New York City Ports: Ellis Island

Author:Denise Perreault

Every month, large numbers of tourists walk through the quiet halls of Ellis Island. More than a monument, it is a place that resonates with the hopes, fears and dreams of millions of immigrants who traveled from far off countries. Today statisticians estimate that incredibly about half of all U.S. citizens are descended from those very immigrants. Many people today are interested in learning more about their family’s origins. To do so, they have to trace the stories of their ancestors through the centuries, usually through more than one country. One way that people do this is by looking through original records of the immigrants who came through Ellis Island.

Why is Ellis Island Significant?

Ellis Island evolved tremendously from the late 1800s onwards. Its location close to the New Jersey coast made it ideal as an entryway to America for immigrants. In its early days, there were harsh restrictions imposed on immigrants. Anyone suspected of carrying disease or even mental illness were promptly turned away on the next ship. This meant that many families were tragically split up. Even so, for thousands of others, Ellis Island was a beacon of great hope. It symbolized a chance for achievements and passage into a country where immigrants could turn their lives around. By the mid-1920s, Ellis Island was instead used to detain prisoners. This practice continued well into WWII. Over the next several decades, people began to realize the significance of Ellis Island as an important reminder of their roots. It was preserved to commemorate its national historic value. In many ways, the mass immigration movement at Ellis Island dramatically changed the population makeup of the United States.

What is Genealogy?

Genealogy is the study of a family line or a person’s ancestry. This can be done by collecting first-hand accounts from existing family members, or looking through secondary sources such as immigration records, birth or death certificates, wedding notices, and so on. It can be a very arduous process especially when dealing with older times when accurate records were not always kept meticulously. Sometimes genealogy involves a little bit of guessing along with plenty of detective work. Older relatives are often an excellent source of information. Asking them about their grandparents or parents can turn up a number of clues. It is always a good practice to cross-reference any findings against other evidence in order to verify it. Once you start to develop solid findings, one of the easiest ways of organizing genealogy information is by mapping out a family tree. Some online sites allow users to add their findings to a large family tree. In this way, many people inadvertently find other links that they had not known about before. They can also contact others online to find out more about the missing ancestor.

What Can We Learn From Ellis Island Records?

Records saved at Ellis Island can tell us a lot about the individuals who passed through there. Since they all came from foreign countries, many had distinctly un-American names. When their names were too difficult to pronounce or spell, the processing authorities simply Anglicized their names to make it easier. For example, the last name Meijer would have been changed to Mayer, while Piotr (a very Polish name for males) would be modified to Peter. If someone today was searching for an ancestor named Peter Meyer, they might also be able to dig up further information by searching for Peter’s original name: Piotr Meijer. Ellis Island records can also show passenger lists from each ship, landing paper, and other government documents. During the mass immigration period, there were many photographs shot to document the process. In many cases, these images can be valuable clues for genealogists.