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Ellis Island Search Engine

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The following is a list of tips that should make your ancestor searching a bit easier on the Ellis Island database:

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Searching the Ellis Island database

-by Kathi Reid

Ellis Island and other ship passenger lists to the US
  • Ship Manifest lists were compiled in the country of the immigrant, not at Ellis Island; therefore you should search for your ancestor's name in the language of immigrant country. Even if someone was always known by the Americanized name once he stepped foot on Ellis Island, he will probably be listed in the ship's manifest list in the language of his home country. Search for Janos or Juan, not John. Search for Andre or Andros, not Andrew.

  • If you are unable to find an individual in the ship records, try a search with the names in reverse order. Yes, enter the given name in the surname field and the surname in the first name field.

    In the pre-1900 passenger ship records there was no standardized procedure for entering the names of passengers. They could be entered as surname first or as the given name first. Not until 1905-1906 was the procedure was standardized so that the surname was entered first on the list.

    In most European counties there are a fair number of men's given names also found as surnames. For passengers with such names, this has lead to some confusion in the data entry of the Ellis Island database and from time to time surnames have been transcribed as the given name. Thus, Henry Joseph might be found as Joseph Henry.

    Also, you may find names that were unfamiliar to the ship lists' transcribers, such as Eastern European names, in reverse order. Some European countries always give the surname first while others, such as German and English, always give the given name first. When you are unable to find individuals in the passenger ship records, be sure to search the name in reverse order.

  • When you receive search results, take notice of the view options above the search results. You can choose to see your results filtered by "Exact Matches Only", "Close Matches Only", "Alternate Spellings Only", "Sounds Like Only", or "All Records". While you may expect to find your ancestor's name spelled correctly, it is not always the case. The person who wrote or typed the original manifest could have misspelled the name. The person who transcribed the manifest may have misread the handwriting on the transcript.

  • Don't limit your search to names that sound similar. I found that the transcription from the handwritten script is very important. In script a T, F, P and Z may look alike. Also a B and K may look alike in the original script. In one case, I was surprised to see a script S transcribed as an L. The size of the stroke or the loop at the end could very easily be misread. Capital O and Q are two other letters I have seen misconstrued. So when searching for an ancestor, think of what other letters could look similar.
    Often- confused letters in transcriptions
    L and S 
    T and F
    J, G, and Y
    I and J
    K and R
    O and Q
    P and R
    U and W


  • Many of the later ship manifests are typed, filled with typing errors and the transcribers transcribed them "as-is". In this case, it is not enough to look for phonetic alternatives. For example, my grandfather's first name is mis-typed as Joserh instead of Joseph. You can do a search by first initial, or search for other family members and check the manifest to see if the family travelled together.

  • You can choose to search by last name only. Click on new search to further limit your search. For example, I was unsuccessful in searching for Katherina Wagner, even though I tried many variations for Katherina. My next step was to search for all Wagners by leaving the first name in the search box blank. When I received the list of all Wagners, I was able to further refine my search by the use of the tabs. In this case, I limited my search to gender and port of departure. So I searched by last name with no first name, gender and port of departure. The limits available are port, name and gender, year of arrival (you can supply a range of years), ethnicity, age on arrival (you can supply a range of ages), port of departure, name of ship. You can choose one, some or all of the search refinements.

  • You can search by last name and first initial. First names are frequently abbreviated on the passenger lists. Searching by first initial brings up all abbreviations and spelling variations for all first names that start with the letter selected.

  • Some women are listed under Mrs., such as Mrs. A. Smith. There is no way of knowing if the A is the abbreviation for her first name or her husband's first name as Mrs. A. Smith could correctly be either Mrs. Adam Smith or Mrs. Alice Smith. So when search for a woman immigrant, you may also try searching for her under her husband's first name or first initial. Those with the prefix Mr. or Mrs. show up at the beginning of all those with the same surname.

  • It was tradition for some European women (for example, Italian women) to travel under their maiden names even if married. So, if you cannot find a female ancestor under her married name, try searching under her maiden name. An exception may be made if they were travelling with their husbands. If they were following this tradition, even if they had children in tow, they would be listed under their maiden name, and the children by the father's surname. If you don't know her maiden name, try searching for her children who would be listed under the father's surname. Often, the husbands would come over earlier to establish themselves, and then their wives would follow with the children in later years.

  • If you still cannot find your immigrant ancestor, another method of searching is to try is to search for his spouse or children and when found, go to the manifest list to see if the family traveled together.

  • If you get an error message, a script time-out message, or a server busy message, hit the refresh/reload button on your browser. There is no need to go back and start the search again.
Examining the passenger records
  • After you have clicked on a name from the list of search results, you will be given a passenger record for the individual, which lists:
    • Name
    • Ethnicity
    • Place of residence
    • Date of arrival
    • Age on arrival
    • Gender
    • Marital status
    • Ship of travel
    • Port of departure


  • Above this passenger record is the option to "add to your Ellis Island file". You can save all your ancestors and "possibilities" into your Ellis Island file. Then bookmark/add to your favorites this personalized "Ellis Island file" which you can return to another day for further investigation. You can use your Ellis Island File to store passenger records, ship manifests, and ship images you find during passenger searches. You can also resume a search that you started earlier and review any Family History Scrapbooks that you created.

    *Important*: When saving to the Ellis Island file, it takes 2 clicks. I thought I had saved many records only to go back and have my file empty. After you click on "add to your Ellis Island file" be sure to click on ok on the next page.

    You can also book mark searches that you have performed into your Favorites on your computer and return to them another day without having to go through the whole search process again.

  • If you do find an ancestor on a ship manifest list, be sure to look at previous and next pages of names on the list. You may find relatives that traveled on the same ship.

  • If the ship manifest is missing or if it is the wrong manifest, one of the very common problems is that the microfilm was scanned from the wrong end. Try this: Pick a name or two from the "wrong" manifest page and look that person up in the index. *His* manifest page is likely to be the one you wanted in the first place.

  • Sometimes above the transcription of the manifest list is an option to view the original manifest list. I have on occasion tried to view the original list and instead get the symbol for a broken image. However, I found that it is at times possible to right click on the place where the image should be, and choose "show picture" which will sometimes to bring up the image. I have also tried viewing the image 10 minutes later and had it work. I have also gone back another day, and have been successful in bringing up the picture that the day before wouldn't work.



  • If you have the option to view the original manifest list, you will find a lot of information that has not been transcribed. Some of the columns on the original manifests that I saw are final destination (with street address), $ in possession, friend or relative who is sponsoring immigrant. I found the most interesting columns to be the ones that ask if the immigrant is a polygamist or anarchist. So far I have not found anyone who admitted to being either.



Still can't find you ancestor in the Ellis Island database?

  • Make sure he arrived in the time frame that Ellis Island was used: 1892-1924. Otherwise, you will need to obtain records from other on-line passenger databases .
    • Before August 1855: wharves of Manhattan
    • August 1, 1855-April 18, 1890: Castle Garden
    • April 19, 1890-Dec. 31, 1891: Barge Office
    • Jan. 1, 1892-June 13, 1897: Ellis Island (note: on June 14, 1897, Ellis Island burned to the ground.)
    • June 14, 1897-Dec. 16, 1900: Barge Office
    • Dec 17, 1900-1924: Ellis Island (which had been rebuilt.)


  • If your ancestor is not on the Ellis Island website, there are other passenger search engines available at Ancestor Search - Passenger Lists . These include the Castle Garden passenger lists; Hamburg passenger lists; the Immigrant Ships Transcriber's Guild passenger lists and many more.




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