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Smudges, Scribbles Hold Ellis Island’s History

Hanson, Rick. "Smudges, Scribbles Hold Ellis Island’s History." USA Today, 18 November 1998, sec. 17A, 18A.


Searching for ancestor in the immigration archive in New York Harbor can be like scanning a stadium for a familiar face. Now, thanks to the efforts of thousands of Mormon volunteers, that search should get much easier.

The Mormons’ work, slow and sometimes painful, should help 100 million Americans learn whether their relatives really came through Ellis Island – when, from where, with whom, on what ship.

The Mormons, members of the Church of Latter-day Saints, believe that tracing the country’s ancestry is part of their religious mission. They have established research libraries across the nation.

Now they’re tackling a sort of Comstock Lode of genealogy – the records of the 17 million immigrants who came through New York Harbor from 1892 to 1924, the largest movement of people in history.

Volunteers have put in more than 2 million hours over the past five years, trying to make sense of archaic handwriting on quasi-legible copies of faded ship passenger manifests. And they’re only half finished.

The information will be computerized and made available to the public in about two years, when the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation is scheduled to open its American Family Immigration History center on Ellis Island.

“It’s the greatest gift we could give anyone,” says Diane Taylor, one of the Mormon workers.

Officials of the foundation – which converted the old immigration station into a museum for the National Park Service – say the computer database will answer visitor’s most frequent question: Where are our family immigration records?

For four decades, the records have been kept on microfilm at the National Archives partially indexed and used regularly by researchers, but as inaccessible to most people as the wreckage of the Titanic.

But by the end of 2000, this vast file – containing more than half of all U.S. immigration records and listing ancestors of four in 10 Americans – will be searchable with a few keystrokes and mouse clicks.

Visitors to Ellis Island or its Web site should be able to learn an immigrant’s ship name and date of arrival, plus that person’s age on arrival, nationality, port of departure, occupation and marital status. They’ll be able to get a photocopy of the passenger manifest and a picture of the ship.

To search for an immigrant, however, the searcher will need to know some specific information about the person – a lot of Menachem Liebermans, for example, arrived from eastern Europe. The computer would need at least an arrival year or a nationality to narrow the search.

Exact spellings are important but not essential, because the computer will search for near spellings and phonetic spellings.

With information from the Ellis database, people will able to go to the National Archives microfilm for more details about their ancestors.

“Let’s go back and check our bloodlines, see who we are,” Lee Iacocca, chairman of the Ellis Island Foundation, said last month. “What you’ll find out is magic.”

Extracting information
When Ellis Island opened in 1892, an immigrant’s only “papers” were a few lines of information written on a passenger manifest by a shipping clerk in a port such a Naples.

The manifests were handed to the Immigration Service at Ellis Island, where many immigrants were checked for various diseases.

The Mormons have a theological interest in genealogy, and the church’s genealogical research unit had long viewed the Ellis archives as a potential gold mine.

So for the past four years the unit has delivered microfilm or paper copies of the manifest pages to volunteers who try to “extract” the entries, most of them handwritten, and copy them onto cards. Work is checked at headquarters in Salt Lake City, then entered into a computer database.

The volunteers are people like Taylor, 65, of Costa Mesa, Calif. Every day, for as many as 14 hours, she hunches over her machine, trying to determine whether a century-old smudge is an F or an S, or whether what looks like a pair of backward Fs is really a double S.

Like the other volunteers, she finds handwriting hard to make out. The print had faded even before the paper manifests were microfilmed in the mid-1950s and destroyed; on microfilm, the writing is even blurrier.

Sometimes, she clips along at a name a minute other times, she has to spend 45 minutes on a single name, and her task feels more like translation than transcription.

“They write really weird,” Taylor says of the shipping clerks. “Sometimes it looks more like Old English.

“But the worst are the place names,” she adds. “You’d be amazed how many ways you can spell Tripoli.”

Her eyes hurt; her neck hurts; despite experiments with various cushions, her butt hurts. But she keeps at it for most of her waking hours, because she considers it God’s work.

Deadline looms
Now, with the deadline two years away, there’s a special urgency.

Although the Mormons had planned to transcribe 17 million names, they’ll have to do as many as 25 million because the manifests list all travelers and crewmembers who came through the port, not just the immigrants.

So the genealogical unit has cut back other research and asked everyone to work even harder.

Like many of her colleagues, Taylor prays for help.

“If you’re not a spiritual person, I don’t know if you can do this,” she says.

“Sometimes, all you see are bumps and swirls and suddenly you realize, ‘My gosh, it Francesca!’ I’ll tell you, these records are important to somebody.”

Despite the workers’ efforts, foundation officials and independent genealogical experts agree that some people still will not find their ancestors’ names, for several reasons:

• Spellings and even entire names change over the years. The name a descendant searches for – say, “Sam Long” – may not be the name the one an ancestor entered the country under – say, Shimon Lebowitz.
• Some names or other information will be misread and incorrectly entered into the database.
• Some people simply didn’t immigrate through New York Harbor between 1892 and 1924, even though they or their descendents think they did.
• Some names are illegible and can’t be included in the database.

Mormon genealogical experts say they’re not sure yet how many records can’t be transcribed. But Ira Glazier of the Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies, which does research involving the same lists, says at least 10% of the names will be irretrievable - 1.7 million.

“Some people will be disappointed,” he says. And some who actually find the correct manifest, he adds, “won’t see a name. They’ll see a smudge.”

Most, however, probably will find something to connect them with the saga of immigration.

Felicita Salto always told her daughters Gilda and Denise about coming from Italy as a girl and stopping at Ellis Island while her mother was hospitalized.

Last month, at a ceremony to announce the new genealogical facility, the family was presented with a copy of a passenger manifest. There, on line 11, was Felicita’s name; it was like suddenly seeing a familiar face.

Now the family’s story is a documented fact.

“It was like looking at history,” Denise says. Her sister agrees: “It makes it very real. It will be real when my children have children, too.”

Getting Help
Here are some popular database providers:

• AGLL, formerly American Genealogical Lending Library (film loans, databases, indexes, books): Box 239, Bountiful, UT 84011; 1-801-298-5358; http://www.agll.com
• Allen County Public Library (nationwide genealogical collections and the Periodical Source Index database): Reynolds Historical Genealogy Dept., Box 46801-2270, Fort Wayne, IN 46802; 1-219-421-1200; http://www/acpl.lib.in.us
• Ancestry (databases of records and of researcher): Box 476, Salt Lake City, UT 84110-0476; 1-800-531-1790; http://ancestry.com
• Library of Congress (national collections, databases of photographs and historical documents): Local History and Genealogy Reading Room, Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C. 20540; 1-202-707-5537; http://www.loc.gov
• Lineages (research company and databases): 5 Triad Center, Suite 480, Salt Lake City, UT 84180; 1-801-531-9297; http://www.lineagesnet.com
• National Archives, User Services Branch (selected databases of federal records, research materials and reference help): 7th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, D.C. 50408; 1-202-504-5400
• Social Security Administration (public databases, files and letter forwarding): Office of Central Records Operations, Baltimore, MD 21235; 1-800-772-1213
• Department of Veterans Affairs (database of military veterans): 810 Vermont Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 50470; 1-202-389-2444
• Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies (immigration indexes in book form; no public database): Center for Immigration Research, 18 Seventh Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106; 1-215-925-8090
• To contribute: The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, 52 Vanderbilt Ave., New York, NY 10017-3898; 1-212-883-1986

Reprinted with permission of USA Today.

New Americans: Immigrants sit down to lunch at Ellis Island in this photo taken before the first world war. Ellis Island immigration records for the years 1892-1924 are being assembled in a database.
Genealogy sleuth: Diane Taylor of Costa Mesa, Calif., is one thousands of Mormon volunteers helping transcribe the records.
Among the 17 million: A Hungarian family waits to be processed by immigration official in this photo taken around 1910.
Family Iacocca: A ship’s manifest shows arrival information for the family of Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca.
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