Thursday, September 2, 2010

Finding relatives on the Ellis Island Website

The Ellis Island Website provides a wonderful resource for finding one's ancestors and filling in gaps about one's family history, and it was the basis for the two preceding posts, and for a future post:
The De Vitos come to America. Note the space between the "De" and "Vito". Apparently I have been spelling my name wrong all my life, and it made it darned hard to find members of my family in the copious manifests available on the Ellis Island Website.
Perhaps I am getting ahead of myself.

Ellis Island in New York was the port of entry for thousands upon thousands of immigrants to the United States. Today the Ellis Island - Statue of Liberty Foundation maintains a fantastic database of ship manifests - passenger list forms that were completed by the steamship companies, and presented to government officials upon arrival at Ellis Island. The digital images of the actual manifests are stored along with painstakingly transcribed data points such as the passenger's first and last name, age, date-of-arrival, place-of-origin (sort of), and the name-of-the-ship. Further information may be gleaned from the digitized image of the manifest, such things as the passenger's occupation, who sponsored them, where they were headed within the United States, and who they were traveling with. But one must beware. Transcription errors exist, some introduced by the modern transcribers because most of the records were entered by hand, and some of that handwriting is very hard to read. Some of the errors exist in miss-communication between the ship record keeper and the passenger, sometimes due to language barriers, mistrust on the part of the passenger for the authority figure, or sloppiness and or tiredness of the recorder. Here are some tips for finding your immigrant ancestors.

1. If you can find out from anyone the approximate date that your ancestors arrived, or the birth year of the immigrant, it will help narrow your search, as will the maiden names of any of the female immigrants, approximate dates of arrival, or the name of the ship they arrived on.

2. Start with the immigrant with the strangest first name, and search on that person's first and last name. If the individual with the unusual first name is a woman, try searching under their maiden name first, especially if they are from Italy, France, Portugal, or Spain. If you do not find that person's listing try to broaden the Field with alternate spellings of the last name. The immigrant's name may not be included correctly in the Ellis Island database due to typos, illegible handwriting and other errors. Start with common misspellings. If that doesn't work, then try reversing a few letters, such as "Devtio" for "Devito."

3. Romance languages such as French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese may "genderize" or pluralize the last name by changing trailing vowels. For example Devito - Devita. Names formed by using smaller words (as in "de vita" which means "of life" may be joined or separated at the word breaks. Also names formed with leading "De" "Di" "Da" may all be interchangeable, and consonants that are now double in the name may once have been a single consonant, and vice versa (e.g. Devitta/ De Vito). Names that end in a long "e" sound now may have had a "y" appended, or have once ended in an "i" "i-a" blends pronounced "ya" may become simplified to a single vowel. There is a phonetic search available on the Ellis Island Website.

4. Certain letters may also may have been confused when transcribing from the original script. Some letters in old handwriting are often difficult to recognize or are commonly confused because of curls and flourishes, plus the differences in old style writing and modern day writing style. In old Italian script, for instance, the upper-case "S" looks like an "F".

Commonly Confused Upper Case Letters
F - H
J - I
K - R
S - L, F
O - Q
P - R
U - V
W - M, UU

Commonly Confused Lower Case Letters
b - f
c - e
d - el, cl
e - c, i
i - e, l
j - i
k - t
s - l
t - c
ss - fs, ps
w - vv
y - g

5. If you are still not finding the individual with the unusual name, try the first initial and various spellings of the last name, or no initial and various spellings of the last name, but limit the search by the approximate birth year of the individual.

6. Search for other individuals they may have traveled with.

7. If all else fails, try reversing the first and last name.

8. Immigrants may have "Americanized" their name. (e.g.: Nicola became Nicholas, Grazia became Grace, my Uncle Andy thought Anthony sounded too Italian, my Grandfather Felice Ettore DeVito went by Eddie, and my aunt Agness was actually named Assunta).

9. If you know the name of the ship and approximate date of arrival, you can search by ship.

10. Try the the Ellis Island One-Step Search Tool developed by Stephen P. Morse. This is an amazing resource that allows you to specify surname, boat name, year and/or age of arrival, port, ethnicity, etc. in just one step.

Well, I hope you find this useful, just be persistent - stubborn even. As traits go, it's Italian.

No comments:

Post a Comment