|Maximizing Your Mileage from the Ellis Island Database|
So now we have several approaches at our disposal: traditional microfilm research, the EIDB website, and Morse's tools. Curious to understand more fully the relative strengths of these approaches and to determine the best plan of attack for future Ellis Island research, I experimented with all three methodologies using a variety of surnames. Considering the results I obtained as well as ease of use, I reached the conclusion that, in general, the quickest way to find your Ellis Island kin is to:
Search the EIDB, making sure to
use the alternative spelling feature.
Round out your research by
using Morse's tools to find creative spellings, specific immigrants, missing
manifests, and other special situations.
- Employ traditional microfilm techniques if you still can't find that missing ancestor or want to be as sure as possible that you've found all candidates. The unique ability to do a Soundex search this way may solve your mystery or reveal a few stray immigrants.
Not surprisingly, there are exceptions instances where it's more expedient to start with the Morse tools instead of the EIDB so these will be highlighted in the discussion of these tools.
Ellis Island Database Tactics
Basic use of the EIDB is apparent to anyone who visits the site, so it's not necessary to dwell on fundamentals. Because of certain nuances of the database, however, employing specific tactics is key to obtaining the best possible results. The following are devices I have found to be especially helpful in sniffing out evasive immigrant ancestors or all variations of a given surname:
- Search by the entire last name and by just the first few letters. You can
search the EIDB either way, so if you're dealing with a surname that's prone
to misspelling, try using just the first few letters. For instance, I found no
hits on Smolenyak, so I tried searches on Smol and the Hungarian- style Szmol.
If the most likely misspellings generally occur within the first few letters,
you'll want to experiment with a number of different beginnings.
- For the first name, experiment with all four options. The natural tendency
is to enter the entire first name of the immigrant you're seeking and, if he
had a straightforward name such as John, this may well work. But just maybe
the John you're 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 can result in
extra names to sift through (e.g., Josephs would appear, too), but ensures
that you'll get all the appropriate candidates.
As with the surname field, using the leading letters works with the first name, but only if you have entered a complete last name. So if I enter Ja to try to find men named both Jan and Janos, I will find Janos Szmolenyak, provided I entered Szmolenyak as the last name, but not if I had tried to broaden my search by only entering the first few letters of the surname.
Finally, if you want to find all the people with a given surname, your fourth option is to leave the first name blank.
- Try the alternate spellings if you don't get any exact matches. If you
enter a surname and there are no matches, you will be led to a group of 30
likely phonetic and handwriting variants within the EIDB. Since entering my
current spelling of Smolenyak, for instance, results in no matches, I'm taken
to a page of alternatives. I can click on these one at a time and view the
results as if I had searched on each variation initially.
Many of us fail to make best use of this feature because we're too quick to dismiss alternatives we couldn't fathom. I was guilty of this when I neglected to check the option of Smolina. Amore patient, distant cousin found one of our missing Smolenyaks by trying this possibility. Experiment with as many as you can possibly imagine being a version of the surname you seek. They're ranked by likeliness, so you're apt to find most of your hidden matches early in this process, but thoroughness occasionally pays off. As you do this with different surnames, you'll recognize that the spelling alternatives generated are well thought out (taking into account letters that can be easily confused, Eastern and Southern European spelling quirks, and other factors) and that they only include names that are definitely in the EIDB. This spares you from having to brainstorm and search countless variations of each surname.
Next Page > More Ellis Island Database Tactics
© 2002 Megan Smolenyak.
Originally published by and provided here with the kind permission of Family Chronicle.