Ellis Island Records! BEST Search Strategies

The free Ellis Island Passenger Search database is home to 65 million records of passengers arriving at the Port of New York from 1820 to 1957. Kathryn Marks, Manager at The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation explains the best strategies for finding your ancestors’ passenger list records in the Passenger Search Database on the Ellis Island website. Along the way, you’ll learn some surprising facts about Ellis Island and these invaluable records that will have your genealogy jumping for joy!

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Show Notes

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Information You Can Find in Passenger Lists

Here’s a list of the type of information you may be able to find in passengers lists, depending on the year:

  • Name
  • Age
  • Place of Birth
  • Physical Description
  • Occupation
  • Last Place of Residence
  • Where they are going
  • Ship name

What Else You Can Find at the Ellis Island Passenger Search

  • Crew Manifests
  • Ellis Island Detention Records and Records of Special Inquiry

How to find Ellis Island records about detained passengers:

  1. Find the manifest in the database.
  2. Look to the left of the name for markings. X or SI stands for Special Inquiry indicates the person was probably held on Ellis Island. LPC: Likely to Become a Public Charge.
  3. Detention records will tell you why they were detained. Detention records aren’t indexed. You can find them by locating the manifest first, and then scrolling through the carousel of images to find them at the beginning or end of the ship’s list.
  4. Determine the length of your ancestor’s detention by counting the number of meals recorded.

Ellis Island Records Through the Years

Ellis Island records coverage: 1820-1957

Pre-Ellis Island AKA Castle Garden Era Records: 1820-1892

Before 1892: Castle Garden was the state-run immigration station. The federal government took over the process of immigration, they built Ellis Island in 1892.

Pre-1897: Records are technically customs records. That’s why they have a very limited amount of information. Manifests were destroyed in a fire in 1897.

Peak Years at Ellis Island: 1892-1924

After 1907: Passenger lists became 2-page documents containing approximately 30 questions.

1924: Ellis Island’s focus turned to detention and deportation. Therefore, most people wouldn’t have actually stepped foot on Ellis Island.

Ellis Island closure: 1954

Records available through: 1957

Records were created at the port of departure. Upon arrival, Ellis Island inspectors asked the passenger the same questions to make sure they were answered the same way.

How to Search for Ancestors at Ellis Island Passenger Search

  1. Go to the Ellis Island Passenger Search page.
  2. Type your ancestor’s name into the search bar.
  3. Select from a variety of wild card searches. Kathryn recommends Close Matches, Sounds Like, and Alternative Spelling.
  4. If you get too many results, click Filters, or use the Wizard or One Page form. Kathryn recommends the One Page form.
  5. On the One Page form, Kathryn recommends using age at arrival, year of arrival, port of departure and/or country of origin. Pad the years to allow for errors and deviations.
  6. If you’re searching outside the peak year period, don’t use the filters. This is because the records after 1924 were indexed differently. Many passenger lists are only indexed by the year of arrival and are given a placeholder date of Jan. 1. Therefore, if you search for a month or day, you will not get results.

5 Search Strategies for Ellis Island Passenger Lists

Strategy 1: Start by running a broad search.

Strategy 2: Use the original ethnic name, because names were recorded at the port of departure. If you’re unsure of the first name, try entering just the first initial and checking the Contains wildcard. This often helps because the first letter of the name is often the same regardless of the language.

Strategy 3: Visit the Passenger List Database Search Help page and scroll down for search tips. For more tips on how best to utilize the database, check out Ellis Island’s Genealogy Primer page. If you have questions, email ContactUs@LibertyEllisFoundation.org.

Strategy 4: Be persistent. There are many factors that could lead to not initially finding your ancestor.

Strategy 5: Consider other scenarios.

  • Name variations – try searching many variations.
  • Remember that the clerks may have spelled names phonetically.
  • Many passenger lists are handwritten so they may have been transcribed and/or entered into the database incorrectly.
  • Your ancestors may have arrived at a different port of entry, such as Philadelphia, Boston, or Baltimore. Many of those passenger lists are also available online.

More Ellis Island Search Tips:

  • Italian women travel with their maiden name. Children may be under either the father or mother’s last name.
  • Jewish people may be traveling under their Yiddish name.
  • Families are listed together. If you can’t find the head of the family, try searching for the children.
  • In pre-Ellis records names may be abbreviated. Example: Wm. for William, and women may be listed under their husband’s name, such as “Mrs. Adam Smith”.

Coming to the Ellis Island Passenger Search in the Future

The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation is planning on expanding and adding the records of all the other ports to the database.

Alternative Search Tool for the Ellis Island Database

Alternative search tool: Searching the Ellis Island Database in One Step by Steve Morse.

Resources

Downloadable ad-free Show Notes handout for Premium Members

New Archival Collections: How to Know What’s New at Your Favorite Repository

New archival collections at your favorite repository may be the long-awaited key to solving your family history mysteries! But how can you keep up with what’s new at archives and libraries? Professional archivist Melissa Barker shares her favorite tips.

new archival collections

 

Not long ago, Lisa Louise Cooke read my article on what’s new at the Utah State Archives. She asked me how I keep up with new archival collections at my favorite repositories.

New Archival Collections May Be Just What We Need

Many of us can say that our ancestors were living in a certain area and their records should be located at certain local archives, libraries, or genealogical or historical societies. Maybe we have even done research there in the past, either by visiting the facility, contacting them by phone or email, or using their records online. Records, photographs, ephemera, and artifacts are constantly being discovered and made available in all of our wonderful archives. Many of these records may not make it to microfilm or online, but they are so rich with family information. (Don’t know where to look? Click here to learn how to find archives and libraries near your ancestor’s locale.)

But trying to keep up with all the new records that are being processed in archives, libraries, and genealogical societies can make your head spin! So how are genealogists supposed to stay current?

3 Ways to Keep Up with New Archival Collections

new archival collections uniforms1. Check the archives website. See if they have announced new records collections that are available for research (many archives do). The archives may even have a blog or newsletter that you can subscribe to, which will give you the latest news right at your fingertips. Not only will the archives announce new records that are available but they will even let their patrons know what has been recently donated to the archives and which records are currently being processed.

2. See if the archive has a social media presence. Archives like to post photos of new discoveries and records collections that are ready for the researcher. I know at the Houston County, TN. Archives I like to scan and post images of great documents or artifacts to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest. (Like the post pictured here that I shared recently.)

LISA’S TIP: Remember to use Google search terms to find your favorite archive’s website and social media homes! A quick search such as National Archives Pinterest might be faster than trying to find it on the actual social media site. That search brings up tempting boards for National Archives in both the US and the UK:

3. When visiting an archive, ask: “What’s new?” Talk to archivists about records collections that have recently been processed and made available for research. This is a great way to find more information and records about your ancestors. As an archivist who processes records on a daily basis that are not online or even microfilmed, I get excited about sharing what I find with the genealogy community.

Until next time, this is The Archive Lady, remember it’s not all online, so contact or visit an archive today!

Learn More about Using Archival Collections

Listen to me on the free Genealogy Gems Podcast! This year the podcast is celebrating its 10th-year anniversary. Tune in to hear more inspiring stories and tips to help your family history research. Listen on your computer or on your mobile device through the Genealogy Gems app. Click here to learn more.

 

Genealogy Gems Podcast Episode 260

Your Guide to the 1950 US Federal Census

Are you ready for the release of the 1950 census from the National Archives? Lisa Louise Cooke covers how to prepare and everything you need to know to get the most out of this important genealogy record collection being released by the National Archives on April 1, 2022. Before you start searching for your family, familiarize ourselves with this important records collection and start preparing for success. 
 
This episode brings you the audio from Elevenses with Lisa episode 51 PLUS important updates. You will learn:
  • the interesting and little known stories behind the 1950 census,
  • what it can reveal about your family, (and who you will NOT find!)
  • the important documents associated with it that you can access right now!
  • The status of the Infant Cards.
  • What you can expect when it comes to indexing the collection. 
Thanks to our sponsor: Get 20% off Newspapers.com. Click here and use coupon code genealogygems 
 

Listen to Genealogy Gems Podcast Episode 260

Watch the Original Video

This audio comes from my series Elevenses with Lisa. You can watch the video interview at the Elevenses with Lisa episode 51 show notes page.

 

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Search for Early New England Ancestors FREE this Coming Week

New England ancestorsIn honor of Independence Day in the United States, AmericanAncestors.org is offering free access to databases on early New England ancestors starting TODAY through July 8.

If you have Mayflower, Pilgrim or Puritan ancestors (or want to confirm the rumor that you do!), you’ll want to take advantage of this offer from the New England Historic Genealogical Society. For many years the society has been researching “the 20,000 men, women, and children who crossed the Atlantic between 1620 and 1640, seeking opportunity and relief in New England.”

The Great Migration Study Project, as their work is known, has resulted in several databases, nine of which are open to the public for FREE during the first week of July 2015:

The Great Migration Begins.  This database “attempts to identify and describe all those Europeans who settled in New England prior to the end of 1633,” states an NEHGS press release. “As a rough estimate, about 15 percent of the immigrants to New England arrived in the fourteen years from 1620 to 1633, with the remaining 85 percent coming over in half as many years, from 1634 to 1640.”

The Great Migration Newsletter. “This database comprises Volumes 1 through 20 of the Great Migration Newsletter, published between 1990 and 2011. Each 32-page issue contains one or two feature articles, a column with editor’s comments, and a review of recent literature on the Great Migration. Each issue also contains a section with detailed coverage of one of the towns settled during the Great Migration, or of a specific critical record, or group of records.”

The Great Migration:  Immigrants to New England, 1634-1635, Volumes I—VII, A-Y. (7 separate databases) “As many as 2,500 people immigrated in 1634 and again in 1635….In May 1634, the population of Massachusetts doubled in just one month….Each alphabetical entry for a family or individual includes:

  • Place of origin, if known
  • Date and ship on which they arrived in New England, if known
  • Earliest known record of the individual or family
  • First residence and subsequent residences, when known
  • Return trips to their country of origin, whether temporary or permanent
  • Bibliographical information such as birth, death, marriage(s), children, and other important family relationships, church memberships, and civil and military offices held.”

 

Click here to access these databases for free between July 1-8, 2015. (Registration at AmericanAncestors.org is required as a FREE Guest Member.)

how to start a genealogy blogLooking for more FREE New England genealogy resources? Check out these blog posts!

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