Finding your relative on the manifest

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Last month, we discussed the procedure our immigrant ancestors had to go through to get off the ship and be released from Ellis Island. This procedure varied at other ports but was similar.

By most estimates, 2 percent of the immigrants who entered Ellis Island were forced to return home for health reasons or because they failed the mental aptitude tests or for various employment reasons.

During World War I, it was difficult to travel to America, mostly thanks to the new U-Boats that were sinking ships around the coasts of Europe. By the time World War I ended, many Americans were fed up with problems caused by all these immigrants, and laws were passed to make it more difficult to come here.

At first, a literacy test was established. To enter America, an immigrant had to be able to read at a third- grade level in their own language. It seemed reasonable to Congress, but most of our immigrant ancestors and their relatives in the old country were not educated enough to read or write very well.

Then they enacted a quota system by which each ethnic group could only send over a certain percentage of the total number of immigrants for a given year. So if 100,000 Italians came to America in 1920, out of a total of a million immigrants, then this meant that in 1921, only 100,000 Italians would be allowed in.

This was a real shock to the immigrants on ships arriving in November, who had endured the horrible voyage only to find out that the Italian quota had already been filled and everyone had to return home. All these things dissuaded people from coming over, which was the government’s intention.

Later, each immigrant had to apply for a travel Visa, and they were interrogated during the application process. So most of the people who tried to come over no longer had to go through the Ellis Island procedure anymore. By 1954, Ellis Island was closed because it was no longer needed. By the 1980s, Ellis Island was a run-down abandoned complex with broken windows and not much else. But interest in genealogy prompted people to raise funds to restore the building and to enter the passenger manifests in a computer database for the public to search.

So how do we find our ancestor’s passenger manifest? The easiest way is to go to This is Ellis Island’s official web site. You need to register on the site but it is free to search. You can type your ancestor’s given name and surname and there it is, right? Not always.

Many people do not find their relative on Ellis island on the first try. First of all, are you sure Zi’Zi Deline came through Ellis Island? She might have come through Boston, or Baltimore, or a dozen other ports. The easiest way to confirm the port is to A) ask Zi’Zi’ Deline if she’s still alive; or B) find her citizenship application papers at the National Archives. I’ll explain that process in another column but you can send me an e-mail to ask how it’s done, if you can’t wait.

The second reason for not finding Zi’Zi’ Deline is that you need her maiden name. All women in Italy, whether married or not, went by maiden names all the way until the end. So when they came to America, they traveled under their maiden name. You also need the correct first name. After all, you might have known her as “Zi’Zi Deline” but that’s not the name she was born with. It turns out she was born “Orsolina” but was called “Adeline” by her friends and relatives, and her nipoti knew her only as “Zi’Zi Deline.”

So now that I am searching for Orsolina Santoliquido at Ellis island, I should be ok, right? Well, then there’s the issue of transcribing the original manifests. Most of them were handwritten until around 1920, so when they entered the names in the database, they might have misread the handwriting and entered them in the database incorrectly. The Ellis Island web site does not make it easy to search for poorly spelled names. You need to go to the “Advanced Search” page to try different spellings.

You should use “Starts with” and search for “Ors” and “San”. You can also search for the name of the town, in this case “Tri” for “Triggiano.” Luckily, her first name is quite rare. However, if your are searching for “G-IU-seppe”, it might be misspelled early in the name, such as “G-UI-seppe”. Always select the gender M or F, since it is very hard to confuse the handwritten “m” and “f.” This cuts your list in half.

If these techniques still do not work, try swapping the first and last names. Sometimes they transcribed the wrong name in the wrong column. Another surprise is that they could have been listed under their MOTHER’S maiden name. Many children came over with their mother. The father was frequently already here. When the rest of the family finally had the money to travel here, mom led the parade. Her name is the first name on the manifest. Then they asked the named of her kids, so she told them, Costantina, Domenico, Nicola and Antonio. So they would list the first names of the kids underneath her maiden name, with ditto marks (or the word “d’o”) for the surname. So don’t be surprised if you find your ancestor listed with his mother’s maiden surname. I did!

If you are sure that your relative did NOT come through Ellis Island, you need to use to search the correct port, using the same techniques. If you are not a subscriber, try it out at your local public library or at a family history center. You may need to search multiple ports if you are just not sure which port was theirs. So do a general search on and then limit the results to “Emigration and Immigration.”

What can we learn, now that we found the manifest? Tune in next month!

Write to Dan at and please put “Fra Noi” in the subject line.

About Dan Niemiec

Dan Niemiec has been the genealogy columnist for Fra Noi since 2004. For the past 25 years, he has researched his genealogy back 17 generations, plus tracing descendants of his ancestors, yielding 74,000 relatives. His major focus is on civil and church records in Italy, Chicago vital records, Chicago Catholic records and most major genealogy web sites. He has given dozens of presentations to many local and some national genealogy societies on topics such as cemetery research, Catholic records, Italian records, Ellis Island and newspaper research, among others.

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