Your Roots in Historic Hungary

by Vic Berecz

3. Using the Ellis Island Website – Part 2.

In Part 1 of Using the Ellis Island Website, I gave you an idea of the type of information you are likely to find there regarding your immigrant ancestors.  In this article, I will review for you the mechanics of using that website.  Again, the URL of the Ellis Island website is:

Note on Figures: all figures in this article are screen images of the actual website, rendered by Internet Explorer 7.0 with only the Menu Bar and Status Bar turned on.  The size of the window is optimized in each figure for the data illustrated.  Therefore, what you see may be slightly different in format, but all the meaningful content should be consistent with the figures.

When you initially go to the Ellis Island website, what you see is shown in Figure 3-01.  This is the home page of the Statue of Liberty - Ellis Island Foundation, Inc. website.  What you should immediately note from this initial page is: 1) the website is FREE; 2) you are required to Sign In; and 3) they will try to sell you all manner of stuff.  The website database contains records of all the ship arrivals at the Port of New York from 1892 to 1924 along with their passenger manifests.  Remember, the great bulk of immigrants from historic Hungary first arrived in the US in New York between 1897 and 1914.  So, there is a high probability that your immigrant ancestors are listed somewhere in those manifests.

Now, a couple of initial comments before we start navigating the website.  Yes, it is free, and many users pay nothing and buy nothing.  I have chosen to contribute a tax-deductible $45 each year – the amount they suggest for Sustaining Members of the Foundation.  I personally think it’s a good cause, and they do good work.  I have no problem with the concept of signing-in to a website that I want to use, and several years back initially signed in with my real name and e-mail address.  They don’t flood me with solicitations or otherwise bother me.  But, if you’re one of those who fears giving out your name to anyone on the web, you already know the tricks to avoid a legitimate sign-in, so I won’t discuss them here.  Finally, selling stuff is the heart of the good-ole American free-enterprise system.  I don’t mind reasonable ads, so long as I don’t have to buy things I don’t want.  You will note later, that the website designers have incorporated at least one feature that – I think – goes a little too far in encouraging you to buy.  You, like me, will just have to live with it, because it is free!

Getting Started.  The place to start is that Free Search! box with its four fields into which you may enter information.  Your initial objective is to get into the database at some reasonable starting point that may include your ancestor.  So, don’t provide too much data.  You must provide Passenger’s Last Name, and I suggest you specify Gender, I’d leave the other two fields blank and see what happens when you click on Start Search.  If you’re lucky you’ll find less than a few hundred immigrants who meet your criteria … if you’re looking for a very common name, you’ll probably find far too many people.  Putting in “Berecz” and requesting only males (I’ll be using my paternal grandfather for the examples), I got 129 matches … not too bad.  If I entered “Nagy” (the most common Magyar name) and didn’t specify gender, I would have gotten 8843 matches, and a strong suggestion from the website that I refine my search (see Refining Your Search below). 

This is a good time to point out that many more males than females immigrated … refining the above search to males named “Nagy” only reduces the number of matches to 6072.  The rationale for this somewhat unexpected fact is that many males came alone, made enough money to improve their lot in Hungary, or didn’t like it here, or for some other reason returned home without ever bringing over their family.  Others made several trips back-and-forth before finally bringing their family, and each of those trips is recorded as a separate immigration event on a manifest. 

Figure 3-02 shows an example of the Matching Passenger Records page which lists all the passengers matching your search criteria.  These are presented in alphabetical order with 25 people per page. Click the Next 25 or Previous 25 buttons to navigate through the full list.  Actually, what you see in the example is the 6th screen down with the last four Berecz men who immigrated, and includes the two immigration events for my grandfather, Viktor Berecz.  Note that his first name is listed as Viktor (the German spelling), not Gyözö (the Magyar spelling) or Victor (the English spelling) – a number of misspellings are also possible.  That is why using a first name initially is not a good idea.

Let me review for you the clickable buttons at the top of the Matching Passenger Records page.  Clicking on Refine Search takes you to a page that lets you input substantially more search criteria than on the home page.  See Refining Your Search below.  New Search begins a new search, basically it takes you to the same page as Refine Search, but with all entries blank.  The next two buttons permit you to save the results of a search (Save Search) and to load a previously saved search (Load Search).  Saved searches are accessible by using the Passenger Searches menu item just below the logo at the top of every page of the website.  You must be registered to save searches.  Search Tips provides text which does just that … suggests strategies for searches.

Another strange thing you will notice in Figure 3-02 is that the spelling of my grandfather’s hometown, Ostfiasszonyfa, is slaughtered … maybe that’s not surprising, but misspellings are the biggest problem in dealing with the Ellis Island website … see Dealing with Spelling Problems below.  Assuming you have a workable list – perhaps on the order of 100 people – select the one most likely to be your ancestor.  For the example, I will click on my grandfather’s first immigration in 1906.  You cannot get beyond the search phase without registering, so this action takes you to the website’s sign-in page.

Signing In.  The sign-in page is illustrated in Figure 3-03.  If you have previously registered, type in your User Name and Password and then click on Sign-In. If you haven’t registered, click on Yes, I am new to this site and you will move on to the Membership page.  The initial sign-in process uses the Membership page illustrated in Figure 3-04.  It is simple and straight-forward. Fill in all six fields, all are required.  But remember, you are only registering for no-cost use of the website.  You will be encouraged to contribute to the Foundation and become a Sustaining Member.  Read the Benefits of Membership and Membership Terms information provided and learn the benefits that go with being a Sustaining Member.  Depending on your personal circumstances, and how you intend to use the website (for example, do you expect to buy their products?), sustaining membership may be appropriate for you.  Then click on the check-box that you’ve read the terms, and click on Submit.

In either case – whether you use the normal or new member sign-in – on completion of sign-in you will find yourself viewing the Passenger Record of the person you selected.

Viewing a Passenger Record.  The passenger record for my grandfather’s 1906 immigration is shown in Figure 3-05.  Note that it contains the same information (including the misspelled town name) of the search results, but it also includes additional information that may be useful in confirming that you have the correct person.  Ethnicity, exact date of arrival, marital status, and the name and origin of the ship are new information seen here.  Probably more information is available on the manifest itself, and so your next step (assuming you don’t want to avail yourself of buying their grossly overpriced Archival-Quality Certificate) is to View Original Ship Manifest.

But, before we move on, I will explain the buttons at the top of the Passenger Record page (the same set of buttons are also on the Manifest Record page and the Ship page).  The first three buttons simply allow you to switch between three pages associated with the selected immigration event … the Passenger Record, the Original Ship Manifest, and Ship information, including a photograph.  The next two buttons allow you to View Annotations about the immigration event made by other users, or to Create an Annotation yourself.  If you actually go to my grandfather’s record, you will see the annotation I made correcting the spelling of his hometown in Hungary.  The final button is supposed to let you navigate Back to Search Results.  It doesn’t always work as expected.

At the bottom-right of the Passenger Record page are two other items.  The first allows you to send suggested corrections to the passenger record.  It basically facilitates an e-mail from you to the website maintainers.  Only Sustaining Members (i.e. contributors) are permitted to suggest changes.  But, on the one occasion where I made such a suggestion, it was never implemented.  So I haven’t bothered, I’ve used annotations instead.  

Viewing a Manifest.  There are several ways to get to the Original Ship Manifest page illustrated in Figure 3-06.  However you get there, you will find the manifest image on that page too small and illegible to be useful.  Things you can do on this page, in addition to buying stuff, are to save the manifest image or view it in text format.  Since the cause of most errors and misspellings in the database is transcription error, and the text format version of the manifest is necessarily transcribed, I recommend looking at the original rather than the text version.  To do this, click on the magnifying glass icon that reads Click to Enlarge Manifest.  This opens a separate pop-up window which allows you to scroll around the full-size image of the manifest page … that pop-up is similar to your experience with the figures in my Hungarian Family History Tutorial at

One warning, which you have seen if you read the Original Ship Manifest page carefully … entries on earlier manifests are all on a single page.  But, beginning about 1907, entries extend over two pages.  Unfortunately, the two pages are not always in the order expected.  So, if you find you’re viewing the second page of a manifest entry, you can’t be sure whether you have to go to the Previous or Next page to view the first page of the entry.  You will note that each pair of pages is separated by a signature page, so just use trial-and-error to find the two page images you need.

Figure 3-07 shows the 1906 manifest page which includes my paternal grandfather’s immigration event as #23.  When you scroll around your own family’s manifests, obviously your first thought is to save a copy on your own computer.  Here, I believe, the Ellis Island website went a little too far in trying to sell you copies of the manifest pages.  They disabled the use of the right mouse-button which you normally would use for the Save Picture As option.  Obviously, since you’ve seen the full manifest page illustrated as Figure 3-07, there’s a workaround that allows you to save the image.  It is the standard MS Windows feature for saving the screen contents to the Windows Clipboard … Alt/PrintScr.  Get what you want to save on the screen … for Figure 3-07 I used my browser’s Change Zoom Level control (at the lower right on the Status Bar of IE) to show the entire page – I used 50% in this case.  I saved the screen image to the Clipboard and then pasted the Clipboard into my photo editor program.  Bottom line, I saved all or any part of the manifest image I wanted to keep.  How well this works depends on your specific display settings, but it is a viable alternative to buying their copies of the manifests.  By the way, this is the same mechanism that I used to create every one of the figures in this article.

Figure 3-08 is a small part of that manifest image shown full size to illustrate the following points.  My grandfather is #23.  It’s always a good idea to look over the information for the adjacent passengers, since people traveling together are usually listed together.  You may find other family members, neighbors, etc. this way.  In this case, the adjacent people are unrelated and all going to Pennsylvania, rather than New York where my grandfather was headed.  Also note his Last Permanent Residence … while it might be difficult to get Ostfiasszonyfa spelled correctly from that, obviously the transcriber didn’t even attempt a good transcription.  That’s why it’s so important that you analyze the original manifest yourself, your knowledge of your family can be very helpful in transcribing it properly and getting the maximum useful information from the record.

Ship Information.  If you click on the Ship button, you will see a page similar to Figure 3-09, but with a photo and information about the ship on which your ancestor came to New York.  Many people find this information interesting and worth preserving.  Of course, the website tries to sell you a copy of the ship’s photo.  If you want to save the photo to your computer yourself, you’ll have to revert to the method described above.

Dealing with Spelling Problems.  Your first question is likely “Why are there so many spelling errors in the database anyway?”  The answer simple … human frailty.  Creating images of the manifests themselves and storing them on a computer was the easy part of setting up the Ellis Island website.  The hard part was creating the index used to do a passenger search.  Key information had to be transcribed from the originals which – excepting a few post-WWI records – were all handwritten.  This was a massive data entry project.

The originals were usually created by ship’s pursers from many different nations.  They may or may not have spoken the language of the immigrants.  The immigrants themselves may or may not have been literate.  Therefore, there is a significant probability of information being erroneously recorded in the first place.  Then … 100 years after the originals were created … a group of data entry clerks were asked to transcribe the information to create the indices.  There were legibility issues.  There were issues of familiarity with cursive scripts used – for instance you find German Fractur on some manifests rather than normal Latin script.  There were issues of familiarity with foreign names and places – who would ever guess there was a town with the weird name Ostfiasszonyfa?  (BTW the earlier spelling Ostffyasszonyfa is weirder still.)  And there was just plain human frailty … data entry has always been a high-error-rate process.

OK, so there are many errors in the transcribed database.  There is a good chance that they will make it difficult for you to find your ancestors’ immigration events.  But, persistence pays off.  The biggest problem is an unexpected spelling of a name, because that’s necessarily the starting point for every search.  NO! Ellis Island officials did not change people’s family names or arbitrarily assign them names.  Remember, the manifests you will be searching were created aboard ship prior to arrival in New York.  But, people’s names have changed.  Many people Americanized their family name.  For instance, not many Hungarian-Americans spell their name Kis – many have changed it to Kish so that it will be pronounced correctly here in the States.  I’m sure you get the idea.  If you don’t find your ancestor under the spelling you expect, try variations as you refine your search.  Note that the Starts With option can be particularly useful in this endeavor.

First names are sometimes even more difficult than family names.  You can’t be certain what language was used to record the first name: Magyar, German, Slovak, or the language of the ship’s purser.  Also, nicknames may have been used.  Again, a lot of trial-and-error will often get you there.  Immigrants from historic Hungary have another problem … the fact that in Hungary the family name is written first.  Therefore, sometimes the transcriber mixed up the first and last name.  If you get desperate, try a first name in the family name field!

If you are able to find the manifest for your ancestor’s immigration event, transcription errors in the index (such as my grandfather’s hometown) now become unimportant.  You see and can interpret the original based on your knowledge of the family, the language, etc.  That’s why its so important to work your way down in the website to the image of the original manifest.

Refining Your Search.  The Advanced Search page illustrated in Figure 3-10 is used to refine your search.  The goal is to find a reasonable number of search results that include your ancestor.  Note that in the illustration there is a long list of ethnicities that may be selected, all are not shown.  Although all the major ethnicities of historic Hungary are listed (Magyar, German, Slovak, Croatian, Romanian, Serbian, Ruthenian, and Hebrew), there was considerable inconsistency in how this information was recorded.  Sometimes it was what an individual considered themselves, sometimes it was their primary language, sometimes it was erroneously recorded for one reason or another – as happened with both my grandmothers.  Therefore, I do not recommend using ethnicity as an advanced search criteria.

The principal reasons you will use the Advanced Search page is to find immigration events that are difficult to reach because of transcription errors or other forms of misspelling, or to reduce the number of search results to a level where it’s reasonable to review them all.  For that reason, the options associated with names (or name fragments) you use in your search are of utmost importance.  For the passenger’s last name, the options are: Is, Starts With, Alternate Spellings, and Sounds Like.  The Starts With option is the most likely to help if Is doesn’t work … try shortened forms of the name, though three letters is the minimum allowable.  Remember, using shortened forms will produce more results unless you specify other search criteria that will reduce their number.  If you really get desperate, go on to the other options.  I can’t comment on them since I haven’t used them. 

If the first letter of the family name is transcribed incorrectly, it may be nearly impossible to find a manifest.  I worked for days searching for my maternal grandmother’s immigration.  Her family name was Gojdina, but it was transcribed as Vojdina … the German script “G” in the entry looked to the transcriber like a “V” – and I must admit that it does.  After trying everything imaginable starting with a “G” I decided to use the Starts With option with every first letter followed by “ojd” … I had to go through most of the alphabet, but eventually found it.  It would have been much more difficult if it weren’t for the unusual combination “ojd” being transcribed correctly.

For first names, the options are Ignore, Is, Starts With, and Contains.   Ignore is what we used by default by leaving the first name field blank in our initial search.  Starts With is again the best option for reducing the number of results and still handling misspellings.  But remember, you may have to try it for multiple languages: István and Stefan for instance. 

In general, in every search you should specify gender – it cuts down on results in an obvious way.  One concern with gender though is the fact that Magyar women commonly used their maiden name throughout life.  Therefore, when searching for married women you may find your ancestor under either her birth or her married name.

The information you have about the birth year or immigration year for your ancestor can be a great help in reducing the number of results you have to review.  Even if you are absolutely certain about the date of birth of your ancestor, don’t use the Exact Year option in your search.  The manifests give age, not year of birth.  Without the actual birthday, the computed year of birth can always vary by plus-or-minus one year.  So, enter the year of birth that you know is correct, but at least select the + or – 1 Year option.  But, remember, this approach will fail if your ancestor lied about his/her age on the manifest – and there were many reasons to do so.  [For instance: too young to immigrate by themselves; avoiding the draft in Hungary; don’t want a fellow traveler to know their correct age, etc.]  Finally, if you are really sure of your ancestor’s year of arrival, put it into the search and specify the Exact Year option.  If you aren’t certain of the year, perhaps you could still use Year of Arrival with another option to reduce the number of results substantially. 

Regarding my grandfather’s search, specifying that his first name Starts With “V” and the he was born in 1881 + or – 1 Year yields only two results … my grandfather’s two immigration events.  Sometimes the system works very well!

Summary.  It takes a good deal of practice to reduce Ellis Island website search results to a reasonable number and then get access to the manifests that document your ancestors’ immigration events.  But, I’ve managed to find the manifests of many dozens of people with both common and uncommon names, and have failed on only a handful.  There are other websites which promise “One-Step” access to the Ellis Island database, but I strongly recommend that you get a feel for the official website itself before you go to such measures.

After the next two articles on using the Family History Library on-line and at your local Family History Center, the direction this column takes will be up to you, our readers.  I hope to tailor subsequent articles to your interests.  Therefore, your feedback would be appreciated.  Write me at

Next: The Family History Library On-Line.