“My ancestor came through Ellis Island.”  That is a common thought as one begins to search for the origins of their immigrant ancestor. However, there are many reasons why that may not be true.

First – ships came to several ports on the Eastern seaboard in the 1800’s.  New York was only one of many ports, and not always the largest port, either.

Second – not everyone who landed in New York harbor was processed at Ellis Island. The processing center opened in 1890.  It closed in1927. Only steerage passengers were put through the processing center. First and Second class passengers debarked on the other side of the harbor.

So, if you think your ancestor came through Ellis Island, answer two questions.  What is their most likely date of arrival? Did they travel in steerage?

Ellis Island has wonderful records of those who were processed and the vessels that carried them.  But no record set is perfect.  In researching your immigrant ancestor, be sure to consider other sources.

Check the emigration records in their country of origin. Look at the most likely ports of departure and which shipping lines worked there. Follow the routes of the shipping lines to see what ports they stopped at. You may find their journey was not direct, which means a third country’s records will need to be searched.

Once you have an idea of the port of arrival, review that city’s newspapers for notices of arriving ships and possibly articles about the passengers or crew.

Yes, it is possible that your ancestor (especially a young male) arrived as a crew member rather than a passenger! Possibly even a stow-away turned crew member after being found on board.

What about an event at sea? If your ancestor is rumored to be born or died at sea, check the end of the passenger lists – that’s where the changes since leaving port are marked.

Of course, you may not find a passenger list for your ancestor. Many lists don’t exist anymore. Some were lost to natural disasters. Some people arrived as a stow-away or a passenger on a cargo ship.

Regardless of whether or not you find confirmation of your ancestor’s immigration, know that they were brave and adventurous and be the same with your genealogical research!

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