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.
[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?
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.  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. 
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.” 
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. 
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.
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!
Traveling ancestors created records when they left the country of their origin and when they arrived at their new residence. We often talk about immigration, with an I, but have you researched your ancestors emigration records with an E?
When our ancestors traveled from one place to another, they became two types of migrants. First, they were Emigrants with an E, and then, they were Immigrants with an I. Emigration with an E means someone exiting a country and immigration with an I means someone coming into it. Let’s learn more about emigration…with an E.
I live in a country that doesn’t have much in the way of historical emigration records, but other countries do. I have to remember these emigration records when I start looking overseas for my relatives who were crossing the pond to live here.
EXAMPLES OF EMIGRATION RECORDS
Swedish parishes kept emigration records which are now on Ancestry dating back to 1783. According to the database description, this record set is pretty complete, representing about 75% of those who actually left the country. These rich records can provide place of origin, destination, and the date and place of departure.
For a time, the U.K. also kept outward passenger lists of those leaving the U.K. ports for destinations outside of Europe. The lists include British citizens and those traveling through the U.K. These passenger lists no longer survive for the years before 1890, but they are on Ancestry for the years of 1890-1960. Of course, while writing this post I just had to take a moment to do a bit of searching myself, and that lead to this genealogy gem: my husband’s grandfather, and his parents embarking at Liverpool in 1912!
I also spotted this interesting item in the database description. Quoted from the U.K. National Archives website:
“Between 1890 and 1920, among the highest tonnage of ships were leaving British ports bound for North America. Many passengers were emigrants from Britain, Ireland, and Europe. European emigrants bound for America entered the United Kingdom because traveling steerage was less expensive from a British port than from a port in Europe. The shipping companies imposed restrictions on passengers registering; passengers had to have British residency of six weeks to qualify. Many passengers too impatient to qualify for residency changed their names to avoid detection.”
A name change would certainly present a challenge, but it’s very good to know to be on a look out for that situation. This is another example of why it is so important to read the description of the databases you search.
MORE EMIGRATION RECORD COLLECTIONS
A quick search of Ancestry’s card catalog shows emigration collections for Prussia, Switzerland, a few parts of Germany, Jewish refugees from several nations in Europe, and an interesting collection of Dutch emigrants who came to North America with the help of the Canadian and Dutch governments.
Another excellent resource is the FamilySearch Wiki. You can search for the name of the country and the word emigration (with an e) to find out more about your targeted area. I typed in Hungary emigration and found the following information.
Did your emigrant (or immigrant) ancestor generate records in the country he or she left from as well as the country he or she entered? Remember to check!
Time-lapse videos first intrigued me as a child when I watched a little seed grow into a beautiful flower in a matter of seconds. Now, illuminating time-lapse videos and tools are helping genealogists visualize our changing world.
Last month, animator Max Galka published a time-lapse map of the history of urbanization over nearly 6,000 years in just three minutes.
Mr. Galka mentions on his blog that tracking urbanization occuring before the mid-20th century was a difficult task – until recently. A team of Yale researchers published a collection of urban population data dating back to ancient times which helped Galka create his video. Their collection was quoted to be a “clean, accessible dataset of cities, their locations, and their populations over time.”
I was surprised how quickly things changed and found it amazing still how many places in the world are yet to be “urbanized.”
Time-lapse Video Covering Immigration to the U.S. Since 1820
Again, Max Galka presented an amazing animation of immigration to the United States. This creation shows the countries that sent the most people to the U.S. since 1820.
The U.S. is a nation of immigrants, says Galka. As each dot flies across the page, it represents 10,000 people who immigrated to the U.S. In the bottom left corner, Mr. Galka lists the three top countries where immigrants are coming from at any given time. I was stunned as the map lit up in Russia and Africa only fairly recently. It is clearly shown that the U.S. is indeed a nation of immigrants in this colorful time-lapse video.
Time-lapse Tools for Genealogy
As a genealogist, I am constantly in search of county records. So many times, county lines or boundaries changed. I even have one family that lived on the same farm, but technically resided in three different counties over a period of about 50 years. We can’t possibly know when each county of any given state was formed or created, until now that is.
One of my favorite tools for discovering county changes over time is the Map of US.org website. You can find a map of each of the 50 states and run the interactive formation sequence. For example, I can find the Ohio map.
The Ohio map begins in 1788. It indicates the one county in the Northwest Territory (today’s Ohio) at that time. Washington County was formed as the original county of the Northwest Territory and was created from part of Illinois County, Virginia. That’s another reason I love these interactive maps. With the creation of each county, the map indicates from which parent county or counties it was formed. This is a great help for genealogy research. When I can’t find my targeted ancestor in the county I thought they should be in, I can determine when the county was formed and from what parent county or counties it was formed from. Then, I can quickly determine the other locations that may have records I need.
In addition to the interactive time-lapse maps, each state has a list of other helpful maps that may be of interest to you. For example, the map links for Oregon include the Historical Maps of Oregon, a set of beautiful old maps that can be viewed or downloaded.
Maps can give us a bigger picture of our county, our state, our country, and even the world. These tools help us picture our ever-changing world. What impacted you the most while watching these videos? We would love to hear from you in the comments below!
If you feel inspired to learn more about map visualization, you will enjoy Lisa’s Google Earth video. Lisa was an early pioneer of genealogical data visualization and has been teaching genealogists how to use the free software for the last several years. You can watch the free Google Earth for Genealogy video here or check out her revised and updated e-book, The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox 2nd Editionto learn even more tips and tricks for Google genealogy research.
Happy July 4th–and Happy 50th to the Freedom of Information Act! Read more about the FOIA and genealogy records we can access because of it.
Today we in the United States celebrate our Independence Day with grateful hearts and parades. Well, genealogists with U.S. ancestors have an extra reason for fireworks: today marks 50 years since Congresss signed the Freedom of Information Act into law, and the U.S. became one of the first nations to open its records to the public.
The Freedom of Information Act
The FOIA opens certain kinds of information about the federal government and certain information created by the federal government. It doesn’t apply to everything, including documents that relate to national security, privacy and trade secrets. The FOIA also only applies to documents created by the federal government, not state or local governments.
Since it was passed, the FOIA has continued to be expanded and amended. Over the years, the numbers of FOIA document requests has skyrocketed, too. In the first five years after the FOIA passed, it only resulted in about 500 total requests for information–that’s an average of just 100 per year. Last year alone, there were more than 700,000 requests!
The FOIA and Genealogy
So, of course we have to ask the question: how well do FOIA and genealogy go together? As it turns out, quite well. My favorite FOIA request is for an ancestor’s Social Security application (the SS-5 form). This is the form that generated the assignment of a relative’s Social Security number and was the first step to receiving any Social Security benefits. It’s what the very limited information on the Social Security Death Index comes from, as well as the much-richer (but not comprehensively available) Social Security Applications and Claims database at Ancestry.com. That was released last year and caused a LOT of us to do a serious genealogy happy dance.
But if you want to see everything in that SS-5 application, you should order an image copy of the original (you can now also order a computerized abstract of it, which is cheaper but might not get everything right). Here’s what an SS-5 application looks like:
This one confirms the names of an African-American man’s parents–parents who survived slavery and left few other records of their existence. This man was part of the first generation in his family to legally learn to read and write. His signature is on the record.
You can also access other key 20th-century genealogy records that haven’t made it online yet–and in some cases, haven’t even been sent to the National Archives yet.
These include the following (with links to where to learn more):
There is some fine print on some of these records request procedures, so read carefully what records are there, what you’re allowed to order and how to request it. Happy Independence Day–and Happy FOIA anniversary!
GERMANY – HESSE CIVIL REGISTRATIONS. Nearly 300,000 indexed names have been added to a free online collection of civil registrations for Frankfurt, Hesse, Germany (1811-1814, 1833-1928).
IRELAND CHURCH. The initial phase of a fantastic new collection of Irish Quaker church records has been published at Findmypast.com. Over 1.3 million Irish Quaker records are there now, including births, marriages, deaths, school and migration records, many dating back to the mid-1600s.