Roots: 10 Tips for Visiting Ellis Island

An estimated 120 million Americans have a relative who entered this country through Ellis Island

By Lisa Sonne

Whatever differences exist between generations, there is one thing most grandparents and grandchildren share: ancestors.

With the Statue of Liberty beckoning,  you can take your grandchildren on a ferry ride to Ellis Island and tell them the family stories you want them to tell their kids someday. You can pretend you are immigrants yourselves on the boat. Then, visit the processing center at the museum, and search through ship manifests to learn details about your relatives.

Even if you are not one of the 40 percent of Americans who can trace their start in this country to Ellis Island, you can enjoy a memorable day together.

Here are ten tips to help you search your family roots, enjoy some photo shoots, and make the most of this bargain adventure.

Ride to the Past

1. For the price of ferry tickets you can see Lady Liberty and enjoy Ellis Island. Advance reservations with Statue Cruises can save you time in the security screening lines. Pick-up tickets at the historic Castle Clinton at the tip of Manhattan's Battery Park.

2. Head to the front of the top deck of the boat if you want spectacular views, fresh air, and a little King-of-the-World attitude. But beware — it's three flights of stairs. Inside or out, the starboard (right) side of the ferry will have the best Statue of Liberty views while heading out.

3. "Be prepared." Include plans to avoid motion sickness, extra tissues in case the bathrooms run out of TP, and small bills so your grandchildren can partake of the souvenirs and popcorn on board.

On the Island

4. If your grandkids need to wiggle out some extra energy before entering museum mode, start outside with The American Immigrant Wall of Honor. It's billed as the largest wall of names in the world. Let the children search for family names and famous monikers among the more than 700,000 immigrants who have been memorialized. Splendid views of the city also make this a good photography spot.

5. Add a name to the Wall of Honor for a minimum contribution of $150. You'll get an official certificate to frame at home, and the name of your immigrant ancestor will also appear in a searchable online database.

6. Upstairs in the beautifully restored Main Building on Ellis Island, you can see what it was like for immigrants who traveled steerage and third class to be "processed." Headsets are available for an audio tour. Ranger-guided tours are offered on a first-come, first-served basis. Or, let your grandchildren create their own path through the exhibits of mental, medical, and legal tests that newcomers sometimes underwent to determine if they had to return to their country or were "safe" to enter the United States.

Your Roots

7. Head straight to The American Family Immigration History Center if you want to dig deeper into your specific family roots. Buy some computer time for $5, and you can quickly search through 3.5 million pages of passenger records that cover 1892 to 1924. You might learn who sponsored your relatives' trip, what address they hoped to live at, and how much money they brought.

"That's how tall he was?"

"I was named after her?"

Families' quests and discoveries bring an excitement to the computer alcoves. Records may include the color of travelers' eyes and hair, whom they traveled with, their ethnicity, height, hometown, and port of origin. You may even look at an illustration of the ship they traveled on, and see how many days their passage took.

"The Center crosses intergenerationally," says Director Catherine A. Daly. "It creates a wonderful dialogue of questions being asked of one generation by the other." Daly shares the following research tips:

8. Go broad when you first enter names and information to research. Only include the last name, even if you know the first one, and give a range of years, not a specific year. Don't even specify gender on the first pass. You will get more information, and it might compensate for any data entry errors made back then.

9. Try different spellings. There were lots of different accents from the immigrants and the people who were recording the information for the ships. They might have heard wrong, spelled a name differently, or misread someone's handwriting. By the way, it's a myth that names got changed at Ellis Island: All the names on the ship manifest were determined at the port of origin.

10. You and your grandchildren can start your "Roots Journey" before leaving home at the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation. Treasure hunt through 25 million records, then save your file and bring your questions, when you make your own pilgrimage to Ellis Island.

You'll find lots more to do in the Big Apple at our New York City Guide. Are you wondering, Anyone in Our Family … Famous? For an altogether different Roots journey, go to The Chattahoochee Valley or Lindsborg, Kansas (Little Sweden).


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