Karen Malena is today’s Adventurista
What was it like for newcomers passing through Ellis Island?
I wondered this, and more, about the brave souls who left the old world to pass through ports of entry like Ellis to begin a new life for themselves.
Did you know you can find the names of the actual ship that carried your loved ones to Ellis Island? I found my great-grandfather’s ship, the Verona, and a sketch of what it had looked like back in the day, along with the names of other passengers who travelled with him.
In the early 1900’s, European immigrants travelled to America seeking new and better opportunities for their families. They would board a huge ship, and those who couldn’t afford to pay the fare for the upper decks were relegated to an area just below the main deck called “steerage,” an area originally designed to be a cargo hold.The conditions were crowded, with hundreds of people crammed into cramped quarters. Nighttime was especially uncomfortable with tiny, closely-packed palettes for beds.
When they arrived at Ellis Island, New York, the poor immigrants were ushered into a processing center which daily herded thousands through for screening. Inspectors questioned them first, and then they were poked and prodded by doctors and nurses looking for diseases or handicaps. This process took about four hours, and then they were free to leave. If they didn’t receive approval, they were sent back to their place of origin.
In the thirty five years of operation, 1892-1954, Ellis processed eight million immigrants. In 1897, a fire destroyed many of the records. 1907 saw the most, when 1,004,756 people passed through the portal. Estimates are that over a hundred million Americans can trace their ancestry through Ellis.
Italian immigrants settled in the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia areas. They worked as carpenters, brick-layers, shoe makers and clothiers. Many found jobs in the newly fabricated steel mills. As soon as they saved enough money for passage, and could arrange for accommodations, their families left behind in the old country joined them, processing through the same ports of entry.
Besides searching the records from Ellis Island, you can type a loved one’s name into the Google search engine. I recently searched for my grandfather’s history and found lots of details our family had forgotten.
Ancestry.com often has free trials so you can get a taste of how easy it is to search. The more information you have, such as spouse’s and children’s names, and where they were born, the more information you’ll turn up.
While I searched, I noticed that someone had corrected some misspelling of our family’s last name, and had left their email address. I wrote her, and a new friendship was forged. We laughed and cried together over dear loved ones, long gone.
My long lost, now found, relative gave me the name of another site. Family Search lets you search for free.
One of the search engines, Find a Grave, revealed the final resting place of my great-grandfather, Pietro. I found it, and as I stood there, tears coursing down my face over the end of my quest, I gave thanks for being born into a family who had such a strong patriarch, brave enough to leave the old world, pass through Ellis Island, and begin a new life in America.
With the power of the internet, and because of the meticulous records, your search for your ancestors might turn up even more than mine did, and I promise you’ll enjoy the adventure. I’d love to hear about what you turn up.
Karen Malena has several compelling stories about the search for her ancestors available on Amazon and Goodreads. A devoted mother, daughter, and wife, she hopes to convey the ups and downs of true-to-life situations in her writing. Coming from an Italian family has given her passion, and a love of reading has given her the desire for creativity. Karen is a member of Ligonier Valley Writers, and Pittsburgh East Scribes.When she’s not tracking down distant relatives, she works in the dental field, where she developed a compassion for people of all walks and ages.
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