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Immigration through Ellis Island

I recently spent a few days in New York with my daughter and one of the highlights of our visit was a trip to Ellis Island. Now home to a museum, Ellis Island was the main reception centre for immigrants arriving in the United States for a new life. Over 12 million men, women and children passed through Ellis Island on their arrival in New York from Europe – was your ancestor one of them?


Tracing Ellis Island Ancestors


If your ancestor was wealthy enough to have arrived in the United States as a first or second class passenger, they will not have passed through Ellis Island, although you should still find names and details on ship manifests and passenger lists. It was thought unlikely that anyone rich enough to travel in style on board a large liner would be wealthy enough to support themselves in their new life. Steerage, or third-class passengers, were a different matter. They would queue up at Ellis Island to be questioned, before being admitted to the US.


The Ellis Island foundation has digitised many arrivals records on their website, and these are also available through Ancestry and other large genealogy sites. They also operate an email enquiries service, which is very useful if you come up against something unusual in the records and require a bit of explanation.


Where Did People Sail From and To?


New York was the main port of entry into the US from Europe, with smaller numbers of immigrants arriving in Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore and also in the Canadian ports of Halifax or Montreal. If you can’t find an ancestor passing through Ellis Island, is it possible that they arrived at another port?


There were many departure points from Europe to Ellis Island. In the UK, the main ports were Glasgow and Liverpool. Ships from Glasgow typically stopped in the north of Ireland to pick up more passengers, ships from Liverpool went south and picked up more immigrants in Cork. Other main ports on the continent were Rotterdam, Cherbourg and Hamburg. Ships from these places may also have picked up more people in Britain or Ireland, so it is worth checking passenger lists from these places too if you can’t find someone.


Multi-Stage Emigration Journeys


Many emigrants, especially those who fled Eastern Europe to escape persecution, did their journey to the US in stages. There are several examples of families travelling from Poland or Russia to France or Britain, where they could live in relative safety and save money for the transatlantic voyage, which was expensive for a family with several children. Passenger lists from continental Europe to Britain are not complete, so you may not be able to prove conclusively when someone left.


Emigration and Immigration stories can be complex, especially when dealing with records in different languages. I have extensive experience in investigating these journeys, so if you are stuck, or just want to find out when and where an ancestor came to North America, please get in touch. I’d be delighted to help you uncover your story.

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