Travel Back In History With Ellis Island’s Passenger Database

Ellis Island
Ellis Island

Between 1892 and 1954, more than 12 million immigrants came to the United States through Ellis Island, a little strip of land in New York Harbor.

The historic destination and its iconic sister Liberty Island are currently closed due to ongoing COVID-19 mandates, but the Statue of Liberty – Ellis Island Foundation’s online Passenger Database is available 24/7, rich with clues about many family trees. Through this database, you can search by last name to find details about possible distant cousins, like their birthplace, the year they arrived in New York and the name of the ship they traveled on. (If you’re hankering for more info, you can also sign up for a free account to learn more.)

Ellis Island Passenger Database

Here a few tips to help you get started:

—Ask older relatives for the names of your great-grandparents, aunts and uncles. This is a great excuse to reconnect with family members you’ve been meaning to call or video-chat anyway. (Using Zoom? We’ve got etiquette for you.)

—Have a general idea of your arriving relatives’ ages to narrow down results. If you know your grandparents were the first generation born in New York in the early 1910s or ’20s, their parents likely arrived around the turn of the century.

—Get a few possible full last names to try, as well as the full first name or first initial of some ancestors. If an initial search for a last name turns up too many options, you can try inputting the first name’s initial or in full to help narrow down results. For the latter example …

—Be prepared to try alternate (mis)spellings. My great-uncle was known simply as “Nick” by family, but his recorded first name at Ellis Island was actually three times the number of letters, and not arranged in common “Nicholas” order. One way to help pinpoint these relatives is by using the database’s filter options that let you choose “Close Matches,” “Alternate Spellings” or “Sounds like” options to track down more elusive contacts.

Ellis Island Passenger Database name filters

—Have fun! The passenger search tool is a great family-friendly activity and a welcome distraction during this challenging time of social distancing. So learn more about your family history. While we all patiently wait for a time when it’s safe to resume responsible travel, it’s comforting to know there are awesome journeys you can take while at home.

—Kristin Heise