May 3, 2001
New Route for Roots
It's virtually "genealogy for dummies."
In a nation of immigrants where more than 35 percent of the population -- or 100 million Americans -- have at least one relative who passed through Ellis Island, officials at that historic entry point to New York have unveiled a new Web site that will enable even the least tech-savvy to mine a mother lode of information on their families' roots.
"This marks an immigrant's first footstep in America and provides information leading back to Europe and forward into America," said Peg Zitko, spokeswoman for the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, Inc.
Some immigrants, she said, "were very specific about which street they lived on in Kiev and which street they were going to in Cleveland."
The treasure trove of data, accessible at www.ellisislandrecords.org, is being gobbled up by a public that reportedly cites "family history research" as among its favorite interests.
As soon as it opened at 6 p.m., April 17, the Web site averaged 27,000 hits per second and recorded 26 million hits in its first 54 hours, Zitko said. At first, only one in seven would-be genealogists could access the site, she said, but the bottleneck eased somewhat this week as additional database servers quadrupled the site's memory.
The new Web site, offering information of staggering depth and access, promises to revolutionize the field of genealogy.
Experienced researchers also are happy to save hours formerly spent scrolling tediously through microfilm. "Our ancestors are for the most part forgotten, but doing this brings a part of them back," said Adam Bronstein, who serves on the executive council of the New York-based Jewish Genealogical Society.
Bronstein was impressed with the site in the brief time he gained access but said he would have preferred an "advanced search function" to do a more detailed search. Still, he understood the need for a utilitarian approach: "I could see how they'd dummy it up for people who have never done this," he said.
Indeed, as Zitko said, "The database was designed to be user-friendly, not something complicated."
The Web site contains records of the 17 million immigrants -- and 5 million other travelers and crew members -- who passed through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1924.
Online records will display details in as many as 11 fields regarding an immigrant: given name; surname; ethnicity; town and country of last residence; date of arrival; age on arrival; gender; marital status; ship number; port of departure; and line number on the ship's manifest.
In some cases, information may include the immigrant's occupation and mother tongue.
Perhaps most remarkably, the foundation has scanned 3 million pages of manifests and photos of 800 ships that docked at Ellis Island -- some 85 percent of the total. For a fee, the foundation will provide an image of the precise page that lists one's ancestor and of the ship he or she traveled on.
Crucial to the project were the 5.6 million hours logged by 12,000 volunteers from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons, as they are known, who are renowned for their keen interest in genealogy and their involvement in documenting Americans' roots.
While the Mormon pursuit of what have been called "posthumous baptisms" raises some concern among Jews, many are grateful for the time and effort the Mormons have invested in the Ellis Island project. "Theirs was a significant gift, and it really cannot be underestimated," Zitko said. "They saved the foundation millions of dollars."
Visitors to the site are asked to enter a relative's name, and the search begins. In some cases, however, this can be tricky. Names in Cyrillic, for example, might have numerous possible phonetic spellings in English. A name like Moskovic might also be spelled as Moskovich, Moskovitch, Moscovic, Moscovich or Moscovitch. Users therefore are advised to try several variations.
They also are warned not to believe one of the great myths of U.S. immigration history: that many names were Americanized and simplified at Ellis Island. If names were changed, it happened in the old country or after the immigrants' arrival in America -- not at the point of entry, Bronstein said.
"The names were written out on the tickets where they were purchased, with the original information, and the ship's clerk would transcribe it," he said. "You'll never see a manifest that was adulterated. It's just like at the Division of Motor Vehicles; a clerk would never change a name just to make it easier to pronounce."
The database itself is not foolproof. Zitko conceded that some records may be missing; handwritten records may have been misinterpreted; and humans may have erred when entering information into the database. "There's no way to guarantee you'll find your family's records here," she said. "But we can guarantee an interesting search experience. It's about the adventure of the search."
For those Americans determined to pencil in the family tree, Zitko, Bronstein and others offer a further caution: the Web site is not a panacea that will unearth the entire tree with a simple click of a mouse.
While a significant launching point, the Ellis Island site is only the first step. Old-fashioned legwork still will be needed to fill in other gaps -- from microfilm of U.S. censuses or naturalization documents or records at the national archives or county clerk's office.
And, of course, primary sources shouldn't be overlooked. "This site is great," Bronstein said, "but you can't replace going to bubbe and zayde and hearing the real-life stories."