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Ellis Island database of immigrants goes online

Tracking ancestors through Ellis Island used to mean a trip to the National Archives to pore through endless reels of microfilm.

But now, thanks in part to a project put together by the Mormon church, all it takes is a few clicks on the computer.

On Tuesday, officials with the church and Ellis Island were to unveil a new database containing arrival records for the 22 million immigrants who arrived on ships at the port of New York from 1892 to 1924. The database -- which includes 70 percent of all U.S. arrivals during that period -- will also be available on the Internet.

"There are a lot of people who are anxious to see this information," said Wayne Metcalfe, who helped direct the project for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "This is the tool everybody's waiting for to go back to Ellis Island and find their ancestors."

The database can be searched and includes immigrants' names, their port of origin, age, nationality, hometown and marital status.

Visitors to the new American Family Immigration History Center at Ellis Island can then get printouts of the information and, if they choose, buy a souvenir copy of the original, handwritten record and a photo of the ship that brought their ancestors to the United States. Online visitors will be able to order the records and photos in about a month.

The database will also will have room for visitors to add their own information -- including family photos and stories -- to share with relatives or the general public.

Until now, Ellis Island information was only available on microfilm in Washington or at the church's Family History Library in Salt Lake City.

But in 1996, the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island Foundation, which opened a museum at Ellis Island in 1990, decided to create a data center at its museum and raised $22.5 million to do so.

By then, the Mormon church -- which encourages members to do genealogical research as a means of finding ancestors to baptize into the faith after death -- had already begun to transcribe the information.

So while the foundation took digital photographs of the manifests immigrants filled out on board ship, 12,000 Mormon volunteers copied the records into a database.

It wasn't easy. Participants had to decode microfilm copies of the manifests, which often included dozens of entries per page in as many different languages.

"You might be transcribing the names of individuals who were immigrating from Greece, then a couple of lines later there's someone who's coming from Italy," said Metcalfe, who estimated the work would have cost up to $10 million without volunteer labor. "When your native language is English and you're trying to transcribe these names, it presents a real challenge."

But it will make research easier for the millions of descendants of Ellis Island arrivals, said Stephen Briganti, president and CEO of the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island Foundation. It is estimated that 40 percent of Americans can trace at least one ancestor back to the port, which opened in 1892.

Briganti said he used the new database himself to track down his own grandmother -- one of the 265 immigrants named Rotunno. Although he wasn't sure of the spelling of her first name, he was able to narrow the field by searching for the approximate date of her arrival and her age at the time.

"There's great interest now in finding one's family history, where they came from, what their life was like, what diseases they might have had," Briganti said. "This is certainly going to help that process along because this really is the story of America."

 

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