BBC Homepage World Service Education
BBC Homepagelow graphics version | feedback | help
BBC News Online
 You are in: World: Americas
Front Page 
Middle East 
South Asia 
From Our Own Correspondent 
Letter From America 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Stephen Briganti, Ellis Island Foundation
"The response is beyond our wildest imagination"
 real 28k

Wednesday, 25 April, 2001, 12:28 GMT 13:28 UK
Online search for American pioneers
Statue of Liberty and Manhattan skyline
Millions travelled to the US for a new start
By Emma Simpson in New York

Ellis Island, off Manhattan, was the port of entry for more than 20 million immigrants.

They came from Europe to start new lives in the land of opportunity.

It allows people today to go back and find their heritage

Stephen Briganti, Ellis Island Foundation
As they arrived, their journey and personal details were logged by officials.

Now, a century or so later, these records have been transferred onto a computer database so that anyone, anywhere, can access them on the Ellis Island website.

Searching on microfiche
Felicita Salto has 're-lived' her voyage from Italy
Felicita Salto left Italy at the age of six. The year was 1920. Little could she have imagined that years later she would be able to see a picture of the ship she sailed on, and the details of her arrival, as well as those who travelled with her.

Felicita cannot remember much of her journey to New York. But through the new database, she said she was able to re-live her experience:

"I think it gives you a sort of a reason for being here, a feeling that I'm not the only thing that ever was," she said. "There was somebody before me and someone before them."

Family history

Her details, along with millions of others, were stored on microfilm. The Mormon Church, which has a particular interest in genealogy, provided the manpower to transfer the original passenger manifests onto computer. It took 12,000 volunteers seven years to do it.

Pride that one's family has succeeded

Virginia McLoughlin, historian
Stephen Briganti, president of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, said it was a project worth doing:

"It brings the past and the present together," he said. "It allows people today to go back and find their heritage, to see where their ancestors came from, to see what they were like."

Virginia McLoughlin is an immigration historian. Her grandfather passed through Ellis Island, a place, she said, which could produce powerful emotions even today.

Man looking at plaque
Many Americans are proud of their heritage
She explained why researching family history is something of an American obsession.

"When people reach a certain level of satisfaction with their lives, including economic success, they have time to think about questions like, 'Where did I come from? Why did my relatives come here?'" she said.

"In this country it's very different from what genealogical searches would be for in what we call the 'old country', Europe, where the upper class was interested in establishing their elite status.

"Here it's much more pride in family origins and pride that one's family has succeeded."

It is clear Americans interested in tracing their roots have a powerful new research tool available with the click of a mouse - 500 million pieces of information are currently stored. Descendents will be able to add even more details of their family history as the years go by.

Search BBC News Online

Advanced search options
Launch console
See also:

13 Aug 00 | Americas
Courting the Latino vote
04 Jul 00 | Americas
Tall ships mark Independence Day
12 Jan 98 | Americas
States fight over New York landmark
01 Dec 97 | Analysis
Indians immigrants make their mark
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more Americas stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Americas stories