By Stephen McKinley
It is a classic immigrant moment. In the movie "Godfather II," young Vito Andolini from the Italian village of Corleone is caught up in the administrative tumult of Ellis Island, and a harassed immigration officer enters the boy’s name as Vito Corleone — changing his identity forever. Such an error would presumably make his decendants search for their roots even more difficult.
A similar slip-up, says Irish American journalist Terry Golway, might have resulted in his surname ending up with that odd-looking "o", and not, as you might expect, an "a". "I think it was Ellis Island," he said. "The family has never been able to figure that out."
Unfortunately, stories like this are the stuff of myth. As the vast database of Ellis Island immigrant records were placed online three weeks ago, one genealogical expert has been urging caution over the increasingly popular pursuit of one’s ancestors. Brian G. Andersson, assistant commissioner of the New York City Department of Public Records, has welcomed the new web site, Ellisislandrecords.org, but said that would-be family researchers should do some basic research first, otherwise they could end up tracking the wrong ancestors.
"No one’s name was changed at Ellis Island," Andersson said. "Passenger lists were prepared where the immigrants boarded the ships, at the port of embarkation. If mistakes were made, they happened there, not at Ellis Island." Often, he added, immigrants changed their names’ spelling, or picked an entirely different, anglicized surname, as they started a new life in the new world.
Since Ellis Island arrived in cyberspace, actually searching the immigrant records has been proving just as difficult as finding a long-lost relative — the web site was virtually unobtainable due to the massive number of people trying to search the database since it went live on April 17.
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Most users have been greeted by a holding page that says "Due to an extraordinary number of visitors, we must limit access to the site. Please keep trying, or check back later."
According to CNN, at one point the website was receiving 27,000 hits per second, leaving the servers unable to cope. Peg Zitko of the Ellis Island Foundation says that the technical problems were resolved as soon as humanly possible.
"We’ve quadrupled the memory on our servers, and we also brought three back-up servers into full-time service," Zitko said. The surge of interest came as no surprise, however.
"Sixty percent of Americans are interested in family history research, and 40 percent of Americans can trace their roots back through Ellis Island. That’s perhaps 100 million people," Zitko said. "We have been overwhelmed."
Tool, not a miracle
Andersson is pleased with the new database, but hopes that researchers aren’t overwhelmed themselves.
"People have to realize, the internet is not a miracle. It’s just another tool," he said. He noted that even on the Ellis Island website, common names entered into the search engine will turn up hundreds of responses, unless one has very specific details about that person’s birth, port of departure, ship’s name, date of arrival in the U.S., naturalization, or marriage and death certificates.
For Andersson, there’s no substitute for the research that can be done in archives and government records, which, in New York, are, unfortunately, held in collections assembled according to no overall structure, randomly housed in city, state and federal buildings. For example, birth certificates after 1909 in the five boroughs are held by the Department of Health at 125 Worth St., but the same archive only has death certificates from 1948 onward (see the department’s website, www.ci.nyc.ny.us/health). This, Andersson says, is a typically daunting obstacle that researchers will have to adapt to.
Each collection of records — like the Ellis Island records — are usually meticulously alphabetized in and of themselves, but it is rare to be able to find what one needs from one set of records. The Ellis Island records themselves cover only immigrants who passed through the famous processing hall between the years 1892 and 1924 — a huge number of people, but a relatively short period of time.
This massive database might never have made it on to the internet were it not for the work of several groups. Three organizations worked on the database project: the Ellis Island Foundation, the National Archives and Records Administration and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, more popularly known as the Mormons.
The primary records of this vast transit of humans on their immigrant journey are the manifests of the ships on which they arrived, later placed on microfilm by the National Archives. The laborious transcribing was done by the Mormons. The church urges members to research ancestors so that they can be baptized into the faith even after death.
"Twelve thousand of our volunteers donated 5.6 million hours to this project," said Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Mormon Church. The Family History Center, opened on Ellis Island the same day as the website went online, also provides 41 computer terminals for visitors to the Island to search the database for a fee of $5 per 30 minutes online — otherwise, it is free of charge on the internet from one’s personal computer.
If a family relative passed through Ellis Island between the years 1892 and 1924, then you can search the database by any combination of 11 fields of information: search by immigrants’ given name, surname or ethnicity. You can also search by their last known resident (town and country) in the old world, their date of arrival in the U.S., or their age at arrival. You can search by gender, marital status, ship of travel, port of departure or line number on the manifest.
If the search is successful, it will be possible to take home an actual copy of the original immigration records, as well, in some cases, a photograph of the ship on which one’s ancestors arrived (Zitko says the Center has photographs of perhaps 88 percent of all the ships). Ellis Island officials say that within a month it will be possible to order these online.
In order to make the most of the new resource, Brian Andersson has urged people to sit down beforehand and start preparing a file with as much information as they know already, by working backward from themselves, through concrete details such as their parents’ full names and places of birth.
"People should always do a little work before using the database — are you sure that your ancestors even came through Ellis Island?" he said.
"Marriage certificates will give concrete details of the grandparents’ places of birth," he said, and from there, one can go to the records of the 1920 Federal Census, the first U.S. census where respondents were asked if they were U.S.-born or naturalized, and if naturalized, what country they came from originally, when and where they arrived. This information is held at the National Archives Northeast regional office, at 201 Varick St. in Manhattan.
Peg Zitko reminded researchers that if they can’t reach the website from their desktop, then there is the opportunity to use one of the 41 computers at the Family History Center, if they live nearby. "There is plenty of availability on a walk-in basis," she said.
Finding Uncle Robert
My grandfather liked to say that my great uncle Robert "went around the world for a shortcut."
Robert was born in Dungannon, Co. Tyrone, in 1895, and immigrated to New Zealand in the 1900s with his brother and sisters.
When the Great War broke out in 1914, he joined the New Zealand expeditionary force with his brother, who was killed at the Somme. Robert survived the war, and after the Armistice, he returned to Dungannon, and in 1924 emigrated a second time, this time to New York. In New York he became an accountant, according to family lore, and he died in 1945, just before he was due to return to Ireland for his first trip home since the 1930s. He had been prevented from traveling abroad because of World War II.
With this scant information, I searched the Ellis Island website and managed to find five Robert McKinleys, none of whom seemed to be the right Robert.
In the National Archives at 201 Varick St., I spent hours fruitlessly searching through ships’ manifests on microfilm, finding hundreds of Robert McKinleys, McKinlays, Mackinlays and M’Kinleys. Perhaps one was the Robert I wanted, but without more detailed information, it seemed impossible to tell.
Knowing that Robert had died in 1945, as I believed, I took my search to the New York City Department of Records at 31 Chambers St.
After standing in line, I gave the details that I knew — his place of birth, year of immigration and year of death — to an assistant. She warned that I may have to wait for hours while she searched through the death certificates.
Only 15 minutes later, she returned with a photocopy of Robert’s death certificate. I found that he had died in January 1946, not 1945. It was the correct person — the certificate gave his place of birth as Dungannon in Tyrone, and named his parents, as well as his last address in New York, West 56th Street.
But the mystery has only deepened — under occupation, the certificate read not accountant, but "singer."