Finding forebears on the Internet


Ellis Island Web site makes tracking ancestors easier, if not easy

April 28, 2002|By Margo Harakas | Margo Harakas,Special to the Sun

When the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation Inc. launched its Web site last April, the message was that finding one's ancestors, at least those who passed through Ellis Island, was "as easy as pushing a button."

Now planners are acknowledging, "It's not."

"It may take the pushing of a lot of buttons," says foundation president and CEO Stephen A. Briganti, who spoke recently about improvements and additions to

While the American Family Immigration History Center Web site has made it far easier to trace your roots, "You still have to do some searching," says Briganti. In his own search, he had to look at 300 entries under the surname Rotunno to find his grandmother, who was misidentified as a man. Misspellings are not uncommon on the passenger records of the 17 million immigrants who entered the United States through Ellis Island from 1892 to 1924. Fortunately, the site offers similarly spelled or pronounced names.

"Genealogy is an adventure," says Briganti. An adventure that 60 percent of Americans pursue, among them Allan Selbst of Plantation, Fla.

Selbst had no interest in genealogy until he and his wife visited Ellis Island last year and to their astonishment found his wife's grandparents listed on the Wall of Honor. (This wall honors all arrivals. No matter how or when or where your ancestor came ashore, you may pay to have his or her name inscribed there alongside Al Jolson, Rudolph Valentino and the fathers of Paul Revere, Frank Sinatra and Barbara Bush.)

When Selbst, a doctor, got home, he searched the Web site for information on his forebears.

Web site traffic jam

That the site, which consists of 500 million pieces of digitized information, answers a hungering is seen in its popularity -- more than 2 billion hits.

The site reached the No. 1 spot on Lycos within days of its launch, causing a traffic jam that knocked some users off-line. That problem has since been resolved, says Briganti, with a near tripling of the servers, from the initial 13 to 37.

You can also view or buy copies of the original passenger manifests and photos of immigrant ships.

Keep in mind, only those who arrived in steerage or in third or fourth class had to pass through the Ellis Island processing center, where it was decided who stayed and who was sent back.

"First- and second-class passengers never saw an inspection official or an immigration station," says Jeff Dosik, librarian technician at Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island. Better-heeled passengers unloaded directly at the piers in New York harbor. They were given a quick inspection in their cabins, asked a couple of questions, and waved on.

While specific groups of people were legally excluded (including criminals, contract laborers and unaccompanied minors), immigration was pretty much wide open until Congress set quotas in 1921.

The Immigration Act of 1924, says Dosik, changed everything.

Ellis Island went from being a processing station to a center for the detention and deportation of those who had entered the United States illegally. By 1954, the facility was shut down. A decade later it was incorporated as part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument, and in 1990 the historic site opened to the public.

Then last year, the Web site tied to the American Family Immigration History Center, and sponsored by the foundation, the National Park Service and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, came on line.

Potential visitors to the site should know that more information makes for an easier search. If possible, gather beforehand alternate spellings on names, ages of passengers, dates of arrival and ports of departure.

Selbst remembers rejoicing when he finally found information on his maternal grandfather, Nachem Yablonka, who emigrated from Poland.

Names were changed

The problem, says Selbst, is names were changed or Americanized. Nacham Yablonka became Nathan Silverman.

"Here they are coming off the boat," says Selbst, "they don't speak English or they speak with a broken accent, and the custom agent says, 'What is your name?' And he writes it down phonetically. Sometimes even when the person writes down his own name, it may be spelled differently than the family remembers."

Other family members have yet to show themselves, including his paternal grandmother, Kate Marcus, whose family name was changed from Marchewka or Marchuska.

Meanwhile, the trip to Ellis Island gave Selbst and his wife an idea for a gift for his parents' 60th wedding anniversary. They had the names of both sets of grandparents inscribed on the Wall of Honor at Ellis Island.

Says Selbst: "I tell my son and daughters, 'When you go to Ellis Island and look at the wall, remember this is where it started in this country, and these are the people who started your lives.' "

Margo Harakas is a reporter for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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