestions are especially helpful in sniffing out evasive immigrant ancestors or all possible variations of a surname.
If there aren’t any exact matches, try Alternate Spellings. When you enter a surname and there are no matches, the site automatically leads to a group of thirty likely phonetic and handwriting variations, which can be viewed one at a time as if each variation was searched initially. Many users fail to make the best use of this feature because they are too quick to dismiss alternatives they couldn’t fathom, but it is worth experimenting with as many alternate spellings as you can possibly imagine. The results are ranked by likeliness, so most of the hidden matches are found early in this process, but thoroughness occasionally pays off. The spelling alternatives generated are well thought out (taking into account letters that can be easily confused, Southern and Eastern European spelling quirks, and other factors) and that they only include names that are definitely in the database.
Name & Gender Edit
When you get even a single match to the name requested, you will be taken to a page entitled Matching Passenger Records and shown exact matches only. However, near the top of the page, there are options to view Close Matches Only, Alternate Spellings Only, Sounds Like Only, or All Records.
A bit of clarification of terms is warranted here. Close Matches would be more easily understood as “names starting with the same letters.” Searching for Szmolen, for example, will bring up names such as Szmolenszky under this category. For this reason, if a surname is frequently misspelled, try typing just the first few letters and selecting Close Matches to see what versions might surface. Alternate Spellings, by contrast, are variations of the surname found within the database, so a search for Szmolen would bring up Szmolan and Szmalen here (the system presents the two alternatives it determines to be the best fit). Clicking All Records will give exact matches, close matches and alternate spellings, so routinely selecting this option will bring up more candidates for consideration.
If you would like a more complete list of alternative spellings—thirty instead of just the top two—click on the Name & Gender edit button after reaching the Matching Passenger Records page. Here, select any two at a time to be included in your search. By momentarily detouring to this list of thirty, you can refine or expand the search by choosing any pair of alternatives or systematically working through the entire list with fifteen pairs. This will ultimately uncover more of the people you are seeking.
First or Given Names
For the first name, experiment with all four options. The natural tendency is to enter the entire first name of the immigrant, and if he had a straightforward name such as John, this may well work. But maybe the John you are seeking entered the country as Jan, Johan or Jean. To find such people, you could enter just “J” to get a list of all immigrants with that surname whose first names start with this letter. This tactic will result in extra names to sift through but ensures that you’ll get all appropriate candidates. As with the surname field, using the leading letters works with the first name (for example, Ja to find Jan and Janos), but only if you have entered a complete last name. Finally, if you want to find all the people with a given surname, a fourth option is to leave the first name field blank.
Ellis Island: Overlooked Features
Two features of the AFIHC website are under-utilized and worthy of mention. Once we reach the Passenger Record summary for an ancestor, most of us immediately view the original ship manifest and ignore the other two choices: Add to Your Ellis Island File and View Ship. Clicking the first option saves the search for future reference so you can easily access it without having to repeat the search process. The View Ship option displays an image (and gives the option to purchase a copy, if desired) of the ship your ancestor arrived on, making it a little easier to truly appreciate the journey that brought him or her to New York.
Passenger Record Here is the record for the passenger. Click the links above to see more information about this passenger.
First Name: Gaspar Last Name: Szabo Ethnicity: Hungary, Magyar Last Place of Residence: Mesokovesd, Hungary Date of Arrival: Feb 14, 1909 Age at Arrival: 26y Gender: M Marital Status: M Ship of Travel: Caronia Port of Departure: Fiume Manifest Line Number: 0002
Steve Morse’s Tools
The Ellis Island database is an amazing resource with great depth of content and customized functionality, such as the Alternate Spellings feature just covered. But even so, many researchers were still unable to unearth their ancestors in the database when it first appeared. Steve Morse had this experience when seeking his wife’s relatives and decided to do something about it.
Since the advent of the Ellis Island database, Morse has introduced a series of powerful search forms that he makes available for free at http://www.stevemorse.org. While AFIHC’s database allows you to focus your search by specifying criteria (for example, gender, age, and so forth.), you must do so sequentially. Morse’s tools enable you to delineate multiple criteria all at once. They also handle unexpected spellings—of both names and places—exceptionally well, and make it possible to locate most missing manifest images. The following list shows Morse’s assorted search options, but we’ll focus primarily on his white, blue, gray, and missing manifests forms. The site includes an excellent set of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) to help you understand every nuance, and you may wish to explore them even if you’re the type who typically skips FAQs.
Steve Morse Search Options for Ellis Island
- Overview: Which Ellis Island Search Form to use
- White Form: Generic form for searching the Ellis Island Database in One Step
- Blue Form: Searching the Ellis Island Database in One Step for Jewish Passengers
- Gray Form: Short Form for Searching the Ellis Island Database in One Step
- Missing Manifests: Find Manifests missing from the Ellis Island Database in One Step
- Ship Pictures: Obtaining Pictures of Ellis Island Passenger Ships in One Step
- Ship Lists: Searching for Ships in the Ellis Island Microfilms in One Step
- Morton Allan Directory: Searching for Ships in the Morton Allan Directory in One Step
While it’s a personal decision whether to start the majority of your searches at the Ellis Island or Steve Morse site, if any of the following apply to you, you’ll probably have quicker success with particular Morse forms, as shown in table A.
Morse White Form
Sometimes we know a few details about an immigrant arrival. Many of us grew up with stories of Grandma coming here when she was sixteen years old on a ship called the S.S. Amerika. Or we may be dealing with a situation where the name of the immigrant is so common that we need a means to narrow the list of candidates. In either case, the white form provides maximum searching flexibility because it includes all of the following fields: first name or initial, last name (with starts with, is exactly, and sounds like options), gender, year of arrival (range), age at arrival (range), ship name, and town name.
The attached image shows the example of Leslie Towne Hope, better known as Bob Hope. If you enter “Leslie Hope” at the Ellis Island site, you will not find his arrival, but because of his fame, it is easy to find additional details that make it possible to locate his entry using the white form. A quick search of the Internet reveals that he came to the U.S. in 1908 on the S.S. Philadelphia. Combining these details with the name Leslie and last names starting with “H” pops up two-year-old Leslie Hape from Bristol, England.
Similarly, you could use this same search flexibility to separate Italian Marinos from Cuban ones, identify the Johnsens who left from Stockholm as opposed to other ports, find the Robinsons who came during the 1892 to 1897 unindexed void, or locate Schmidts of draft age.
Morse Gray Form
During Ellis Island’s peak, the majority of passengers were of Southern or Eastern European origin, meaning that many had names that were long, complicated, or strange-sounding to American ears. And while—contrary to popular myth—every effort was made to correctly record immigrants’ names (and to transcribe them letter for letter when the database was created in the 1990s), a lot of variation inevitably crept in. For example, the twenty-one Smolenyaks who came through Ellis Island can be found in the database under fifteen spellings, including Szuwlyenak, Szmslenak, Szmolmak, Smolina and C…oleniak.
Due to all this creative spelling, descendants of such passengers frequently find it difficult to identify their ancestors. One alternative is to seek all passengers hailing from a particular place (if you’re fortunate enough to have this information) since the gray form offers search-by-town capability. But because the hometowns of our ancestors were just as prone to misspelling as their names, this tactic won’t always work.
Fortunately, Morse’s gray form (see figure B) makes it possible to find virtually all names and towns masked by unexpected spellings. Using it, both last names and town names can be searched with starts with or is, sounds like, and contains options (first names can also be searched by all but the sounds like option). So if you’re searching for an ancestor named Motyczka who came from Barwinek, Poland, you could search for the following:
- Last name starts with: Moty and Town name starts with: Bar
- Last name sounds like: Motyczka and Town name starts with: B
- Last name contains: otyczka
- Town name sounds like: Barwinek
- Last name starts with: Mot and Town name contains: winek
The possible combinations are endless and experimenting with them will reveal many more people than you would imagine. In general, the sounds like option (a version of Soundex searching) casts the widest net and is the best choice if you want to be as comprehensive as possible and don’t mind wading through a long list. But if such a search yields too many hits, you may want to use the other options to reduce the number of candidates.
Morse Blue Form
Morse’s blue form is designed specifically for finding Jewish passengers. It defaults to sifting through those who were identified as being of the “Hebrew” race in the Ellis Island database, but allows the user to select other ethnicities (for example, Russian, Polish, and so forth) for inclusion. This form provides true search-by-town and Soundex capabilities and many flexible search parameters. In addition to the options available through the gray form, for instance, the researcher can also enter a first name of companion, a useful feature for those whose ancestors traveled as a family. If the passenger you seek was Jewish, the blue form should be your default.
Morse Missing Manifests Form
Although it happens less frequently than before, you may occasionally find an ancestor listed, only to discover that no image of the manifest is available or that the manifest that appears is for the wrong ship or date. In rare cases, some images were accidentally not scanned into the Ellis Island database (if so, you can write to <email@example.com> to have the error logged and eventually corrected), but the good news is that it is possible to find most images in spite of incorrect or broken links. This is because the text information is in a separate database from the images themselves, and you can usually use the information contained in the text version to lead you to the correct image.
Since manifest searching is slightly more complicated than the other Morse forms, the best way to demonstrate is through an actual example. A researcher who wanted to look at the record for Janos Valyo, who arrived (according to the Passenger Record page) on 1 February 1892 on the Pennland, was taken instead to the Rhynland manifest. If you replicate this search, you’ll find the line number (173, from the text database) just above the incorrect image appearing in the Original Ship Manifest view.
Armed with the arrival date, ship’s name and line number, you can then go to Morse’s Missing Manifest form and start by entering the date—1 February 1892—and hitting display image. This will take you to the opening page of NARA microfilm roll 581, which covers the period from 2 January to 8 February 1892, in 806 frames.
Since you know that you’re looking for an arrival on February 1—roughly four weeks into the five weeks covered by this roll—you can estimate and jump forward through about 80 percent of the 806 pages by entering 645 (.8 x 806) in the frame field. Doing so will lead you to an arrival for February 2, so it’s clear you’ve gone too far. Experimenting with frame numbers, you can back-pedal until you hit frame 608, the opening page for the Pennland. Then using the +1 frame button, you can look for Janos Valyo on line 173, which you’ll find on frame 613. Once you find the desired image, be sure to note the microfilm and frame numbers so you’ll be easily able to find it again using this same form.
Ellis Island: Final Tips
If you’ve used the appropriate Morse tools and every tactic you can think of and still can’t find your elusive prey, you might want to try
- maiden names—Italian women in particular were apt to travel under their maiden names, a habit that could even lead to gender confusion (for example, Maria Domenica DeNicco is listed as Domenico DeMicco, a twenty-seven-year-old male).
- both farm and patronymic names—Those of Scandinavian origin should try this, even if all the other documents pertaining to their ancestor use just one of the names (for example, Nels Elvik is recorded as Nels Hanson).
- reversing first and last names—This tip pertains to people of all ethnicities (for example, Hungarian Gabor Nagy appears as Nagy Gobor; British citizen Halvard Lie appears as Lie Halward).
- others your ancestor may have traveled with—If you know or suspect that several family members came together, try names other than that of your direct ancestor, especially if any had simpler or more unusual first names (for example, when unable to find Margaret Marton, a search for her son Anton revealed the family).