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Top 10 Tips for Searching the Ellis Island Database

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The Ellis Island Records Database offers easy access to the passenger manifests and other immigrant information on the 22 million people who entered America through the Port of New York and Ellis Island between 1892 and 1924. More than 100 million living Americans - about 40% of the country's population - can trace their roots back to those Ellis Island immigrants. If you think you might be one of them, try these 10 tips for searching the Ellis Island database.

1. Don't Limit Yourself to a Single Spelling

Your ancestor's name may not be included correctly in the Ellis Island database due to typos, illegible handwriting and other errors. Start with the usual misspellings. If that doesn't work, then try reversing a few letters, such as "Ownes" for "Owens." Certain letters may also may have been confused when transcribing from the original script. The advanced search options in the Ellis Island database also offer phonetic and handwriting variants of the surname being searched.

2. Did Your Ancestor "Americanize" His Name?

The way your ancestor wrote his name in the U.S. may not be the way it was spelled in the home country of the immigrant. Since ship manifests were compiled in the country of origin, not at Ellis Island, your ancestor will probably be listed in the ship's passenger list in the language of his home country. Example: Search for "Stanislaus Toman" not "Stanley Toman."

3. Don't Settle for Basic Search

Select "Advanced Search" under the Passenger Search tab to narrow your initial search by selecting alternate surname spellings, as well as the approximate year of arrival, ethnicity, approximate age on arrival, port of departure and name of ship.

4. Ellis Island Database One Step Search Tools

For a more streamlined search, try the Ellis Island One-Step Search Tool developed by Stephen P. Morse. This page allows you to specify surname, boat name, year and/or age of arrival, port, ethnicity, etc. in just one step. I could write another entire article on how helpful this site is, especially if you can't find your ancestors with a simple search on the Ellis Island site, so be sure to give it a try!

5. Search by Last Name & First Initial Only

This tactic can result in extra names to sift through, but will also help to find common spelling variations and abbreviations, as well as first names which were listed with just an initial. If this provides you with too many options, such as might be the case with a common surname, then you can use the advanced search options to narrow your search. If this still doesn't help you to locate your ancestor, then try the search with the surname only.

6. Look for Women Under Their Maiden Name

In many Catholic countries such as France and Italy, women were recorded in legal documents by their maiden names, not their married names. This practice may have extended to their passenger record, because their maiden name would be the one listed on their identification. If you know your female ancestor's maiden name, it is worth a try, not matter what country they came from.

7. Search for Fellow Passengers

If you can't locate a particular ancestor, then look for a spouse, children, parents, neighbors or family friends. If you are able to locate one of them, then go to the ship manifest to see if they traveled together.

8. Reverse the First and Last Names

Unusual sounding names are very often confused. Even today my husband and I occasionally have problems with people listing our last name as Albrecht - which is his first name, not last. Some people may have also stated their last name first when giving their information to the steamship company. Or the transcriber may have just been tired when he copied your ancestor's information from the manifest.

9. Help - The Manifest Image is Missing

You can view a copy of the original ship manifest for your ancestor from the passenger record page or the text manifest page by clicking on the "View Original Manifest" link. If this link is missing, or takes you to a blank image, don't despair - you have another option. Stephen P. Morse comes to the rescue again with his free online tool Access Ellis Island Manifests in One Step. Also helpful when you click on "view original manifest" and get an image of the manifest for the wrong boat.

10. What Do The Annotations on the Manifest Mean?

The passenger list forms at Ellis Island were completed by the steamship companies, and presented to government officials upon arrival at Ellis Island. In some cases immigration officials annotated the lists to clarify or correct information, or to add information to the records as a cross-reference to certain naturalization papers. To learn what the initials and other annotations mean, check out these Common Passenger List Annotations.

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