Ellis Island immigration records – top tips for using the database
Search for your Irish ancestors in Ellis island passenger lists
Ellis Island immigration records are held in a remarkable free online database containing the details of some 51 million passenger arrivals in New York. Many millions were immigrants, mostly from Europe.
About 40% of today's population of the United States can trace their roots back to those who entered America through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1924, after which date mass immigration ceased and the role of Ellis Island changed somewhat. Around 120 million Americans can trace their family through Ellis Island – a clear indication of why these immigration records are considered a state treasure.
But these records are not just of value to the American people.
They are priceless to genealogists all over the world, including the extended families of the one million Irish immigrants who sailed to a new life across the Atlantic.
The very size of the Ellis Islands Immigration Records Online Database can be overwhelming for first time users. But even regular visitors can fail to make full use of all that the website has to offer. So follow the tips below to ensure you make the very best of this outstanding resource.
Ellis Island immigration records – the basic search facility
The basic search offers 11 data fields that match the facts – year of arrival, port of departure, age etc – recorded about each immigrant.
If you don't know exactly when your ancestor immigrated, you'll find the year-of-birth field useful.
1. Don't hesitate to sign up
While you can search and view the Ellis Island immigration records, you have to provide your email address and create a user name and password. Don't worry about doing this. The webmasters won't abuse the information; I can't remember receiving an email since I signed up in 2001. So get this little formality over with and start looking for your ancestors.
Discover the Refine and Advanced Search options
You can run a basic search with as little as the first three letters of a surname but you can narrow down your results by using the Refine options. The Refine button appears with all sets of results.
The Advanced Search facility, which provides the same options as Refine, can be found in the drop down menu under Passenger Search. Use this option to start a search for someone with a common name or when you have quite a bit of information available. But it's often best to not fill in too many fields straightaway. Add one extra piece of information per search until, hopefully, you find the ancestor you are looking for.
Save your results
Create a personal Ellis Island file where you can send images and transcriptions for quick and easy retrieval later.
Simply click the 'Add to your Ellis Island File' box that appears on each results page.
Names, names, names
Don't stick to just one spelling
For a number of reasons it's possible your ancestor's name is recorded incorrectly in the Ellis Island immigration records. Transcribers copied passenger names as they appeared on original ships' lists. They may not have been correctly spelt on those lists or the clerk's handwriting might have been difficult to decipher. Or the transcriber may have made a typing mistake. So if the search doesn't easily find your ancestor, try out the more typical misspellings ie Downes/Downs, Shea/Shay/Shee. It's also possible that an O' was added or omitted.
Try searching by surname and initial
Although you might end up with too many entries if your ancestor's surname was common, this technique can help you to find not only those people listed with only an initial for their first name but also those whose first names have been abbreviated or familiarised ie Jimmy rather than James, Paddy insteady of Patrick. If such a search brings up too many entries, use the Refine search button to narrow it down further. If this fails, too, search with just the surname.
Women might be recorded under their maiden name
On marriage, Irish women adopted their husband's surname but if they were travelling alone shortly before or after their marriage, they may be recorded under their maiden name.
Was the spelling of your ancestor's name changed?
Despite the common belief that names were changed by Ellis Island officials who couldn't spell the names of the immigrants standing in front of them, it is highly unlikely that your ancestor's name was changed at Ellis Island. It is much more likely that your ancestor 'anglicised' his name on arrival in the United States in order to get work or to 'fit in' with established American society. So, Patrick Reardon might have been Padraig O'Riordain on the manifest. And Grace Brien might have been Grainne Briain when she set off from Ireland.
Try the Ellis Island One-Step Search Tool
If you find you need additional help drawing out your most elusive ancestors from their hiding place in the Ellis Island passenger lists, visit the One-Step web pages.
This site was developed by Stephen P Morse and, although it doesn't contain additional data (in fact, it links to the Ellis Island immigration records database) it has a different way of searching. It's also free.
Look for the detail
Check the ship's manifest for co-passengers
Created by volunteersThe database containing the Ellis Island immigration records is the result of millions of volunteer hours. Transcribers copied passenger names as they appeared on original ships' lists.
This doesn't mean that mistranscriptions didn't occur as volunteers may have interpreted difficult to read handwriting. Inevitably in a project that involved more than 51 million records, simple mistakes also occurred.
When you've found your ancestor in the Ellis Island immigration records, don't be so excited that you overlook the additional information the manifest may contain.
Many passengers travelled alone. But immigration to the United States was also undertaken in family groups and small parties of friends. Typically, the names of group members appear one after the other in the ship's manifest but circumstances at the departure port (where the manifests were compiled) could have separated the members temporarily.
So give more than a glance to all the other passengers on the manifest. Are there any other family members on the list? Or is it possible that the passenger from your ancestor's village, whose name appears adjacent to your ancestor, was accompanying your ancestor? Bear in mind that single females usually had a male chaperone, either related or well-known to the family.
Initial residence in the USA
Passengers were asked to provide information of the person they were going to 'join' when they landed. In other words, who they would be staying with, either temporarily or permanently in America.
Most Irish immigrants completed these details (name and full address) and they can throw up some surprises and even new directions for your genealogy research.
You may find a sibling you didn't know existed, or an aunt or uncle, or a cousin.
Even more to offer
The Wall of Honor
You can search the Ellis Island Wall of Honor for inscribed names that have been sponsored by individuals or families. Click on the 'Add a Name to the Wall of Honour' box on the Home Page and then 'Search Names' when you reach to Wall of Honour site. You may be surprised at the names you find.
In addition to the Ellis Island immigration records, you can also view a picture of the ship on which your ancestor sailed. Simply click the Ship link above the passenger search result to read specifications about the ship. the company that built it, its history and its voyages.
An image is usually available as well.