Searching the Ellis Island Database in One Step (Short Form)
Frequently Asked Questions

Stephen P. Morse, San Francisco

S1. How does this gray one-step search form differ from your original white one-step search form?

My white one-step search form is based on the search engine provided by the Ellis Island website.  And that search engine has its limitations.  Specifically it does not permit you to search by town name and does not permit you to do a soundex search (i.e., search for names that sound like the name you want).  The best you can do is a simulated search-by-town using the advanced search option on my white search form and a simulated soundex search using Edward Rosenbaum's Name Permutations program.

To get around these limitations, we have set up an alternate search engine that provides a true search-by-town capability and a true soundex-search capability.  The results generated by the alternate search engine are pointers directly into the Ellis Island database for the passengers you find.

This gray one-step search form uses the alternate search engine whereas the original white one-step search form goes directly to the Ellis Island search engine.  It should be mentioned that there are certain things that the Ellis Island search engine provides that the alternate one does not.  Namely the ability to search by ship, port, ethnicity, and gender.  So this gray one-step form does not obsolete the white one, and you might find it beneficial to switch back and forth between the two when looking for passengers.

See also the overview page for a discussion of the differences between the white form, the blue form, and the gray form.

S2. Must I be running a Netscape browser on a PC in order to use the search-by-town feature?

That was true for my simulated search-by-town facility on the white one-step form.  But the true search-by-town available through this gray one-step form does not have any limitations.  You can use it from the Internet Explorer browser, from a Macintosh computer, and even from the Netscape 6 browser without having to do anything special.

S3. What exactly is a soundex search and doesn't the Ellis Island database have something similar?

There are several soundex systems and basically they involve the use of a list of names that are phonetically equivalent to the one you are interested in.  A soundex search would return all names that exactly match the desired name as well as those that match any of the phonetically equivalents.  Currently the Ellis Island search engine does not do a soundex search.  However it does have the ability to generate a list of phonetic equivalents for you.  According to Gary Mokotoff (co-developer of the Daitch-Mokotoff Soundex code), this list is probably better than one based solely on soundex.  However the Ellis Island search engine does not search on these equivalents for you automatically -- instead it gives you the ability to select equivalents (up to two at a time) and search on them.

In contrast, our alternate search engine does a true soundex search.  You enter one name on the gray search form and it will find all names that are phonetically equivalent.  It uses the Daitch-Mokotoff soundex code which was developed specifically for dealing with Eastern European names.

S4. Is it now possible to do a search to find all people who came from my grandparents' little village?

Yes it is!

S5. How can I generate a nice composite list of the matches that I found?

All too often people attempt to combine the final result into a spreadsheet, and for the life of me I can't understand why.  There are much better ways to present such data.  The best in my opinion would be in html itself, which is the native language of the web.  But this is not for the novice, so the details are not presented here.  If you are interested, you can find the details at

S6. How can I import the list of matches that I obtain into a spreadsheet?

Again this fascination with spreadsheets!  See my response to question S5 for my view on this subject.

However there are some valid reasons for wanting spreadsheets, especially when column sorting is important.  For that purpose I have recently standardized the output displays from the gray form, the blue, form and the new-format display of the white form so that they can be mixed together on one spreadsheet.  Detailed and clearly written instructions for creating such a spreadsheet are given by Shawn Weil on his webpage at
I highly recommend this to anyone serious about creating a spreadsheet of the Ellis Island search results.

S7. How did you finally succeed in making the searches be so fast?

By putting a help-wanted announcement on the website asking for people experienced with database software.  Two extremely competent people, Nick Yannucci and David Bendory, answered the plea.  Together with Erik Steinmetz, they have performed (and continue to perform) miracles in improving the search performance.

S8. I sometimes get a message saying that my search request has been given low priority because I am not accepting cookies.  What is that all about?

When analyzing our performance problems, we discovered that the server was being overloaded because it was simultaneously working on the identical request that was submitted multiple times.  That occurs when a user submits a time-consuming request and then gets tired of waiting for the results.  So he hits escape and then resubmits the same request.  Although hitting escape aborts the request on the user's browser, it does not stop our server which is  actively working on obtaining the results.  So the server is spending a lot of time performing searches that the user has abandonded, and this degrades the performance for all the other users who are patiently waiting for their results.

To overcome this problem, we decided to tag each user with a cookie.  That way we can determine if a user has submitted a request while we are still in the process of obtaining results for one of his previous requests.  If that happens, we simply abort the previous search on the server.

But some users have cookies disabled because they believe that it might be an invasion of their privacy.  On many websites that is true, but here we are using the cookies for one reason and one reason only -- to be able to detect this situation that could degrade performance and to allow us to take corrective measures.  [Second thoughts: see question S10: we use cookies there too.]

We do the following when we get a search request from a user that has cookies disabled.  We check to see if there are any searches in progress from any other user who has cookies disabled.  If so, there is a possibility that it could be the same user.  However we can't be sure, so it would be wrong for us to abort the previous request.  In this case we reject the current request instead, and give a message explaining why we did so.  That is the message that you saw.

See question S11 for details on enabling cookies.

S9. Why do I get a match on "Passaic, New Jersey" when I search for all towns sounding like Nowy Sacz?  They don't sound alike.

The comparison  method that we use is to treat each word in the town name separately.  So we look for any matches having a word in the town name sounding like Nowy or any sounding like Sacz.  Unfortunately the New in New Jersey sounds like the Nowy in Nowy Sacz.  There are tricks that we could have used to eliminate such false positives, but they might eliminate some true matches as well.

S10. Each time I click on the search button, all it does is reload the search form.  Why can't I get the search results?

We use cookies to verify that the search request came from our site's search form and not from some external site.  If we determine that the request came from an external site, we will reject the search request and redirect you to our search form.

If you are making the search request from our search form but have cookies disabled, we will mistakenly assume that you are coming from an external site and redirect you back to our search form.  Since that is the symptom you described, it means that you have cookies disabled.

See question S11 to find out how to enable cookies.

S11. How do I enable cookies?

I presume you've run into the problem described in S8 or in S10 and now want to enable your cookies.  The way you do that depends on the browser you are using.  Below are the instructions for the popular browsers.

Also try clearing your cache (see question 109 on the white-form's faq page).  Clearing the cache should have nothing to do with the cookies.  But at least one user was getting the message saying that he needed to enable cookies and he indeed had cookies enabled.  When he cleared is cache, the message stopped occurring.

Netscape Version 4.x

From the Edit menu select Preferences.
Click on the Advanced line on the left-hand side.
On the right-hand side make sure that "Accept all cookies" is checked.
Click OK to exit from the preferences box.
Netscape Version 6.x or 7.x
First you need to make sure that you are accepting cookies.  You do that as follows:
From the Edit menu select Preferences.
Click on the Privacy and Security line and then on Cookies on the left-hand side.
On the right-hand side make sure that "Enable all cookies" is checked.
Click OK to exit from the preferences box.
In addition, you need to make sure that you have not explicitly blocked coookies from jewishgen.  You can determine that as follows
From the tools menu select "Cookie Manger" and then "Manage Stored Cookies".
Click on the "Cookie Sites" tab.
See if jewishgen is on that list and tagged as not being able to set cookies.  If so, select it and press "Remove Site".
Click OK to exit from the preferences box.
Internet Explorer
Several people have commented that they have their browser set to accept cookies but are still getting this message.  Even though you think you are accepting cookies, you might not be accepting all cookies.  Specifically, Internet Explorer has a feature whereby you will reject cookies from sites that do not send back a so-called compact privacy policy.  Unfortunately the jewishgen server is not configured to send back such a policy.  So you need to change your cookie settings to allow jewishgen to set a cookie.  You can do this as follows:
From the Tools menu select "Internet Options".
Click on the "Privacy" tab.
Make sure the slider is not set to "Block" or to "High".  Any other setting would be fine.
Alternately you can keep the slider on "Block" or "High" providing you exlicitly allow cookies from jewishgen.  To do so
Click on the "Edit" button.
Enter the following in the "Address of Web site" field:
Press the "Allow" button and then press the "OK" button.
Click OK to exit from the Edit box.
Furthermore you need to make sure that you have not explicitly blocked cookies from jewishgen.  You can determine that as follows
Click on the "Edit" button.
See if there is an entry for jewishgen indicating that it is blocked.  If so, select it and press Remove.
Click OK to exit from the Edit box.
Finally click OK to exit from the "Internet Options" box.

-- Steve Morse