Wednesday, 6 April 2011

E is for Ellis Island

For many North Americans, particularly those of us of "ethnic" stock, our quest for our ancestors leads us to Ellis Island.  In our collective consciousness, Ellis Island is THE point of entry for our European ancestors.  But is it really?

"From 1892 to 1954, over twelve million immigrants entered the United States through the portal of Ellis Island, a small island in New York Harbor."  Ellis Island - History

Actually, Ellis Island was only the entry point for a limited period of time, for those going from Europe to New York.  Many of those immigrants were not necessarily planning to settle in New York, or even elsewhere in the United States.  Many immigrants (certainly several of my Italian relatives) came through Ellis Island with a planned final destination in Canada.

The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation was founded in the early 1980s to raise funds to restore and preserve both the Statue of Liberty and nearby Ellis Island.  In addition to that work, the Foundation opened the Ellis Island Immigration Museum in 1990 and, in 2001, the Foundation's Family Immigration History Center® made Ellis Island records available both on site and online.  I encourage you to go to to search for your immigrant ancestors.

On the Ellis Island site, you will find a searchable database with links to individual ships manifests and pictures of those ships.  During the period when Ellis Island operated, many of the ships manifests were very detailed two-page documents. 

TIP:  When you are looking at original records, have a look at the page before and the page after.  They may contain important information.

If you find your people, be sure to view both sheets, where they are available, as they typically include important information such as previous address and final destination and with these you often get the names of relatives at each location.  These details can help you confirm you have the right person, for example when you already know his or her parents names at home.  Alternatively, they can identify new branches of the tree.  Remember my first post about Patrick Moynihan?  I learned that Patrick was going to Andover, MA to his Uncle William.  Before that, I didn't even know my greatgrandmother had a brother.  Later, searching for Uncle William turned up documents that confirmed my great-greatgrandparents' names.

The Ellis Island site allows you to view the ships manifests after free registration, but you cannot save the images to your computer as you can with an Ancestry subscription.  You can however order large format printouts of the manifests ($29.00 for an 11x17" or $39.00 for 17x22") or archival quality certificates for $29.00.  A warning on the certificates, they will mirror any errors in the transcription and indexing of the record. 

Let's just say that the quality of the handwriting varies from ship to ship.  These records would have been very challenging to transcribe accurately.  The searchable database will offer spelling variants for the names you search, which can help you find your people.  But the last place of residence will show up as transcribed, accurately or not.

TIP:  As you look through search results on indexed databases, keep a very open mind.  Think of how the handwriting may have been mistranscribed.

Once your eyes get used to in, you can easily read "Sankry" as Bantry or "Duness" as Durrus, both in West Cork.  And remember that your rural relatives may well have given the name of a nearby town as their birthplace or last residence, rather than that of a smaller community.

Here are the two pages of the ships' manifest for Patrick Moynihan's younger brother Daniel's passage to America.  If I'd been put off by "Duness" as his last place of residence, I wouldn't have found him.  He's the second passenger on the list.

TIP:  Keep looking, and not just in the same place.
Don't despair if you can't find your immigrant ancestors coming through Ellis Island.  Research immigration patterns and consider alternatives.  Perhaps your ancestors came before Ellis Island opened; they may have gone through Castle Garden in New York..  Where else might they have gone?  Many Irish sailed directly to Boston, where there was a large Irish community.  Or did your people they sail directly to Canada, into Quebec City or Halifax?  Who might they have travelled with?  Sometimes, particularly when the transcriptions are inaccurate, your ancestors may be invisible, but you might find them travelling with others from the same town.  It's worth picking another surname from the ancestral home and looking for your people travelling along side.  The Ellis Island site offers additional tips for searching its database.

Have a look at the Ellis Island site.  Tell me who you find.

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