Smudges, Scribbles Hold Ellis Island’s History
Hanson, Rick. "Smudges, Scribbles Hold Ellis Island’s History." USA Today, 18 November 1998, sec. 17A, 18A.
Searching for ancestor in
the immigration archive in New York Harbor can be like scanning
a stadium for a familiar face. Now, thanks to the efforts of thousands
of Mormon volunteers, that search should get much easier.
The Mormons’ work, slow and sometimes painful, should help
100 million Americans learn whether their relatives really came
through Ellis Island – when, from where, with whom, on what
The Mormons, members of the Church of Latter-day Saints, believe
that tracing the country’s ancestry is part of their religious
mission. They have established research libraries across the nation.
Now they’re tackling a sort of Comstock Lode of genealogy
– the records of the 17 million immigrants who came through
New York Harbor from 1892 to 1924, the largest movement of people
Volunteers have put in more than 2 million hours over the past
five years, trying to make sense of archaic handwriting on quasi-legible
copies of faded ship passenger manifests. And they’re only
The information will be computerized and made available to the
public in about two years, when the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island
Foundation is scheduled to open its American Family Immigration
History center on Ellis Island.
“It’s the greatest gift we could give anyone,”
says Diane Taylor, one of the Mormon workers.
Officials of the foundation – which converted the old immigration
station into a museum for the National Park Service – say
the computer database will answer visitor’s most frequent
question: Where are our family immigration records?
For four decades, the records have been kept on microfilm at the
National Archives partially indexed and used regularly by researchers,
but as inaccessible to most people as the wreckage of the Titanic.
But by the end of 2000, this vast file – containing more
than half of all U.S. immigration records and listing ancestors
of four in 10 Americans – will be searchable with a few keystrokes
and mouse clicks.
Visitors to Ellis Island or its Web site should be able to learn
an immigrant’s ship name and date of arrival, plus that person’s
age on arrival, nationality, port of departure, occupation and marital
status. They’ll be able to get a photocopy of the passenger
manifest and a picture of the ship.
To search for an immigrant, however, the searcher will need to
know some specific information about the person – a lot of
Menachem Liebermans, for example, arrived from eastern Europe. The
computer would need at least an arrival year or a nationality to
narrow the search.
Exact spellings are important but not essential, because the computer
will search for near spellings and phonetic spellings.
With information from the Ellis database, people will able to go
to the National Archives microfilm for more details about their
“Let’s go back and check our bloodlines, see who we
are,” Lee Iacocca, chairman of the Ellis Island Foundation,
said last month. “What you’ll find out is magic.”
When Ellis Island opened in 1892, an immigrant’s only “papers”
were a few lines of information written on a passenger manifest
by a shipping clerk in a port such a Naples.
The manifests were handed to the Immigration Service at Ellis Island,
where many immigrants were checked for various diseases.
The Mormons have a theological interest in genealogy, and the church’s
genealogical research unit had long viewed the Ellis archives as
a potential gold mine.
So for the past four years the unit has delivered microfilm or
paper copies of the manifest pages to volunteers who try to “extract”
the entries, most of them handwritten, and copy them onto cards.
Work is checked at headquarters in Salt Lake City, then entered
into a computer database.
The volunteers are people like Taylor, 65, of Costa Mesa, Calif.
Every day, for as many as 14 hours, she hunches over her machine,
trying to determine whether a century-old smudge is an F or an S,
or whether what looks like a pair of backward Fs is really a double
Like the other volunteers, she finds handwriting hard to make out.
The print had faded even before the paper manifests were microfilmed
in the mid-1950s and destroyed; on microfilm, the writing is even
Sometimes, she clips along at a name a minute other times, she
has to spend 45 minutes on a single name, and her task feels more
like translation than transcription.
“They write really weird,” Taylor says of the shipping
clerks. “Sometimes it looks more like Old English.
“But the worst are the place names,” she adds. “You’d
be amazed how many ways you can spell Tripoli.”
Her eyes hurt; her neck hurts; despite experiments with various
cushions, her butt hurts. But she keeps at it for most of her waking
hours, because she considers it God’s work.
Now, with the deadline two years away, there’s a special urgency.
Although the Mormons had planned to transcribe 17 million names,
they’ll have to do as many as 25 million because the manifests
list all travelers and crewmembers who came through the port, not
just the immigrants.
So the genealogical unit has cut back other research and asked
everyone to work even harder.
Like many of her colleagues, Taylor prays for help.
“If you’re not a spiritual person, I don’t know
if you can do this,” she says.
“Sometimes, all you see are bumps and swirls and suddenly
you realize, ‘My gosh, it Francesca!’ I’ll tell
you, these records are important to somebody.”
Despite the workers’ efforts, foundation officials and independent
genealogical experts agree that some people still will not find
their ancestors’ names, for several reasons:
• Spellings and even entire names change over the years.
The name a descendant searches for – say, “Sam Long”
– may not be the name the one an ancestor entered the country
under – say, Shimon Lebowitz.
• Some names or other information will be misread and incorrectly
entered into the database.
• Some people simply didn’t immigrate through New
York Harbor between 1892 and 1924, even though they or their descendents
think they did.
• Some names are illegible and can’t be included in
Mormon genealogical experts say they’re not sure yet how
many records can’t be transcribed. But Ira Glazier of the
Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies, which does research involving
the same lists, says at least 10% of the names will be irretrievable
- 1.7 million.
“Some people will be disappointed,” he says. And some
who actually find the correct manifest, he adds, “won’t
see a name. They’ll see a smudge.”
Most, however, probably will find something to connect them with
the saga of immigration.
Felicita Salto always told her daughters Gilda and Denise about
coming from Italy as a girl and stopping at Ellis Island while her
mother was hospitalized.
Last month, at a ceremony to announce the new genealogical facility,
the family was presented with a copy of a passenger manifest. There,
on line 11, was Felicita’s name; it was like suddenly seeing
a familiar face.
Now the family’s story is a documented fact.
“It was like looking at history,” Denise says. Her
sister agrees: “It makes it very real. It will be real when
my children have children, too.”
Here are some popular database providers:
• AGLL, formerly American Genealogical Lending Library
(film loans, databases, indexes, books): Box 239, Bountiful, UT
84011; 1-801-298-5358; http://www.agll.com
• Allen County Public Library (nationwide genealogical collections
and the Periodical Source Index database): Reynolds Historical
Genealogy Dept., Box 46801-2270, Fort Wayne, IN 46802; 1-219-421-1200;
• Ancestry (databases of records and of researcher): Box
476, Salt Lake City, UT 84110-0476; 1-800-531-1790; http://ancestry.com
• Library of Congress (national collections, databases of
photographs and historical documents): Local History and Genealogy
Reading Room, Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C. 20540; 1-202-707-5537;
• Lineages (research company and databases): 5 Triad Center,
Suite 480, Salt Lake City, UT 84180; 1-801-531-9297; http://www.lineagesnet.com
• National Archives, User Services Branch (selected databases
of federal records, research materials and reference help): 7th
Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, D.C. 50408; 1-202-504-5400
• Social Security Administration (public databases, files
and letter forwarding): Office of Central Records Operations,
Baltimore, MD 21235; 1-800-772-1213
• Department of Veterans Affairs (database of military veterans):
810 Vermont Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 50470; 1-202-389-2444
• Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies (immigration indexes
in book form; no public database): Center for Immigration Research,
18 Seventh Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106; 1-215-925-8090
• To contribute: The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation,
52 Vanderbilt Ave., New York, NY 10017-3898; 1-212-883-1986
Reprinted with permission of USA Today.
Americans: Immigrants sit down to lunch at Ellis Island in
this photo taken before the first world war. Ellis Island
immigration records for the years 1892-1924 are being assembled
in a database.
Diane Taylor of Costa Mesa, Calif., is one thousands of Mormon
volunteers helping transcribe the records.
the 17 million: A Hungarian family waits to be processed by
immigration official in this photo taken around 1910.
A ship’s manifest shows arrival information for the
family of Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca.