Ellis Island and Family Stories

Ellis IslandEllis Island opened its doors as a processing center for immigrants on January 1, 1892. Originally called Gibbet Island and located in the New York harbor, the majority of Ellis Island is actually part of New Jersey and not New York. For 60 years, up until the last immigrant was processed in 1954, 12 million immigrants passed through its doors, on their way to a new life in the United States.

The story of an ancestor’s immigration to the United States is often one of the most cherished when it comes to a family’s history. But stories have a way of accumulating additional information as they are passed on down through the generations; some of this information turns out to be partially true or totally false. You’ll need to do some research on your family’s immigration story to get to the truth and then to share it with other family members.

Ellis Island and Immigration – Truths, Half-Truths and Misconceptions

When researching family history, it is quite common to encounter stories about your family’s arrival in the United States. For the majority of us, the port of entry was Ellis Island, but not always! As with any story or legend, you’ll want to do your research to prove or disprove the story and to get the facts. Here are areas to focus on:

  • Castle Garden: Before Ellis Island greeted its first immigrant on January 1, 1893, Castle Garden was the main processing center for immigrants arriving in the New York area. From 1855 through 1892, Castle Garden was the first official immigration center for the United States, having processed over 8 million immigrants.
  • Other Ports: Many families arrived in other ports such as Boston, Philadelphia and New Orleans. Don’t assume that they arrived through New York. In addition, some ethnic groups such as the Irish, arrived in Canada and then made their way over land to the United States. Thoroughly research passenger lists and other immigration-related record sets.
  • The Process: A multi-part process was used to qualify immigrants to stay in the United States once they arrived at Ellis Island. Most ship passengers were inspected on-board the ship, unless they were traveling first or second class. Inspectors looked for medical issues and those deemed to be too sick were sent to the Ellis Island Hospital and sometimes eventually returned. Further medical exams were conducted once the immigrant entered the processing center; everyone had to walk up a long flight of stairs that could expose issues such as heavy breathing or heart conditions. After passing medical exams, an immigrant was questioned to verify information such as name, age, religion, last residence and to verify the name of a sponsor or family member taking responsibility for the immigrant. Roughly 98% of those arriving passed all the required steps in the process with about 2% being returned to their country of origin.
  • Name Changes: Contrary to popular urban legends and family stories, it is highly unlikely that your immigrant ancestor’s name was changed as they came through Ellis Island or any other processing center. The main reason: passenger lists were created by the steamship and transport companies prior to leaving Europe and other ports. The names were then verified at Ellis Island. Most name changes occurred after an immigrant had arrived in the United States in order to assimilate more easily in his or her new country. This meant when registering for school, applying for a job, etc. the new name was used and kept from that point forward.

What Is Your Family’s Immigration Story?

Have you researched and documented your family’s immigration story? They may not have arrived at Ellis Island, but there is still an interesting story to be told. Here are some tips on how to get started:

  • Start at home. As with any family history research project, gather information already on hand. Look for citizenship certificates, letters, diaries and other information related to an ancestor’s departure from the “old country” or arrival here in the United States.
  • Interview family members. Family stories about immigration, even if they only have a shred of real evidence, are valuable. Sit down with older relatives and conduct a recorded interview. The app from Saving Memories Forever makes recording and uploading a breeze. Alternatively, you could send an email with several questions. Determine who immigrated, where they came from, why they left, etc.
  • Research online. Use the resources available at the Ellis Island or Castle Garden websites (see Resources below) or sites such as Ancestry.com, MyHeritage or FindMyPast.com.
  • Research offline. You may hit a stopping point, especially when trying to find information from your ancestor’s home country. Consider visiting a major genealogical library or repository such as the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. In addition, hire a researcher skilled in the language of the country of origin and record sets to continue your research.
  • Preserve and share the story. Once you’ve gathered all your information, consider publishing a book or starting a blog or website to share the information with others. If you are lucky enough to have recorded interviews using a site like Saving Memories Forever, upload those interviews to their website where the information will be safe. Share those stories with others and incorporate their feedback and stories as well.

Resource List

  • The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, Inc. – Genealogy 


  • Ellis Island – National Park Service


  • Castle Garden


  • Castle Clinton National Monument – National Park Service


  • One-Step Pages by Stephen P. Morse


  • Beyond The Arrival Date: Extracting More From Immigrant Passenger Lists, by Lisa Alzo

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© 2013, copyright Thomas MacEntee

Thomas Thomas MacEntee is a genealogy professional specializing in the use of technology and social media to improve genealogical research and as a means of interacting with others in the family history community. For more information visit here.

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About Saving Memories Forever

SavingMemoriesForever.com is an affordable online system that helps people record, share, and save their family stories. It combines a free app for iPhone/iPad devices and Android smartphones with a private website. You can join us as a Free Member to try out the system. Or you can join as a Premium Subscriber where you will have unlimited access to all of the features. Either way, Saving Memories Forever is an easy-to-use system that helps you build a collection of family stories and keeps those stories organized and accessible to family members. Our Blog is a celebration of family and life in general. Our posts offer helpful tips and insights that will help you on your way to preserving your family's oral tradition.