On Monday, April 16, 2001, the Ellis Island web site http://www.ellisislandrecord.org made its debut. The free site is home to an electronic database containing information on over 22 million immigrants who passed through Ellis Island, New York, between 1892 and 1924. It is sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, Inc., and the National Park Service.
During the first weeks after the Ellis Island site opened, it was difficult to access. 42 million visitors tried to access the site in its first 6 hours, only 8 million were successful.
Things didn’t improve during the first week the site was up, with less than 2% of attempts getting through. I tried to access the site at least a dozen times a day during the first week without success. When I got through on the eighth day, I was disconnected after searching for only one name. Now that the site is over two months old, it appears most of the problems have been fixed.
This web site is easy to use. On the first visit, you must register but registration is free and only takes a few minutes. An ancestors name can be entered and the search will bring up all the results for that name. The number of results can be reduced if the year of arrival or the age of the person is known. The search can be broadened by including “close matches” and “alternate spellings”. Clicking on a name brings up information about that individual, including age, gender, place of residence and other identifying details.
When the person is found, the passenger list called “ship manifest” can be displayed in either the transcribed text version or the original manifest scanned copy. This allows you to check the manifest for other family and friends who may be on the ship. All passengers and crew are in the index including passengers who were U.S. citizens returning from trips abroad. Making a copy of the entire passenger list is recommended.
I found that although you can make copies directly from the site, most of the lists are too long and printing uses too much ink. I prefer to copy the single page of the transcribed text version and then use the microfilm at the National Archives in Lakewood to make copies of the original manifests for 30¢ a copy. Copies can also be ordered from the Foundations gift shop online.
Displaying and ordering the ship’s photo and historic data is possible as well. Some other features offered at the site are interactive choices for family scrapbook building and exploring the Ellis Island experience. The index and other activities are available if you visit the American Family Immigration History Center at Ellis Island, New York.
To use the index effectively, it is helpful to be aware of certain things. For example, not all immigrants passed through Ellis Island. There were other ports of entry besides New York, such as Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore and others. If you think your ancestors came through New York, take into consideration the time frame. Ellis Island was opened on January 1, 1892. Anyone immigrating before that day will not be in the Ellis Island records.
Spelling of the name is another factor to consider. Names have different spellings. This database uses a filtering system that is sensitive to ethnic linguistic patterns but don’t rely on it too heavily. Try other spellings if you don’t get what you expect. For example, I was looking for Mary Meisner and eventually found her under Maria Meifsner. Sometimes it takes some imagination and luck to get the name right. Consider also that many Europeans used their middle name instead of their first name, and some women used their maiden name instead of their married name.
It’s estimated that nearly 40 percent of Americans can trace at least part of their family through the Port of New York. If you are one of those Americans, the Ellis Island web site could make the search much easier for you.