Jerry writes "Ellis Island Goes Online With Immigration Lists
Tuesday April 17 04:33 PM EDT
By SUSAN SACHS (The New York Times)
The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation plans to begin offering Internet access today to passenger manifests from the ships that brought millions of immigrants to
New York in the late 1800's and early 1900's.
Now, for the first time and online, Ellis Island brings you . . . your ancestors.
Beginning today, if all goes as
planned, anyone with an Internet connection will be able to search through old passenger manifests from the ships that
ferried 17 million immigrants into New York Harbor, and the New World, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
database, extracted from microfilms of the original paper manifests, covers arrivals at Ellis Island from 1892 through 1924.
Those were the peak years of immigration, when as many as 5,000 people a day shuffled through the inspection process. The
information recorded on the manifests hints at their individual tales of grit, adventure and hope.
To find records, the
curious can go to www.ellisislandrecords.org. Seen on a computer screen, the
ship manifests are prosaic documents: page after page, column after column of names, ages and other dry particulars. Some
were typed, the letters fat and slightly uneven. More are filled with the dense florid handwriting popular at the turn of the
last century and barely decipherable now.
But the scraps of history contain an ineffable power. Concentrated within
them is the force of memory. And a trip through the records, either at home or at the Ellis Island museum, can be emotionally
Carol Curro and her husband, Santo Curro, took a preview spin through the computerized manifests last week,
when the museum staff let a few visitors try out the system before its official opening.
Mrs. Curro had come with a
quest: to find her favorite grandfather, who had crossed the Atlantic several times from Calabria, Italy, before settling
down in New York. "He used to talk about it all the time," she said. "I wish now I had listened more carefully."
Curro was only along for the ride. Or so he said. But just listening to talk about ancestors brought to mind one of his own
grandfathers. Maybe he would look. "It would be my mother's father," he explained. "His name was . . . "
And then he
stopped. His eyes filled with tears. His wife looked alarmed. His two children looked embarrassed.
"His name," Mr.
Curro continued in a strong but shaky voice, "was Paolo Scarfone. He came from a small town called Scilla that's S-C-I-L-L-A.
The family sat at one of the large-screen computers in the family history center, in the high-ceilinged room
called the Kissing Room because long ago bleary-eyed immigrants were reunited there with their American loved ones.
After one hour, Mrs. Curro did not find her grandfather. Mr. Curro found his.
"Look, here it is," he crowed,
pointing at the image of the ship's manifest on the screen, at a line where an officer of the ship Manilla, sailing out of
Naples, had written "Paolo Scarfone," a single man, 22 years old.
"And look, look," Mr. Curro said proudly, pointing
again at the picture of the 100-year-old document as if it confirmed his own place in history. There, as last place of
residence, the manifest showed "Scilla."
Officials of the Statue of Liberty- Ellis Island Foundation, which runs the
museum and the family history project, expect millions of people will want to use the Internet site. As a guide, they looked
to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which put up its own genealogy Web site, www.familysearch.org, two years ago.
It was so popular that, in the beginning,
it crashed almost every day.
The Mormon Church, which has put some 600 million records from all over the world on its
site, also provided the labor for the Ellis Island project. About 12,000 volunteer members spent much of the last eight years
extracting data from microfilms.
They dealt with 22 million passenger records, including immigrants as well as business
passengers and tourists, and faced enormous challenges. The 60-year-old microfilm was of varying quality and the original
manifests, sold for paper pulp by the government decades ago, were not available for double-checking. People's names were
spelled in oddly inconsistent ways. So were the names of towns and villages, in part because the ship personnel wrote them
The volunteers sometimes spent hours trying to decipher a single entry, said Richard E. Turley Jr.,
managing director of the Mormons' family and church history department.
But they may open a window for countless
"The challenge every American faces, unless you're a Native American, is tracing their ancestors across the
ocean," Mr. Turley said. "This data helps span that difficult gap. At least you have a starting point, like the port they
For the dwindling number of people who are still alive to describe their own experience at Ellis Island,
the thrill of discovery is electric and personal.
Felicita Salto, a New Jersey grandmother, arrived at Ellis Island
from Italy in 1920, at the age of 6. The family spent 10 days on Ellis Island while her mother was in the hospital there, and
Mrs. Salto said she spent the time attached to her worried father's belt by a dog harness.
It is a story she has told
and retold to her children and grandchildren. But something about seeing her maiden name, Felicita Gabaccia, written right
there on the ship manifest, moved her in a way she found difficult to describe.
"It really hit me to see the names of
my family there,"said Mrs. Salto, now 87. "It gave me a feeling of belonging."
Many Ellis Island immigrants, fleeing
poverty and persecution, wanted to lose their past. They left their American descendants with just a few cloudy passed-on
memories of old dates, places and names.
"I think in the 1950's, people didn't want to think they came from someplace
else," said Stephen A. Briganti, a grandson of Italian immigrants and president of the foundation that runs Ellis Island.
"They concentrated on being American. Now it's their children and grandchildren who want to find that past."
Briganti counts himself as one of those and set out to find records of his grandmother's arrival. He located an entry that
seemed right on target. It concerned a young immigrant named Nunziata Rotunno, which seemed very close to Annunziata Rotunno,
his grandmother's name, and who came from the right small village in Italy, in the right year and at the right
Indeed, everything fit. There was just one problem. The manifest showed this Nunziata was a man.
Briganti's grandmother disguise herself as a man out of fear that the ship would not take a single woman traveling alone? Did
the ship's officer who filled out the manifest make a mistake? And if so, what happened when the Ellis Island inspectors
questioned the young Nunziata? Her descendants will never know the full story.
"This is what the search for ancestors
is going to be like," Mr. Briganti said. "I'm afraid people will think they'll come and push a button and out will pop their
ancestors. In many cases, they're going to have to come to the center with substantial information."
Visitors to Ellis
Island who want to use the family history center will need to reserve their time at the computers by calling the foundation
at (212) 883-1986. Reservations may also be made online at the Web site for the family immigration history center
www.ellisislandrecords.org. Anyone who is fortunate enough to score a match will be
able to see the name of the ship their relative sailed on, its departure and arrival dates, the name of the relative's
contact in the United States, and the names of anyone who shared the journey.
The manifests also tell much about the
The forms followed the language of the immigration laws, which excluded those considered mentally, physically
or politically undesirable. So in addition to basic biographical information, they asked whether the immigrant was literate,
a polygamist, an anarchist, a felon or a cripple.
There were attempts, too, to categorize the newcomers. In addition to
nationality, they were identified by "race or people" and by complexion.
On a 1921 manifest, Irish-born immigrants are
shown as British by nationality and Irish by race or people, with most being listed as having "fresh" complexions. Jews from
Eastern Europe and Russia were shown as belonging to the "Hebrew" race or people. Southern Italians were listed as a separate
people from Northern Italians, but both were described as having "dark" complexions.
A ship that sailed from Italy in
1910 carrying the 18-year-old Rodolfo Giuliani, grandfather of Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, seemed to be filled with single
young men who listed their occupations as laborers. Ships with Irish immigrants in the 1920's showed most people had many
relatives waiting for them in the United States, the fruit of an earlier wave of immigration from Ireland in the mid-1800's.
Many Eastern European immigrants said they had no one at all on the far side of the ocean to embrace them when they
eventually left Ellis Island.
The hard part, as anyone who tries to locate a relative on the Ellis Island Web site will
discover, is having the right clues. This reporter, taking advantage of a preview odyssey through the records, can attest to
The search aimed to find a grandmother whose children vaguely recalled that her original Russian name sounded
like Chaia Kerchevsky. Nothing showed up under that spelling that made sense for age or hometown. Nor for Chaia Kerchewsky.
Nor for C. Kerchivski or C. Kershovsky.
Two hours and many many clicks of the mouse later, a typo led to inspiration.
How about C. Krechevski?
And there, after a look through the alternative spellings suggested by the computer, was
Grandma. Name: Chaie Krechewski.
From the manifest, it appeared that the 21-year-old Chaie, accompanied by her mother
and little brother, sailed from Rotterdam, the Netherlands, on July 29, 1905, on the ship Noordam. The Ellis Island Web site
described it as a three-year-old vessel that stretched 575 feet from stem to stern and might have been built for the express
purpose of ferrying poor immigrants, since all but 500 of its 2,278 passengers traveled in third class.
the unimaginable expanse of ocean took 11 days she was sick the whole time, she would say impatiently to her grandchildren
before she died, so what could she remember? and on Aug. 8, in the dead heat of a New York summer, the ship brought her to
Ellis Island and a new life.