December 10, 2017

What Was it Like to Land at Ellis Island?

Chalked full of a rich history, Ellis Island was the leading port of arrival for the United States for sixty years. Read more about this historic place and the inspirational stories of immigrants past.

Ellis Island immigrants

[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Ellis Island, in Upper New York Bay, was the gateway for over 12 million immigrants coming to the United States from January 1, 1892 until 1954 when it closed. In our Genealogy Gems Podcast #199, Lisa shared a blurb from Profile America, regarding Ellis Island in which a few key facts were shared.

Ellis Island: What was it like?

Many of our ancestors first stepped ashore at Ellis Island when they came to America seeking a new life. I can only imagine their first thought might have been, “Get me off this boat!” But then, perhaps there was worry and trepidation. Would they be sent home because they were sick? Would they find work, a place to live, or food to eat?

Ellis Island immigration day

Immigration Day at Half Day School, Lincolnshire, Illinois. 2010. Courtesy of the author.

The very first immigrant was processed in 1892. Her name was Annie Moore and she was a 15-year-old Irish girl. [1] Can you imagine?

One elementary school in Lincolnshire, Illinois recreates this event with their yearly “Immigration Day.” Immigration Day is for all 3rd and 4th students to participate in what it’s like to come to this country for the first time. They dress up, pack up a few belongings, receive little tickets and passports, and experience in a small way the history of many of their ancestors.

Arriving on land again must have been quite the relief to passengers. Especially those in steerage. Steerage or third class passengers traveled in crowded and often unsanitary conditions near the bottom of the ship. Upon arrival in New York City, ships would dock at the Hudson or East River piers. First and second class passengers would disembark, and pass easily through Customs. They were free to enter the United States. The steerage and third class passengers, however, were transported from the pier by ferry or barge to Ellis Island where everyone would undergo a medical and legal inspection. [2]

If the immigrant’s papers were in order and they were in reasonably good health, the Ellis Island inspection process would last approximately three to five hours. The inspections took place in the Registry Room (or Great Hall). Here, doctors would quickly look over every immigrant for obvious physical ailments.

If the immigrant was found with a minor ailment, broken bone, or found to be pregnant, they would be sent to the “Island Hospital, built to restore the health of people suffering minor injuries [and] broken bones.” [3]

An Ellis Island Myth

The ship’s manifest log, that had been filled out back at the port of embarkation, contained the immigrant’s name and his/her answers to twenty-nine questions. This document was used by the legal inspectors at Ellis Island to cross-examine the immigrant during the legal (or primary) inspection. [4]

There are some genealogical myths regarding Ellis Island. Many believe that their ancestors surnames were changed when they arrived. Some even believe the name change was due to the lack of native speakers of different languages and an overall lack of communication. This is not the case.

Vincent J. Cannato’s book American Passage: The History of Ellis Island explains why this did not happen:

Nearly all […] name change stories are false. Names were not changed at Ellis Island. The proof is found when one considers that inspectors never wrote down the names of incoming immigrants. The only list of names came from the manifests of steamships, filled out by ship officials in Europe. In the era before visas, there was no official record of entering immigrants except those manifests. When immigrants reached the end of the line in the Great Hall, they stood before an immigration clerk with the huge manifest opened in front of him. The clerk then proceeded, usually through interpreters, to ask questions based on those found in the manifests. Their goal was to make sure that the answers matched. (p.402)

A First-hand Look at Ellis Island

The official, award-winning documentary shown today at Ellis Island (more about that here) is available to watch online below. It is a wonderful way to get a first-hand look at what it felt like to land at Ellis Island and the a land of liberty.

The Genealogy Gems Podcast (get our app) helps you make the most of your family history research time by providing quick and easy-to-use research techniques. Producer and host Lisa Louise Cooke brings you the best websites, best practices, and best resources available! Listen to all of Lisa’s podcast episodes on iTunes for free!
Sources:
[1] “The First Immigrant Landed on Ellis Island,” America’s Library, article online, accessed 30 Jan 2017.
[2] “Ellis Island: Journeying By Ship to the Land of Liberty,” Statue of Liberty – Ellis Island Foundation, online article, accessed 30 Jan 2017.
[3] Aaron Cooper, “Inside Ellis Island’s Abandoned Hospitals,” article online, 27 Jan 2016, CNN, accessed 30 Jan 2017.
[4] Ibid.

New Genealogical Records for Immigrant Ancestors

dig these new record collections

Land ho! Your immigrant ancestors are waiting to be found in these new and updated record collections. Find naturalization petitions and passport applications first, then move on to the civil registration records to find the family members they left behind. Records for this week cover the United States, Italy, Peru, and Spain.

UNITED STATES – NATURALIZATION PETITIONS

Find My Past now offers more than 7.8 million digitized records for the U.S. Naturalization Petitions collection.  Records can be found as early as 1795, but may not hold much information other than a name and place of origin. Between the years of 1905-1950 however, the naturalization process asked many helpful questions for today’s genealogist. Not only will you likely find your ancestor’s arrival information and country of origin, but you will likely find a full name, birth date and place, name of spouse and their birth date and place, and names of children and their birth details. The best part is there may be a photograph included of your relative!

This collection includes the following publications from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA):

  • NARA microfilm publication M1545, Index to Petitions and Records of Naturalizations of the U.S. and District Courts for the District of Massachusetts, 1906-1966
  • NARA publication M1522, Naturalization Petitions for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania
  • NARA publication M1248, Indexes to Naturalization Petitions to the U.S. Circuit and District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, 1795-1951
  • NARA microfilm publication M2081, Indexes to Naturalization Petitions for United States District Courts, Connecticut, 1851-1992
  • NARA microfilm publication M1164, Index to Naturalization Petitions of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, 1865-1957
  • NARA microfilm publication M1675, Alphabetical Index to Declarations of Intention of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, 1917-1950
  • NARA microfilm publication M1676, Alphabetical Index to Petitions for Naturalization of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, 1824-1941

UNITED STATES – PASSPORT APPLICATIONS

The U.S. Passport Applications and Indexes can now be accessed on Find My Past. This collection currently covers records from Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania. Records from others states will be added to the collection as they are obtained. Some records go back to 1795, however the most valuable in genealogical data will likely be those created in the 20th century and beginning in December of 1914, you may find a photograph of your ancestor as well. These applications are loaded with valuable genealogy information. Find out where your ancestors were going and who they were setting out to see!

ITALY – CIVIL REGISTRATIONS

Benevento, Civil Registrations for the years of 1810-1942 have been updated on FamilySearch.org. These civil records include births, marriages, and deaths. Though the records are not yet indexed, you can browse the digital images. The records are in Italian of course, but don’t let that stop you! Just use the handy Google Translate tool for Italian to English.

PERU – CIVIL REGISTRATIONS

The Peru, La Libertad, Civil Registration, 1903-1998 is a collection of digital images at FamilySearch. Some have already been indexed, but you can browse through the entire collection as well. Included within these civil registrations are birth, marriage, and death records. You will be delighted to find extra genealogically significant pieces of information like names of witnesses and parents, and even the ages of parents. [TIP: When you find the age of the parent, you can calculated the estimated birth year which will come in handy as you continue to fill your family tree.]

SPAIN – MUNICIPAL RECORDS

FamilySearch also offers the Spain, Province of Cadiz, Municipal Records for 1784-1956. Some of these digital images have been indexed, but it would serve you well to browse through the 1.6 million records. Remember, they are broken down into smaller locations which make searching over 1 million records do-able. The municipal records include what is traditionally considered civil records like birth, marriage, and death items. However, they go one step further and contain some interesting record sets such as censuses, military records, and nobility records.

WHY WE’RE HERE

Each week, we share what’s new and updated in genealogical record collections. We hope you will feel inspired to dig with us as we flesh out our long, lost ancestors. For more helpful tips and tricks for your genealogy success, sign-up for our free weekly newsletter found at the top right of this page or by scrolling to the bottom if you are on your mobile device. Have a great weekend!

MORE GEMS ON RESEARCHING IMMIGRANT ANCESTORS

U.S. Passport Applications: Finding Immigrant & Traveling Ancestors

Beginning Irish Genealogy: Tip & Free Records
Google Drive and other tips

How to Use Google Earth for Genealogy