We bet it’s happened to you: You log on to one of the popular websites with immigration records, such as Ellis Island , Castle Garden, Ancestry.com, FamilySearch or MyHeritage. Unfortunately, the search turns out to be less successful than you’d hoped. You know your ancestors are in that database somewhere, but your queries either come up empty or produce too many false matches.
If only you had more flexibility to refine your searches. For example, to find all Ellis Island immigrants named Stefano who were accompanied by Danielas. Or pare down the list of William Smiths at Castle Garden by specifying yours came from Scotland. Wouldn’t it be great to glean the details you want with greater efficiency and less aggravation?
That’s what Stephen P. Morse thought — and to the benefit of genealogists everywhere, he took action. On his One-Step Webpages, he’s posted search forms he designed to enhance those popular databases’ search capabilities, plus dozens more tools that’ll streamline your research.
If you haven’t yet discovered Morse’s site, you’re missing a handy back door to the immigrant ancestor you seek. So step up to your browser and use our guide to unlock this site’s potential.
Ellis Island One-Step Search
When Ellis Island launched its database of New York City passenger arrivals from 1892 to 1924, genealogists viewed it as the greatest advancement since pedigree charts. And why not? The ability to search records of 22 million immigrants, passengers and crew was a huge research boon. But as great a development as it was, people soon got frustrated with the site’s limitations: Searching on just first name, last name and gender wasn’t adequate for finding everyone’s immigrant ancestors.
Those limitations inspired Steve Morse’s first One-Step tools. Although Ellis Island has since expanded the official site’s search options (they now include features that debuted on the One-Step site, such as name-spelling flexibility, birth year, ship name, town of origin and ethnicity), Morse’s two Ellis Island search forms — White and Gold — still offer extra options for ferreting out hard-to-find immigrant ancestors. For instance, the Gold Form lets you search for town names that sound like your search term; both forms let you search on port of departure and age.
By default, both forms hunt for matches that start with your search term. That way, if you search on Glasgow in the town field, you’ll catch both Glasgow and Glasgow, Scotland, whichever way it was recorded. The Ellis Island site looks for exact matches unless you change the search parameters.
A key distinction between the two forms: The White Form employs the same search engine as the Ellis Island site. The Gold Form uses a different search engine, which works faster when you search on name fragments. Morse advises using the Gold Form for most searches, and the White Form when you need a “fresh perspective” for your search. See our form-by-form comparison and read on for a synopsis of each one’s strengths.
- Gold Form: Morse unveiled this brand-new form to provide maximum flexibility in searching all 25 million people in the Ellis Island database. It replaces his old Blue and Gray forms — the former had lots of search options, but covered only Jewish passengers; the latter combed the entire database, but had just four search fields. The Gold Form melds the best of both, offering added parameters for searching all the records — including traveling companion, exact arrival date and marital status. Want to search for everyone from a particular village? Specify the town, but leave the name fields blank. (Note: The White form lets you leave the last name blank, but the searches take longer because Ellis Island requires at least the first two characters of the last name.)
- White Form: If you can’t find someone you’re sure is in the Ellis Island database, the most likely culprit is a misspelled name, either on the original passenger list or in the transcription. Ellis Island’s Advanced Search (select it from the Passenger Search pull-down menu) gives you several options for finding incorrectly spelled last names: Is, Starts With, Alternate Spellings and Sounds Like. These are equivalent to the White Form’s Is Exactly, Starts With, Sounds Like (Few) and Sounds Like (Soundex) searches.
If it doesn’t find an exact match, the Ellis Island site will list up to 30 similar names that you can search on one at a time. The White Form’s Sounds Like (Many) option lets you search on all 30 names in one fell swoop — and you don’t need to include a first name or initial in your search.
The Ellis Island site doesn’t provide a way to browse the original passenger lists, but Morse comes to the rescue again. Suppose you’re looking for Italian passengers who arrived in early January 1900. From the One-Step home page, click Ship Lists: Searching for Ships in the Ellis Island Microfilms in One Step. Select arrival dates between Jan. 1 and Jan. 15, 1900, fill in the ship and port names if you know them, then hit the Search button. On the resulting screen, you’ll get a list of ships arriving during this period, including four that sailed from Naples, along with the National Archives and Family History Library microfilm numbers.
Click on a ship’s name to view the passenger list online. You can use the buttons to magnify the image and move between the pages of the list. In Windows, right-click on an image to save it to your computer’s hard drive (control-click on a Mac).
Searching Castle Garden Immigrants in One Step
If your ancestors landed in New York prior to the opening of Ellis Island’s immigration station, they might’ve passed through Castle Garden, the city’s first official immigration center. When the CastleGarden.org passenger-records index — currently covering 10 million 1830-to-1892 arrivals — launched in 2005, Morse wasted no time in developing tools to bypass the site’s bare-bones first-name/last-name/arrival-date search. (Note that Castle Garden operated from 1855 to 1890, but its online index encompasses immigrants who arrived at Battery Park earlier, as well as 2,000 Ellis Island immigrants who didn’t make it into that depot’s database.)
Using Morse’s form called Castle Garden Passengers: Searching the Castle Garden Database in One Step (Castlegarden.org), you can search on ship, country of origin and occupation. For example, enter just a country of origin to find all nine passengers who arrived from Persia during the Castle Garden era. Query on the occupation matchmaker, and you get 68 immigrants from various countries.
Morse also devised a method for alphabetically browsing passengers’ names — helpful for catching spelling variations and transcription errors. You can do this two ways: On a search results page, hover your mouse over the passenger’s name, look at the URL in the status bar at the bottom of the page and write down thepassenger’s ID number at the end of the URL. Then go to Morse’s Castle Garden Browser form, type in the personal ID number and hit the display button. Or use the form to select a letter of the alphabet. An ID number and the associated Castle Garden record appears; use the buttons to skip ahead or back by 1, 10, 100, 1,000 or more names.
Morse’s Castle Garden goodies also include One-Step tools for searching Ancestry.com’s subscription-access New York Passengers database, which provides an index plus record images for 1820 to 1957. Whereas Ancestry.com’s search lets you narrow the arrival date to a particular year, Morse’s All NY Passengers form allows you to specify an exact day. You also can search on an immigrant’s final destination in the United States or her “friend” (a fellow passenger). Another form, called Castle Garden Manifests, makes it easier to locate an original record image when you have an exact arrival date, but you don’t know the ship name.
(By the way, you still have to be an Ancestry.com subscriber to view the details of matching records — Morse’s One-Step tools expand your search options; they don’t help you hack into subscription databases for free.)
One-Step Immigrant Search Tools
Morse’s immigration One-Step tools don’t stop with those three major online databases. The site provides shortcuts to other passenger-research resources, including:
- Microfilmed passenger lists: Sometimes an immigrant manages to escape all the search tools, or the applicable Ellis Island record image is broken or missing. Perhaps your New York-arriving ancestor came before 1892 or after 1924 — years Ellis Island’s digitized manifests don’t cover — and you don’t care to pay for a subscription to Ancestry.com.
In those cases, you’ll have to go to microfilm to view the originalmanifests. Morse has a tool for determining the National Archives or Family History Library microfilm number for a particular date: From the One-Step home page, select NARA/FHL Roll Numbers in the Ellis Island section. Choose a date, and the form will automatically fill in the corresponding roll numbers for both repositories.
- Ship pictures and descriptions: Once you discover the name of your immigrant ancestor’s ship, check out Morse’s back door to sites with ship histories, descriptions and pictures (click Ship Pictures under Ellis Island). For example, select GreatOceanLiners from Morse’s list, enter the ship name Lusitania, and you get a detailed history of the craft, its specifications and several pictures. Another One-Step link, Ships & Fleets, searches TheShipsList , a great resource for vessel pictures and descriptions, as well as passenger lists.
- Other ports: Don’t feel left out if your immigrant ancestors passed through a port other than New York. Morse has created One-Step tools to search Ancestry.com’s passenger list images for Baltimore (1820 to 1948), Boston (1820 to 1943), Galveston (1893 to 1948), Philadelphia (1800 to 1945) and San Francisco (1893 to 1953).
You can get more precise with arrival-date searches: The One-Step tools let you query an exact date or month of arrival, as opposed to a year or year-range search at Ancestry.com. (Note: The Baltimore form doesn’t offer month and day fields, but you can browse by exact date with the Baltimore Manifests form.)
Already know your ancestors’ date of arrival but not the ship name? Morse makes it easier to locate the passenger manifest image at Ancestry.com. On the One-Step home page, just select a Manifests search, then choose the date. At Ancestry.com, you’d have to drill down by year, month and ship name.
More One-Step Shortcuts
Although passenger-search aids dominate the One-Step site, they’re not the only resources Morse has tackled. Try out the timesavers he’s developed for other sources, such as:
- Census tools: You’ve probably made use of the comprehensive census-record collections at Ancestry.com (subscription required) and HeritageQuest Online <heritagequestonline.com> (free via subscribing libraries), and appreciate the ease of online searching. But when a transcription error or omitted name prevents you from locating an ancestor, you have to resort to brute-force browsing of the original records on microfilm or online. Paging through an entire city isn’t just laborious — it’s downright impractical for big urban areas.
Enter Morse’s “ED” finders (short for enumeration districts). Most large cities were divided into EDs for the census, and you’ll save time if you can figure out which one to check. If you know your ancestor’s street address, say, from checking a city directory, you can use One-Step tools to learn the ED in the 1910, 1920 and 1930 federal censuses, as well as the 1905, 1915 and 1925 state censuses of New York City.
- Directories and vital records: Want to track down distant cousins who might shed light on your ancestry? Online phone books can help, as can directories that draw on public records — the latter often list people phone directories miss. They also may give ages or dates of birth, which make it easier to identify the right Joe Jones or Bob Smith. Sometimes you even can search on just a first name and birth date to locate a woman whose married name you don’t know.
- Sundry sources: Morse rounds out his site with a variety of One-Step tools. If you’re researching Jewish ancestry, you might use the forms for translating between English and Hebrew, deciphering Hebrew tombstone dates and converting dates on the Jewish calendar to the Gregorian calendar we use today. Other aids, such as online maps, a relationship calculator and a ZIP code directory, will come in handy for any genealogist. So come by and surf awhile — the back door’s open.
A version of this article appeared in the February 2007 issue of Family Tree Magazine.