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Ellis Island Database Tips


A couple of months ago, I wrote a pair of articles about the online Ellis Island database (EIDB) ( and the response was overwhelming. Never before have I received so many e- mails as a result of an article I've published—or so many requests to write more on a topic. In case you'd like to refresh your memory, you can find them here:

"How Accurate is the Ellis Island Database Transcription?"

"An Ellis Island Experiment"

The responses essentially fell into two categories: 1) folks writing to share their own experiences and 2) others asking questions about errors contained in the database. In this article, I'd like to share some of the wisdom from the first group, and in another article, I will do my best to address the concerns of the second cluster.

Morse's Site for Searching the EIDB in One Step In the earlier articles, I briefly discussed Stephen P. Morse's remarkable website ( which, complements the EIDB and helps in excavating those hard-to- find ancestors. To my delight, many finally found their elusive kin and wrote to tell of their success. Typical were comments such as these:

"I finally found my grandfather. His name is August Slenkamp, formerly Schlehenkamp. I found him by using August S, German, and arrived 1907. He came up as 'August Schenkemp.' I never would have thought of that spelling. I ordered the manifest page containing my grandfather's name and the photo of the ship. Both were a big hit at my mother's 85th birthday."
—Vickie Saimons

"I followed your tip and used Stephen Morse's website. I knew that my great-grandfather, Julian Burzynski (pronounced Burr-jeen-skee or often Boo-jeen-skee), had left German Poland in 1892. At the Morse website, I used his first name and then "Bu" and there was Julian Bugjuski, age 36, wife Katarzyna (listed as "Catha") and their six small children (with son, Theodore, listed as "Therd"). That was one mutation of the spelling I had not thought of!"
—Fran Lada

Using Morse's site will greatly increase your odds of success, but our experienced readers contributed additional tips that may prove useful to you, if you are still among those of us searching.

Try Likely and Not So Likely Misspellings
This piece of advice may seem fairly obvious, but it extends not only to names, but also places—and even to relatives of the same name traveling together:

"My grandmother, Gizella Peto, appeared in the database as Yuella Peto . . . They both came from the same hometown in Hungary. Patroha was transcribed as Pahoha on his and Padrolia on hers."
—Marion Osborne

"Another common error I have seen is the place name 'Liban' instead of 'Libau.'" Libau (present day Liepaja in Latvia) was a common departure port."
—Marion Werle

"My grandmother, Astrid Naemi Englund, immigrated in 1912. She told me pretty much the entire story of her immigration, so I knew when she arrived, what ship, etc. I also knew she traveled with her brother, Fritz Englund. When I looked them up on the Ellis Island site, her name had been changed to 'Astrid Norma Englund' (an understandable error), but Fritz's last name had been changed to something un-phonetic, even though it is given in the original manifest as ditto marks under her surname."
—Larry Roth

Try Others They May Have Traveled With
If you know or suspect that several family members came together, try other names than your direct ancestor, especially those with simpler first names:

"After several failed attempts, I decided that the spelling of the name must be the problem. I remembered that one record for my great- grandfather had his named spelled 'Marton,' so I tried that. Still, no success for my Margaret Martin. Then, I decided to try using her son, Anton, as the key person. Success! He was listed as Anton Marton, and all the family members were with him. His mother was recorded as 'Margarethe.'"
—Joseph F. Martin

Try Maiden Names
Italian women in particular were apt to travel under their maiden names, and as we see in this example, this habit could even lead to gender confusion:

"I finally found my grandmother, Maria Domenica DeNicco, listed as Domenico DeMicco, a 27-year-old male. The reason I stayed with this listing is that the passenger list showed a daughter, Maria, and under Maria was a male with the same last name as my grandfather. I was overjoyed to find that Domenico was going to her husband, Vincenzo LaTeana, in the town in PA where they lived."
— Janet Polas

Try Both Farm and Patronymic Names
Those of Scandinavian origin will want to keep this tip in mind, even if all the other documents pertaining to your ancestor use just one of these names:

"It took me months to track down both of my grandfathers because both changed their last name, and used that particular name only during emigration. My paternal grandfather, Nels Elvik, called himself Nels Hanson. His father's given name was Hans. My maternal grandfather Hans Ona, called himself Hans Lien. The family house was named Lien which means the hillside. I found this only after discovering that three of his siblings went by the name, Lien, and still do to this day."
—Neil Elvick

"He was found to have traveled using his patronymic name instead of the farm name (Ludvig Rasmussen instead of Ludvig Lie), although he didn't subsequently use that name, nor did his siblings. He pops right up when doing a search on the patronymic name."
—Tony Hansen

Try Reversing First and Last Names
As can be seen in these Hungarian and Scandinavian examples, this tactic is worthy of trying regardless of your ethnic heritage:

"My grandfather, Gabor Nagy, appeared as Nagy Gobor. Hungarians listed their last name first many times, but not always. The cursive handwriting tricked them with the a and o. Only by typing in this misspelling of his first name in the last name search did I find him."
—Marion Obsorne

"He was found to have his name reversed and slightly misspelled. Instead of Halvard Lie, he was listed as Lie Halward."
—Tony Hansen

Try Using Less Information
Although online tools now give us plenty of options to help narrow searches for those with common names, sometimes it's helpful to resist the urge to use them all:

"Remember the old adage about not typing in too much information? I should have left out the boat name. I discovered that it is case- sensitive. I had been lazily typing aquitania, as most indices would allow. But when I followed all the steps diligently, including looking up the spelling of the ship's name, and cutting and pasting it in, I found him. What was the difference? The capital A!"
—Mary Jo C. Martin

Many thanks to all those who gifted all of us with their experience and insight. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that the suggestions presented here will produce a fresh crop of success stories!

Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak* (*yes, that's her real name) is the author of the newly released Honoring Our Ancestors: Inspiring Stories of the Quest for Our Roots and can be reached through her website at To see when she might be speaking in your area, please check the schedule page of her website.

I am a RootsWeb mailing list administrator
2001-2002 UGS, Lighthouse Genealogy Service with Iwaniw & Associates B.E.
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Last updated: July 27, 2002.

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