|Maximizing Your Mileage from the Ellis Island Database|
*This lecture was published as an article in Family Chronicle earlier this year. Recent modifications in the Ellis Island Foundations site and Steve Morses search tools are consequently not included here (relevant URLs have been updated, however), but will be discussed during the lecture.
On 17 April 2001, the millions of us having at least one ancestor who came through Ellis Island received an amazing gift from the American Family Immigration History Center. Some 22 million passenger and ship crew arrival records from 1892 to 1924 had been transcribed (by a huge volunteer effort of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) and uploaded to the Internet at ellisislandrecords.org. Better yet, most of these records were linked to digital images of original ship's manifests, making it easy to see all the details of Great-Grandma's arrival in New York.
Avid and novice genealogists alike were quick to grasp the value of this resource and overloaded the site so that it was almost impossible to get in. A few months after the launch, much needed equipment upgrades and a leveling off of the traffic made it possible for the Ellis Island Database (EIDB) to deliver on its early promise. What used to take hours, weeks or months, depending on your access to selected repositories, could be accomplished in minutes. It was now possible to search in ways that weren't feasible using the traditional microfilm approach, and, if your ancestors happened to enter New York in the previously unindexed years of 1892-97, the EIDB could save you a lifetime of scrolling.
Glitches and Solutions
But almost as soon as the site became easily accessible, the complaints began: "I tried, but my grandfather wasn't in there"; "The database doesn't have a single record of my surname!"; "His naturalization papers say he came from Italy in 1912, but there's no entry for his name."
The introduction of a phonetic and handwriting variants tool developed by a linguistics professor went a long way to quieting these gripes. Those with "exotic" Eastern and Southern European names in other words, descendants of the majority of the people who came through Ellis Island now had a reasonable chance of finding kin hidden under names one, two or even five letters off from what was expected.
But wait. We found more of our immigrant ancestors, but discovered that there were still some missing. In my case, I had researched all the Smolenyaks who had immigrated to the US using National Archives microfilm. A quick comparison revealed that a few I had located using the Soundex functionality of the "old-fashioned" microfilms could not be found with the EIDB. Others were discouraged to finally find an elusive ancestor, only to be greeted by a "no image available" message when trying to view the original ship manifest.
Frustrated by similar experiences, Stephen P. Morse introduced a Ellis Island Search Form to help genealogists search the EIDB using multiple criteria (e.g., age, year of immigration, ethnicity, etc.) in one step. To this he added an advanced search feature allowing users (with a little extra effort) to search by town name, not possible directly through the EIDB website. Building on work done by Alex Calzareth and Michael Tobias, who had both tackled the broken and missing links situation, he also incorporated a user-friendly means of finding missing manifests. Morse's contribution made it possible to unearth almost all the immigrants who were still in hiding, mostly because their names had been recorded in unexpected ways in the original ship's manifest or during the recent transcription process.
Next Page > Recommended Search Strategy
© 2002 Megan Smolenyak.
Originally published by and provided here with the kind permission of Family Chronicle.