Beginning in the late 1800s, every immigrant needed proof of identity documents to enter the United States. These documents were created in "the old country" in the native language by a clerk who knew the language.
II. Tickets, Please
Ship companies required ticket agents to examine each immigrant's identity documents before selling a ticket. Without proper identification, immigrants would not be allowed into America.
III. Painstakingly Created Passenger Lists
While still in the foreign port, the ship's captain (or his representatives) examined passengers' tickets and identity documents to create a passenger list -- a record listing every individual aboard the ship.
IV. Lost in Translation?
Hundreds of translators were on hand at Ellis Island to help officials question each immigrant in his/her native language about his/her identity.
V. No Documentation, No Entry
Immigrants through Ellis Island had correct paperwork showing the correct, or at least plausible, spellings of their last names. Ellis Island officials verified that the immigrant's name on the paperwork matched the name recorded on the ship's passenger list.
VI. Becoming American
Millions of immigrants voluntarily changed their first and last names as they assimilated into American culture. In some cases, schoolteachers or others who couldn't pronounce or spell certain last names may have offered an American-sounding variation the stuck.
If you suspect your family's name was changed, try talking to older family members to see whether they can recall hearing what the family's name was in the old country. Also try searching online for variations and common name changes to your last name.
Q: I would like to find what ship my grandmother Mary O'Neill arrived on in 1880. She settled in Philadelphia, Pa., and was born in County Tyrone, Ireland. Thanks for any information. -- Dolores Crouthamel, Pennsburg, Pa.
A: Fortunately, discovering the ship that brought your ancestors to America is getting easier all the time.
Beginning in 1820, the U.S. government required that every ship arriving at a U.S. port prepare a list of passengers and crew members on board that ship. Those lists are known as passenger lists or ship's manifests.
The majority of the passenger lists created between 1820 and the mid-1900s have survived, and they can tell you not only the name of the ship your ancestors immigrated on, but also your ancestors' ages, occupations, number of bags brought with them, and even names of family members in their home country.
Many of these passenger lists have been digitized and indexed, and are now available for searching online, including at Ancestry.com.
And the number of passenger lists online is quickly rising. Passenger lists are also available on microfilm at the regional offices of the National Archives and Family History Centers across the country.
For best results searching for passenger lists on Ancestry.com, try to discover your ancestors' birth names (both first and last names), approximately when they were born, and the country where they were born.
When your answers sport a fairly common name, such as your grandmother's, it's also helpful to do a little digging first to learn names of siblings, parents or others they may have immigrated with. Having these details may prove helpful in sorting through multiple Mary O'Neills.
You can learn more about finding your ancestors in immigration records by clicking here.