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Finding Elusive Eastern European Ancestors in the Ellis Island Database

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On January 1, 1892, Ellis Island—the first federal immigrant inspection station—opened with much celebration. A 27.5- acre island off the tip of Manhattan, Ellis Island was the entry point for 71 percent of US immigrants between 1892 and 1924. Almost half of Americans have someone on their family tree who arrived there. Three large ships landed on the first day and 700 immigrants passed over the docks. Almost 450,000 immigrants were processed at the station during its first year.

In 2001, the American Family Immigration History Center opened on Ellis Island and launched a website http://www.ellisisland.org, The Ellis Island database (EIDB) contains information on 25 million passengers and crew who entered through the Port of New York between 1892 and 1924. Microfilmed passenger lists were transcribed by volunteers to create the online index. Names included in the database link to images of the passenger lists on which they appear. You can search the database and view the lists for free (you will need to register with a username and password). There is also the facility to purchase copies of passenger manifests, immigrant certificates, and photos of ships.

For those trying to locate Eastern European ancestors in the EIDB the search process can be challenging because of handwriting and transcription issues. If you're having trouble finding great-grandma or grandpa in the sea of immigrant names, here are ten tips to help you track them down.

1. Read the instructions. Before you dive into the database, click under the “Passenger Search” tab and read the Search Tips and Advanced Search Tips.

2. Search on different name variations. Remember, spelling not standardized, especially with largely illiterate rural areas. Consider how various languages may have been converted to English (e.g. Ukrainian language written in Cyrillic alphabet, which was then transliterated to alphabets of English, and/or Polish and/or German and/or Dutch and/or Hungarian, etc.).

3. Think like a transcriptionist. Handwriting of the immigration officials was often poor. Transcription of data into the computer format was done by volunteers who do/did not necessarily know the native language. Look at a letter to determine if it could be mistaken for another (m > n, j > y, i > e, etc.).

4. Vary your searches. Try all variations of beginning letters (e.g. –St –Szt for Hungarian names such as Straka and Sztraka) and endings (e.g. -sky: -ski, -skyj, -skyi, -skyy for Polish names). Try all variations of feminine endings –ska, -cka, -tska for Polish; -ova for Slovak; –skaja, -skaia, -skaya for Russian).

5. Use truncated or shortened searches. Sometimes less is more. Avoid using only “exact match” searches...be creative! Start broad, then add other criteria such as “male” or “female”

6. Try last name/first name, or feminine/masculine endings reversed.

7. Avoid first name searching unless it’s a very popular last name.

8. Consider phonetic and alternate spellings. Think about Slovak, German, Ukrainian, Polish, Hungarian and English. But don’t rely solely on the website’s alternate spellings...try your own!

9. Check other common names from your ancestral village. Relatives and neighbors often traveled together. It may be easier to find another name and then look to see if your ancestor is listed on the same list.

10. Use the “One-Step” search tools by Stephen P. Morse at http://www.stevemorse.org (the Gold form is the most popular, but you may wish to try the “White” form too in certain circumstances. Click on the “About This Site and How to Use It” for tips and search examples.

Happy Hunting!

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