Bid to computerize Ellis Island data moving ahead Handwritten records might be transcribed for genealogical research

January 22, 1998|By CHICAGO TRIBUNE

NEW YORK - An icy blast of wind chilled the huddled masses on the ferry heading for Ellis Island. These latter-day pilgrims were not seeking the portal to a new land, only clues to the vanished world of their ancestors.

Once on shore, Ray Batcheller, a 71-year-old retired business executive from San Dimas, Calif., timidly approached the information booth. "Do you have an alphabetical listing of the people who came through here?" he asked.

His mother had emigrated from Ireland "in the mid to late 1800s," he said, and he wanted to learn more about where she came from. "We reach an age where we like to know about our families, how they came here. It makes us feel closer to them."

Unfortunately for the millions of visitors who ask each year, no alphabetical list of immigrants exists.

Computerization plan

"They really come here expecting to find" their family histories, said Kathy Arle, a staffer for the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation. "So we give them a pamphlet and give them information on how to research it themselves," which is a difficult and time-consuming process.

That might soon change. The foundation, which since the early 1980s has raised more than $300 million to rehabilitate and support the museum and monument, has launched a new campaign to raise money for computerization of immigration records now on microfilm in the National Archives. The initial $14 million effort will focus on records of the 20 million people who passed through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1924, the peak immigration period in U.S. history.

Foundation officials said they are about to award contracts for the laborious task of typing up the handwritten records that will become the first installment on a huge computer database. Once completed, they will open the American Family Immigration History Center, slated for sometime in late 1999.

Eventually they hope to include records for all the immigrants who passed through Ellis Island before its closure in 1954. In the 20th century, the three largest groups were Eastern European Jews, Italians and Poles. In the 19th century, the Irish and Germans predominated.

While in this age of economic anxiety a new immigration wave has become politically controversial, the history of America's immigrant forebears remains a subject of personal fascination for millions of Americans. Nearly half the U.S. population can trace its roots to people whose first steps in America were taken on Ellis Island.

The museum's long-range plans include construction of a comprehensive research facility where families can look up their personal histories and link up with other genealogical databases around the world. The interactive system will allow visitors to record the marriages, births and deaths of immigrants' descendants and thus become a place for preserving individual family histories for future generations.

Pitfalls waiting

But numerous pitfalls await the museum's attempt to reconstruct immigrant histories through computerized records, experts warn. The spelling of names change. Misreading handwritten records is common. Data entry mistakes will be made.

"You will have to do some research whether it is digitized or not," said Robert Morris, a senior official in the New York office of the National Archives Records Administration. "And if it is a common name, you'll have to do a lot of research."

Though Ellis Island museum officials encourage visitors who ask about their past to pursue their genealogical history, only a handful of searchers actually follow through and find their way to government offices where the microfilm records are kept.

Filmed copies of the ship manifests for Ellis Island, for instance, are housed in National Archives' offices in Washington, New York, Pittsfield, Mass., and Anchorage, Alaska.

But getting to the office is only the beginning of the journey. Researching an immigrant's arrival history usually involves looking up multiple records, often in combination with some Sherlock Holmes-like sleuthing before the actual ship manifest can be found.

The reason is simple. While the manifests contain a wealth of data, including the name, age, native country and town, occupation, the ability to read and write, and the eventual destination of the immigrant, the names are not listed alphabetically, only in the order of arrival.

So a researcher's first task is to find out on what day and on what ship a person came over. Alphabetical indexes of the records, which began as a Works Progress Administration project in the 1930s, remain incomplete. The government make-work project and subsequent efforts have completed indexing of the ship manifests from 1820 to 1846 and from 1898 forward.

However, indexes for the millions of people who came to America between 1847 and 1897 do not exist. Ira Glazier, a historian of U.S. immigration at Temple University's Balch Institute, is constructing specialized indexes to make up for portions of the huge gap.

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