Learning More About Your Ancestors

Visiting Ellis Island can make many people wonder about their genealogical roots. When did my ancestors come to America? Where did they come from? What were conditions like (in Europe and in America) when they immigrated? What were their experiences as immigrants?

There are many ways to find the answers to these questions. The primary resource for most genealogical research in the United States is the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), and every year more documents and records are being made available online. There are also many websites that offer access to ship's manifests and passenger lists (some are totally free and some charge a minor fee), and there are libraries specializing in genealogical research.

Due to Ellis Island's connection to immigration, we have tried to provide some basic help for those who are just beginning their research. What we offer here is very basic, but it should be enough to get you started.

Getting Started: Passenger Arrival Records (Manifests):

A good place to start your search is with the passenger arrival records. These documents mark your ancestors' first footprints in America and can lead you backward and forward in your family genealogy.

Most nineteenth-century passenger arrival records (also called the ship's manifest) provide the name of the vessel, the ports of embarkation and arrival, and the date of arrival in the United States. For each passenger the list provides the person's name, age, sex, occupation, country of origin and country of intended settlement. You may also be able to learn if your ancestor was traveling alone or with family and, occasionally, the number of bags carried. Births as well as the date and cause of death of any passenger who died en route are also noted.

Beginning in 1893, the lists provide more detailed information for each passenger. The manifest also recorded the person's marital status, nationality, last residence and final destination. Passengers were asked whether they had been in the United States before, and, if so, when and where. If the passenger was going to join a relative in the U.S., that person's name, address, and relationship to the passenger was recorded. Manifests can also include notes about any passengers detained at Ellis Island.

The format of passenger lists was later expanded to include entries for a person's race (1903), physical description and birthplace (1906), and the name and address of the nearest relative in the immigrant's home country (1907). It's good to have some very basic information before you start your search:

  • Name of your ancestor
  • Approximate age at arrival
  • Approximate date of arrival
  • Port of embarkation or departure

Learning More about Your Ancestors | Finding Arrival Records Online | Tracing Family History at the National Archives | Conducting Family History Research on Ellis Island

Last updated: January 24, 2018

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Statue of Liberty National Monument

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