Ellis Island: How to Research Ancestors Who Passed Through the Gateway to Freedom

Ellis Island: How to Research Ancestors Who Passed Through the Gateway to Freedom

If your ancestors traveled to New York from outside the United States during the years 1892–1954, there’s a good chance they passed through Ellis Island. On January 1, we’ll be celebrating the 130th anniversary of the day Ellis Island opened its gates. In honor of this milestone, we’d like to take the opportunity to dive into the history of the island and explore MyHeritage’s Ellis Island records — one of the cornerstone collections on MyHeritage.

Search the Ellis Island and Other New York Passenger Lists collection on MyHeritage

Flanking the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, Ellis Island is one of the most famous immigration centers in history, serving as a gateway between the Old World and the Land of Opportunity. The stream of immigrants that passed through its doors transformed the character of the United States and made it into the powerful country it is today.

What exactly happened to your ancestors who passed through Ellis Island? And how can you learn more about them?

A brief history of Ellis Island

Ellis Island began as part of a tidal flat in the Hudson River with not much on it except oysters — an important food source for the Lenape people who were native to that area. Later, it became known as Gibbet Island because a gallows (also known as a gibbet) was built there to hang pirates. Eventually, the island was purchased by Samuel Ellis, who gave it the name it’s known by today.

Through most of the 19th century, the island served as the site of Fort Gibson, an important military base. The island was expanded in 1834 to accommodate construction of a railroad.

The first great wave of immigration began in 1814, and at that point there was very little regulation. 5 million people came to the United States from Europe over the next 45 years, and New York State set up an immigration center called Castle Garden at the Battery in lower Manhattan in 1855. When it was clear they would need bigger facilities, Ellis Island — which had stood vacant since the Civil War — seemed a good choice. While the island was being prepared, the Barge Office on the southeast tip of the Battery was used for processing immigrants.

Ellis Island was opened in 1892 and functioned for more than 60 years before closing in 1954. According to some estimates, around 40% of all current U.S. citizens can trace at least one ancestor to Ellis Island.

MyHeritage’s Ellis Island and Other New York Passenger Lists collection

If you have an ancestor who immigrated to the United States between 1892 and 1954, there’s a good chance that they passed through Ellis Island on their way into America. But even if your ancestor arrived earlier or later, you may be able to find them in our Ellis Island and Other New York Passenger Lists collection. The collection contains more than 100 million records spanning the years 1820–1957. The world changed beyond recognition over the course of those 138 years, and those changes are reflected in the records: by the 1950s, some of these passengers and immigrants were arriving by airplane rather than by boat.

Depending on the year, you may be able to find the following information about your ancestor in this collection:

 

  • Name
  • Age
  • Gender
  • Occupation
  • Dates of birth, departure, and arrival
  • Physical descriptions
  • Country of origin
  • Citizenship status
  • Race
  • Nationality
  • Addresses of family members and friends

 

Early passenger lists were single-page manifests continuing minimal information about passengers. Later on, standardized forms were used and more questions were added to them. For example, in 1897, immigration officials began to ask arrivals for names and addresses of relatives or friends they would be joining who lived in the U.S. In 1907, they also asked immigrants to share names and addresses of relatives or friends in their home countries.

One of the advantages of this MyHeritage collection is the fact that the responses to these supplemental manifest questions were indexed. That means that your search will return results not only of the passengers, but also of the people they mentioned when they filled out these forms.

Another unique feature of the MyHeritage collection is that two-page passenger manifests are stitched together. A common issue for genealogists researching Ellis Island and other immigration records is that they may find the first page but not the second. On MyHeritage, you’ll be able to view both pages side by side in a single image, ensuring that you won’t miss any important information.

Example of a stitched record in Ellis Island and other New York Passenger Lists, 1820–1957

Example of a stitched record in Ellis Island and other New York Passenger Lists, 1820–1957

 

Sample records

Given how many people went on to do great things after entering America through Ellis Island, there is no shortage of sample records of extraordinary people who passed through its doors.

Here, for example, is a record of Albert Einstein’s arrival on October 17, 1933. He sailed to the U.S. aboard the Westernland and ended up staying after he learned that the Nazis has seized his possessions back home in Germany. He, of course, went on to contribute immeasurably to the development of the atomic bomb that ended World War II, as well as to science in general with his brilliant theories.

Record of Albert Einstein’s arrival in the U.S., from the Ellis Island and Other New York Passenger Lists collection on MyHeritage

Record of Albert Einstein’s arrival in the U.S., from the Ellis Island and Other New York Passenger Lists collection on MyHeritage

The record mentions that he came with his wife, and lists :scientist” as his profession, as well as his language as “German,” his nationality as Swiss, and his race as “Hebrew” (an archaic term for Jewish). It mentions that he lives in Germany and his visa was issued in Berlin, and gives the name and address of his daughter, “Mrs. Keyser” in Amsterdam, as his nearest relative in his place of origin. Albert was in fact born in Germany, but moved to Switzerland in 1895 and gave up his German citizenship at the time. He moved back to Germany in 1914 and regained his German citizenship, but perhaps due to the rise of Nazism, preferred to report his Swiss citizenship to the Ellis Island official.

The record also lists “Princeton University” as the “relative or friend” he was planning to join in the U.S., and it states that he was planning to stay for 6 months. It even lists his height — 5’7” — and mentions that his complexion was fair, his hair gray, and his eyes blue.

Another famous person to pass through Ellis Island who can be found in the MyHeritage collection is Charlie Chaplin, the famous comedian, actor, filmmaker, and composer. Born in Great Britain in 1889, he arrived at Ellis Island on October 10, 1912, at the age of 23.

Record of Charlie Chaplin’s arrival in the U.S., from the Ellis Island and Other New York Passenger Lists collection on MyHeritage

Record of Charlie Chaplin’s arrival in the U.S., from the Ellis Island and Other New York Passenger Lists collection on MyHeritage

The record lists his name as Charles Chaplin, his age as 23, and his profession as “actor.” It mentions that he can read and write and has British citizenship. “Non-immigrant alien” is stamped across the “Last Permanent Residence” section, and it mentions that he was “on tour.” The record lists Sid Chaplin, Charlie’s half-brother who was a writer and actor himself, as the actor’s closest of kin in his place of origin, and includes Sid’s address. It states that he possessed $45 and that he had been in the U.S. twice before, in 1905 and 1912, also on tour. Under the “relative or friend” he’d be visiting in the U.S., it lists Sullivan and Considine, the theater company he was working with. His complexion and hair color are described as “dark” and his eyes blue; his height is listed as 5’6”. Finally, it says that he was born in London.

One more example is the record of Madeleine Albright, who was born Marie Jana Korbelová in Czechoslovakia. She disembarked from the S.S. America at Ellis Island on November 11, 1948, along with her mother Anna and two younger siblings. She went on to become the first female U.S. Secretary of State.

Record of Madeleine Albright’s arrival in the U.S. from the Ellis Island and Other New York Passenger Lists collection on MyHeritage

Record of Madeleine Albright’s arrival in the U.S. from the Ellis Island and Other New York Passenger Lists collection on MyHeritage

This list mentions her destination in the U.S. in Great Neck, N.Y., as well as her age — 11 — and her nationality, Czech. Her mother Anna is listed two pages earlier in the record, and it says that she’s 38 years old. Interestingly, it says that her younger sister Anna-Katherine has British citizenship.

As you can see from the examples above, some records are more detailed than others, but all of them can offer unique insights into the story of your family’s travels or immigration journey.

Search the Ellis Island and Other New York Passenger Lists collection now