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Finding Immigrant Names On Degraded Ellis Island Manifests
By: Joel Weintraub, PhD
• Hamburg List
• Ship’s Index Books
• Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society
• U.S. and State Censuses
• Naturalization Papers
• WPA Cards
• Ellis Island Database
• Ancestry.com Index
• Nearest Friend or Relative in U.S. or Previous Country
• Finding Others with Information
• Concluding Comments
• References Cited
On May 23, 1907, the SS Sicilia of the Hamburg-American Line arrived at the Port of New York after a long 19 day passage. It carried my great grandfather, Froim Parmit, as well as a 12 year old Meier Schachter and his guardian David Hoffner. As a footnote to history, in 1914, the SS Sicilia now under Japanese flag and renamed the Komagata Maru, played a major role in the immigration history of Canada.
What makes this 1907 voyage intriguing is that the SS Sicilia’s filmed manifest shows 15 of the 19 pages missing parts from the immigrant name column (Figure 1). Although Froim’s area of the manifest was untouched, only the last 3 letters of David’s last name were preserved, and all of Meier’s name had been ripped off, leaving the rest of David’s and Meir’s information intact on the sheet (Figure 2).
All Ellis Island manifests were filmed in 1943 to 1944 and the original manifests destroyed in 1948. Manifests were bundled into volumes, usually of 150 pages and weighing on average 20 pounds.1 There are four ship manifests on the SS Sicilia’s Volume 2027 and about 400 pages, so its binder likely weighed much more than 20 pounds. To turn the manifest pages, one probably used the free lower left side at the name column of the large sheet. That’s where most of the manifest sheet damage can be seen. An essay on the 1943 filming program stated officials found that “approximately 5 percent of the sheets are torn or crumpled or otherwise damaged...” 2
Finding immigrants on degraded Ellis Island manifest pages can be a problem. In this essay I present several search tools/utilities that may help in finding the manifest of such passengers and any remaining information that has been preserved, or at least explain why some tools will not work, no matter how many name variations you use on them to find your immigrant’s papers. I’ll present the utilities in the approximate order that they were created.
The SS Sicilia left Hamburg Germany on its May 1907 voyage to the New York area. The Port of Hamburg kept a list of outgoing passengers.“ It is estimated that approximately one third of emigrants departing Central and Eastern Europe between 1850 and 1934 departed from Hamburg.”3 The Hamburg List can be searched at the subscription service Ancestry.com. If one looks for a Meyer Schachter (Meyer was the first name used in the U.S.) born about 1895 and using the “exact match” option on his name, one finds only one individual and an arrival date of 1912. This may have confused several researchers as reflected in their online family trees. If one searches for Meyer Schachter, relaxing the exact search name option, then one sees two records of males arriving at New York Harbor, the 1912 one and “our” individual on the SS Sicilia’s 1907 voyage.
There are 546 entries (including Froim, David, and Meier) and 11 cross outs on the Hamburg List for the SS Sicilia’s 1907 voyage. All passengers were traveling in third class. The SS Sicilia’s Hamburg List does not show where on the ship’s United States manifest passengers names appear, only that they left on that ship, on that date, and from Hamburg, Germany.
Although it’s unclear how or when it started, the U.S. Immigration Bureau “furnished transportation companies with blank books to prepare alphabetical indexes and facilitate reference to the manifests.”4 From what I’ve seen, the transcriber’s handwriting in the books is clearer and more readable than that found on the handwritten ship manifest, and may reflect corrections made on the original manifest. When ship officials arrived at New York Harbor at least starting in 1906, they not only handed over their ship’s passenger manifest to U.S. Immigration officials, but probably turned in at the same time these smaller index books. There are about 34,000 such books from Ellis Island. 5 When a subsequent search of manifests was made for naturalization application processing, immigration inspectors used these books rather than going directly to the manifests as they show the manifest’s page and line number of each passenger. Once the inspectors had that information, it was easier to locate the passenger’s name on the actual ship manifest.
FamilySearch.org has the ship’s index book films (807 rolls) for Ellis Island covering 1906 through 1942 and they are online.6 To find a specific roll, you need the shipping company name or sometimes the geographical area and month/year of the voyage. There is also a name index to the books7 but be warned that the summary of such a book name search often shows an incorrect immigration year or ship name although the link to the page image is correct. Meier’s and David’s ship name on the summary results show the “Hamburg.” Always look at the actual book page image and work backwards from the image to the cover image of that ship’s book to see the name of the ship and the date of arrival.
Meier’s name on the SS Sicilia’s 1907 book shows as Meier Schlachter (with an “l”). This is another problem for researchers who only use exact searches and don’t relax their assumptions. The index book for the SS Sicilia shows 541 entries, missing the “A” page of surnames. However, it’s a good representation of the passengers on that voyage compared to the Hamburg List for the same voyage.
There were several societies that helped immigrants with the process of leaving their native country and entering and assimilating into the United States. For Jewish immigrants, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) was a major participant in this process. The New York HIAS has records they will search, for a fee8, that may yield information about an immigrant’s entry into the United States. Records of Special Inquiry cases start in 1909, and Records of Arrival start in 1911 9. This resource won’t apply to Meier since he came in 1907. HIAS Boston has arrival cards online and other immigration records.10
Census research may narrow the time period when the immigrant came to the United States. Arrival information was asked on the 1900, 1910, 1920, and 1930 federal census. State censuses may also ask for that information. In general, the closer the census is to the event in question, the more reliable it could be. Meier’s census records for 1910, 1915 (N.Y. State Census), and 1930 were found, and consistently indicate he arrived around 1905. There are some caveats, however, for using this resource. For those census years, it’s undetermined who gave the information to the census taker; it could have been a neighbor. No documentation was asked of the resident by the enumerator. There is a tendency by responders to round numerical information to 0 or 5 endings and any such number should be questioned.
There are other things a census can give you. It can potentially provide the address of the person the immigrant is going to by looking up that person on the census. (That may be helpful for a later tool in this essay). It can narrow the time period when a person applied for and became a naturalized citizen by looking at the citizenship column on the census. If the immigrant stayed in New York state, remember that the 1925 N.Y. State census asked when and where the person was naturalized; however, the reliability of that information often depended on the individual census taker’s depth of questioning. Both my grandfathers have inaccurate information on their N.Y. 1925 census naturalization question. From census research only, Meier became a citizen between 1915 – 1930 and apparently stayed in New York during those years.
Meyer Schachter started his U.S. citizenship process in the late 1920s. His application can be found online. Since the SS Sicilia’s voyage occurred after the passage of the U.S. Immigration Act of 1906, when Meier submitted his “Declaration”, an immigration clerk had to find his manifest sheet and issue a “Certificate of Arrival” to the court overseeing his case. His online Certificate shows his manifest name as “Meier Schlachter.” Meier listed the name of the ship as “Cecelia” and the date of arrival as May 5, 1907 on his Declaration; both items were corrected on his subsequent Petition. What the application forms and answers don’t show is the page and line number where Meier is on the SS Sicilia’s manifest.
If an immigrant applied for naturalization after the 1906 Immigration Act became law, but came into the United States before that date, apparently no certification of the ship entry details was done. Instead, individuals had to show that they had resided in the United States continuously since they entered. Because of this, the ship arrival information in these situations sometimes is not correct, as the immigrant could put down anything on the application where it asked for entry information. It’s frustrating to find a ship name and entry date on naturalization documents but the passenger you are looking for is nowhere to be found on that manifest.
In 1938 through 1943, the United States Works Progress Administration (WPA) had workers transcribe index cards for each Ellis Island passenger which included their page and line information on the manifest. The cards were filmed, and a version of the rolls put up at FamilySearch.org. 11 In 2001 Gary Mokotoff wrote: “Every evidence is that accuracy of surnames on the microfilm [WPA] index is considerably superior to the accuracy of surnames on the Ellis Island database”.12 Reasons advanced for this may be that workers transcribed the cards directly from the manifests (not film or photographs), and that they were New York based and probably more familiar with European names and handwriting than the volunteers for the newer Ellis Island database or the apparent foreign transcribers used by Ancestry.com (both these tools will be discussed later). However, as you will see, there is another reason why this resource can be important for solving difficult arrival records.
The films are in two series. First let’s look at NARA (National Archives and Records Administration) T519 which covers June 16, 1897 to June 30, 1902 and has 115 roll versions online at FamilySearch.org. You may encounter several problems using this online version. First, the website link may timeout or produce garbled lines on a slow browser, as it attempts to show you over 7,000 roll descriptions of several film publications at that site. Once you gain access to the website, you find the roll you want by searching for the film that contains the last name of your immigrant. This is, unfortunately, an exact search and you should consider other variations of the last name if unsuccessful. Second, films may be mislinked to their descriptions. The third problem which may or may not affect the film you found, is best described with a real example. Let’s look up the surname Weintraub on the 1897-1902 films. Weintraubs are on roll 112, and the online roll version looks like a microfiche, with rows and columns of images. Roll 112 has over 18,000 images. It may take time to find the first Weintraub card; it’s four-year-old Abe at image 16105. All the images were assigned numbers. One might think that image 16106 is another Weintraub card, perhaps an older Abe Weintraub or an Abram Weintraub as we go up the alphabet by first name. It’s not. It’s Gottfried Weisshaar! One then sees alternating Weintraub card images and Weisshaar card images on the FamilySearch display as one moves along the image row. It’s a confusing situation.
To understand what may have happened here, let’s look at part of the original NARA T519 roll 112 (Figure 3). One sees two columns of cards, one running up the right side of the film, and then returning, upside down, on the left side of the film. FamilySearch apparently filmed both sides of the film at once, rather than filming first the right side then the left, for their online version. The Weisshaar cards are opposite but adjacent to the Weintraub cards on the roll as you can see with the provided figure. They are upside down. Thus, on FamilySearch one sees Weintraub card images going up the alphabet for first names interspersed with Weisshaar cards (turned the right way up) going down the alphabet along their increasing number sequence of the rows. If you are searching a surname that has cards at either side of the end of the roll, it’s going to be especially challenging to figure out the sequence.
It’s also important to recognize this pattern when looking for the first card in your surname at FamilySearch’s utility. Make sure you have the right film, start at image 1000, and then look at a sequence of cards to see if this unusual pattern of images exists on your roll. Then figure out where you are in the film number sequence and whether to search a higher or lower image number to find the start of your surname. You may not see this see-saw pattern at the beginning of the FamilySearch film, as the first cards, sometimes over 100, have no adjacent ending cards on the original NARA film.
The format of these cards changed over time. One possible numeric sequence after the passenger’s name is: age/sex, followed by line number, then stamped page within the volume usually at the bottom of the sheet and not the individual ship sheet number, and then the volume number.
The second sequence of WPA films, NARA T621, covers July 1, 1902 to Dec 31, 1943 and has 744 rolls of film. As of March 2019, only twelve rolls are online, of which nine show the see-saw sequence of names and three appear normal. It was twelve online rolls as well on Sept 24, 2017 when I checked. FamilySearch has stated all of their public film collection will be digitized by 2020, but we will see if that pertains to this series, which may be giving them difficulty. For T621, a researcher uses the Soundex code of their immigrant surname to find the correct WPA roll. Schlachter has a Soundex Code of S423 and is on Roll 633 of the T621 films. The roll number can be gotten by using an online table.13
I looked at NARA T621 roll 633 and Meier Schlachter does have a WPA card (Figure 4). So does David Hoffner and I have other examples from different entry years of immigrants who have WPA cards but whose name was no longer on their degraded ship manifest image. Again, the WPA transcription occurred from 1938 to 1943 directly from the manifests and the manifests were filmed in 1943 and 1944. Thus, the degradation of these manifests happened, probably in the early 1940s, after the WPA transcribed their cards and before filming. This was a time of great pressure on the manifests as there was a historic rush to citizenship of people in the U.S. due to the start of World War II and a requirement for non-citizens to have an Alien Registration Card. Additional immigration clerks had to be hired to check the aging manifests and issue certificates of arrival.
Most people searching for an immigrant at Ellis Island might first turn to the free Ellis Island Database (EIDB). The EIDB was created by thousands of Church of Jesus Christ (formerly Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) volunteers in the 1990s and put online by the Ellis Island Foundation in 2001. Transcribers were given photocopies of the filmed manifests and did their best to figure out the names of the immigrants. Some of the images were barely readable, if not illegible. The EIDB is available at the Ellis Island website, the FamilySearch website, and forms the basis of the One Step Ellis Island search utility at stevemorse.org. Meier Schlachter and passengers like him cannot be found on this index. It’s not because of the Schachter/Schlachter name situation. That problem could be overcome by wild card searches or “sounds like” options. It’s because Meier’s manifest line was not transcribed for the EIDB. Jayare Roberts, associated with the original transcription project was quoted as saying: “that every legible name on every manifest was recorded...”14 Remember, Meier has no sheet name (and obviously no legible name!). I’ll call such situations as Meir’s “No Name” in this essay. My analysis of the EIDB format is that apparently every name line of each 30-line manifest sheet was pre-assigned a unique passenger number. Gaps in the sequence of such passenger numbers on the actual EIDB database signify blank lines and “No Name” situations on a manifest page. Because of this situation, a researcher cannot find Meir’s EIDB record by searching using specific non-name parameters of his voyage (e.g. Ship name, arrival date, sex, age, nationality, etc.).
David Hoffner, with his partial manifest name on the film, shows up on the EIDB as “… …ner”. I’ll call this passenger index situation “Three Dots.” About ¼ of the SS Sicilia’s 1907 passengers cannot easily or ever be found by searching the EIDB (68 “No Name”, 79 “Three Dots”). Three dots (ellipses) were also used if parts of the manifest name were illegible to the transcriber, such as Lina Weintraub’s manifest entry (Figure 5) transcribed on the EIDB as “W…in…raub, Lina.” (Lina Weintraub’s name was correctly transcribed by a WPA worker and she has an index card.) With the help of Steve Morse, the number of names that contain three dots on the 1892 to 1924 EIDB index was 424,608 (218,886 last name, 176,398 first name, 29,324 both names).
This commercial company produced their own name index from the 1943-1944 filmed Ellis Island manifests. They enhanced the film images and had their transcribers work off those images. Meier Schlachter can be found with their search index. That’s because the Ellis Island manifest films covering the early 1900s on, not only contain the ship manifest, but also name lists created at Ellis Island for immigrants that were temporarily held or went before the Board of Special Inquiry. Those lists show the page and line number on the manifest of each detained person. David and Meier were held for a Special Inquiry investigation based on being possible “LPC” or Likely Public Charges. (Figure 6) My great grandfather Froim appears several lines above them on the same page, listed as a “CL” or Contract Laborer. All were admitted to the United States.
The Ancestry.com result for Meier link to his Special Inquiry page image, not his manifest image. Based on data for 1907 passengers found in Pitkin,15, about one out of six immigrants is on these detention forms. These extra pages could list only the head of a detained traveling family on a single line with notations of others in the group. David and Meier are on two separate but adjacent Special Inquiry lines. The detention list names of the SS Sicilia were typed but have many typos compared to the handwritten actual manifest.
Ancestry.com’s search utility provides a full searchable name for 12 of the 68 “No Name” passengers (including Meier Schlachter) and 20 of the original 79 “Three Dots” individuals (including David Hoffner) for the SS Sicilia’s 1907 passengers. Ancestry.com transcribers also transcribed the remaining information on the “No Name” lines, so one could search for David or Meir’s records using non-name parameters of their voyage if known.
This search tool is available on FamilySearch.org and the subscription site MyHeritage. It seems to use an updated version of the original EIDB. One can now search for other names associated with the immigrant passenger. The names come from two manifest columns: “Whether going to join a relative or friend; and if so, what relative or friend, and his name and complete address,” and, starting in late 1907, “The name and complete address of nearest relative or friend in country whence alien came.” If successful, the results link to the appropriate manifest page.
Both David Hoffner and Meier Schachter, according to their SS Sicilia’s manifest, were going to Soloman Schachter in New York City. Soloman (or Saloman) is shown as David’s brother-in-law. Using the FamilySearch.org search form for “Search with a relationship” and “Other Person’s,” and entering Soloman Schachter only there and not in the “Deceased Ancestor’s Name” entry box and not using the exact name option, one gets many results. By limiting the results to the N.Y. Passenger Arrivals in the 1900s, 60 results remain. None of them shows a “No Name” passenger. Meier Schlachter cannot be found with this method. On the other hand, there were two “Three Dots” results, both (!) “… …ner”, both apparently leaving Hamburg in May of 1907, and both the same age. One of them was “our” David Hoffner from the SS Sicilia. The other turned out to be a person named Jacob Hoffner who has a cross out record; he wasn’t on that ship sailing although his manifest record was recorded by the EIDB. Ancestry.com, the Hamburg List, and the EIDB have information on passenger cross out lines, but it looks like the Ship Index Books and the WPA cards do not record that information. Jacob’s intended ship left two days before the SS Sicilia and only took 10 days to arrive in the U.S. Jacob’s name was found by looking carefully at the cross outs on the Hamburg List with any last name ending in “ner” for that ship’s voyage. Jacob and David indicated they were going to the same New York City address of Soloman Schachter; Jacob said he was going to his cousin. In any case, this search tool may potentially find all the “Three Dots” passengers on the SS Sicilia 1907 but cannot find passengers whose entire names have been ripped off the manifest.
It would be nice if you could find someone who had already figured out and carefully documented the arrival of your difficult immigrant passenger. You might want to check the Ellis Island website and look at the “American Immigrant Wall of Honor”. For a donation fee, the Ellis Foundation put up immigrant names on a series of special walls at Ellis Island. There is an online search utility16 to see where on the Wall a name is, and who was responsible for the donation. It might be possible with that donor’s name, to track them down. But names on the Wall tend to have the immigrant’s “American” name, not the name they entered the country with. In addition, the “Wall of Honor” honors all immigrants, not just those entering the Port of New York. There is no specific information you can find from the Wall on when, where, and how those passengers came into the United States. Meir/Meyer Schachter’s name does not appear on the Wall index.
There is a lot of family genealogy information online. Much of it is suspect. Documentation may be missing or the wrong person’s documents shown. There are a number of family trees online for Meyer Schachter. What is unknown is the relationship of Meyer to the person overseeing the tree. Meyer may not even be a “blood” relative. The trees tend to mimic each other with the information presented. Most of the trees show three separate dates for Meier coming to the United States: 1905 from the census information, 1907 on the SS Sicilia, and the 1912 arrival of another Meyer Schachter who has the wrong birthplace and name of father shown on his manifest, yet is included on the online family trees. One tree shows paradoxically the 1905 census date, the 1910 U.S. census record, and then only the 1912 ship arrival. The trees that show the SS Sicilia have the wrong month and day for the ship’s arrival to New York Harbor. Be very careful with this source and only use it as a suggestion for your own research.
How many total immigrants fall under the manifest problems discussed above? It’s obviously low but for some voyages, like the SS Sicilia in 1907, it’s quite high. Most online essays on finding immigrants on the Ellis Island manifests don’t mention these problems. So if you still are having trouble finding your Ellis Island immigrants, their names may be on a degraded, filmed manifest page. Try some of the strategies and tools presented above to see if you can break through your “brick wall.” And remember: 30% of immigrants between 1892 to 1924 came through other ports into the U.S; first and second-class manifests are missing from Ellis Island from 1897 through 1903; and individuals could be traveling under assumed names or spellings you don’t expect. Relax your assumptions when doing these searches. Good luck with your research.
I thank Gloria Weintraub who helped proof the text, Avraham Groll, and Dr. Josh Grayson, who put this essay in proper HTML format.
1. "The Service Microfilms Its Ellis Island Records," Monthly Review Vol 1 No 2 (August 1943): 23, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.35112101120964. (return to text)
2. ibid. (return to text)
4. Smith, Marian L. 1996. "The Creation and Destruction of Ellis Island Immigration Manifests, Part 1." Prologue 28 (Fall 1996): 240-245. (return to text)
5. "Ellis Island Records," Montly Review, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.35112101120964. (return to text)
9. Sherly Postnikov, Senior Location Specialist HIAS NY, Personnel Communication. (return to text)
10. Rosen, David. "HIAS Boston Arrival Cards Now On-line." JewishGen May 17, 2017. See also "More Boston Immigrant Aid Society Records." JewishGen May 22, 2017. (return to text)
12. Mokotoff, Gary, 2001. "Strategies for Using the Ellis Island Database." Avotaynu Vol 17 No 2 (Summer 2001): 7. (return to text)
13. https://www.archives.gov/files/research/microfilm/t621.pdf (T621 roll content). (return to text)
15. Pitkin, Thomas. 1975. Keepers of the Gate. New York University Press. (return to text)
16. Searching the American Immigrant Wall of Honor: https://www.libertyellisfoundation.org/search-woh. (return to text)
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