I know my grandparents came to this country from poland. I can’t find their name in the Ellis island records. i know that spelling of names were often changed when people arrived. How do I find the information I need to even begin…

25 Answers

  1. LoisMackin wrote on :

    Once you have found all the different spellings of the names in census records, vital records (births, marriages, deaths), naturalizations, newspapers, and so forth, you need to work back from those to a Polish version of the name that would have been used in the ship’s passenger lists (whether from Ellis Island or one of the other ports of arrival).

    A book that might help you is _Polish Surnames: Origins and Meanings_ by William F. Hoffman. Also, Jonathan D. Shea, wrote _A Guide to Polish American Family History Research: Going Home_ Both books have very good information on the Polish language. They can help you discover the Polish spellings that would be associated with the pronunciations represented in the U.S. records, and may lead you to the spelling actually used in the ship records. Good luck!

  2. clcrss wrote on :

    There are already lots of tips and I think the most important thing to remember is to use census records as a base. Once you have located the family in the census, use the other resources mentioned to get additional details. Remember that name spellings were often quite varied … If you can give me the name, I will look for more info. Where have you found them in the census? clcs

  3. susaneking wrote on :

    Depending upon the year of immigration and naturalization, sometimes locating the naturalization record may yield better and faster results. First, it will state the date and ship of arrival which can guide us faster to the passenger manifest. If the name was indeed changed, the immigrants were allowed to do this legally at the time of naturalization so the records will sometimes list both the name at immigration and the name they adopted. Indexing of these names and place names in the databases has always been the biggest frustration in finding our immigrants on these manifests.


  4. Ultimate-Genealogy wrote on :

    Have you used the search feature on http://www.ellisisland.org/ ? They have options to try a variety of spellings. First thing is knowing the time frame they can here. Ellis Island 1892-1924 Castle Garden 1820-1892 http://www.castlegarden.org also has a search function. If you have other documents with their last names spelled different ways, try searching those spellings. Try phonetic spellings, although that can be hard my husbands surname has over 66,000 variations. Keep in mind having the persons full name, birth date or age when they arrived, and birth place or last residence will be very helpful in your search.

  5. SherlyC wrote on :

    I agree with the other gurus. Names were not changed by officials. Ellis Island actually had native speakers to help the new immigrants. I would first start with what you know about the family. Interview any descendants. Perhaps you will learn that your relatives came through another port than Ellis Island. Where do you live? Where did you grow up? This can give you clues as to what port your family came through. If they did arrive through Ellis Island, the Steve Morse site is best. Remember that letters in Polish surnames were often Anglicized. One family I know was Pavlik in Poland and became Pawlik in the U.S. Look for other consonants that could be changed from the Polish.

  6. FromAAA wrote on :

    I have found the online communities really helpful. Check out Rootsweb and search the various groups there. Many times distant relatives from other family ‘branches’ have info pertinent to your questions.

  7. coll7777 wrote on :

    I will assume that you checked the Ellis Island free-with-registration site (http://www.ellisisland.org/), but as others have mentioned, not everyone came through Ellis. Beyond that, to me, ancestry research is always about going backwards. Did your grandparents or their children have unusual names? If so, search those (I was so lucky to have had a “Thistle” in my line!). And, do a google search for your grandparents’ names because someone my have created a webpage which lists them.

  8. Melin_Swango711 wrote on :

    Ellis Island did not begin until 1892. If, in fact your grandparents did come through Ellis Island, a good source for information is: http://www.stevemorse.org. He has a searchable website. Do look ad how the names SOUNDED. that might be how they were written down. If they did not arrive through Ellis island – and that is a good possibility, you must search elsewhere.

  9. tinarozelle wrote on :

    Hi kzlady, check the1900 census it has a columns for citizenship. It could show year off immigration and port they came into. Let me know if I can be of any further help,
    Tina of info@southernfamilyhistory.net.

  10. amiddleman wrote on :

    Try the census records, easy to get with Ancestry.com. Check for various spellings, as the old census was handwritten, and when the records were digitized, some names were misspelled. Those records, however, will tell you when they came. Finding them on Ellis Island.com is more difficult, esp if they came before EI was opened in 1896.

  11. Genteacher wrote on :

    Ellis Island didn’t start keeping records until 1892. Prior to that, immigrants landed at Castle Garden. Check out this link and perhaps you will find them:
    http://www.stevemorse.org/ellis/cg.html. Have you collected census data for your grandparents? The 1900 census asked the question about when the person immigrated. That should narrow things down some. You can also check the website for the Immigrant Ships Transcribers Guild – http://www.immigrantships.net You can search by year and by port of embarkation.
    Many Poles left Europe from the port of Hamburg, Germany. Here is a helpful link to the Hamburg Passenger Lists http://www.germanroots.com/hamburg.html
    It is a myth that the officials at any immigration port changed the spelling of the names – they took the names off of the ship’s passenger lists and there were plenty of folks who spoke the languages of the immigrants so that mistakes were not made. If there was a name change, it was because the immigrant wanted to fit into the American culture.
    Good luck with your search. If I can be of further help let me know.
    Marilyn Giese, http://www.askagenealogist.com

  12. Jerry wrote on :

    Knowing when your grandparents arrived is key to your research. Once established, either through family records or census records, you can search ports. New York City had several processing areas over the years. Check out the other guru responses. Castle Garden preceeded Ellis Island, but there was also the Barge Office there in between those two major facilities. Also, many immigrants arrived through Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphis, New Orleans and Canadian ports. Don’t assume they arrived through New York. Also, if you know where they settled, check out the local towns for ethnic newspapers. Major hubs like New York, Chicago, Detroit and the like had Polish newspapers that you can find in the libraries associated with those cities. Some Polish social organizations also have archived newspapers and other historic documents around their heritage in their area. I was able to find my husband’s family through death notice in the Polish paper in Chicago. Then, was able to find website to help with the translation of commonly used words in the obituary. Also, regarding name changes. Many times the family name was “anglicized” but often changed to blend in with new surroundings. My husband’s family went from Idzikowski to Bloom. Probably, since his great-grandfather was a deserter from the Kaiser’s (German) Army that absorbed his Polish homeland during boundary struggles in mid-late 1800s. There, census records and city directories may be the best way to track period the name change occurred.

  13. rrjwj wrote on :

    Go to JewishGen.org. They have a lot of information on Jewish towns and the residents of the town. There is a book of residents for Poland. You may find their names in there. Also, you can go to familysearch.org a free site. They have a Polish database. Google the surname of the person, name of the city in Poland and you may find names of people there.

  14. nanjones wrote on :

    Major ports along the East coast were Boston, NYC, Philadelphia, Baltimore and so on. Do you know the year they came over? Try the census right after that. The census records in the early 1900’s (1900 and 1910) often had the year they immigrated. That would give you a start. Names even those not Polish were often misspelled. But with the first name, spouse’s name and names of children, you can be sure on the census or city directories, that you have the correct one. Do you have any of the children’s birth certificates or church records? Those might give the spelling that was used here.

  15. carthay wrote on :

    I agree that stevemorse.org is the place to go, but you need to do some footwork first. Go to the census records. Here you can get and get an estimated date of arrival, estimated birth date, and naturalization status. Let’s say, you think he arrived in 1845, then check the 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880 and 1900 census, not all have ask the immigration question, I believe that started around 1870 or 1880. The last census available at this time is 1930; the 1940 will be out next year. Be sure to check as many censuses as you can. Be aware that you many find a variety of arrival dates like 1843, 1849, 1844, etc. as they forget over the years. This will give you a range for the morse site. Also look in the census records for citizen status: if it is blank, he probably did not do anything about naturalization; keep looking at later censuses, if it says “al” he is an alien, “pa” means he filed the first papers in the naturalization process, “NA” means he was naturalized. Then you can search for the naturalization papers (which is another story on its own) but the papers will tell you where he came from and when. Hope this helps. Arlene

  16. EJPells wrote on :

    Did your grandparents have social security numbers? If you think so go to the SS death index and search for them as you know them. You can request a copy of their original social security applications through the freedom of information act (for a fee). You will receive a copy of their original application which includes data such as their parents names. This might have their parents names in original form.

  17. carthay wrote on :

    Hi, I agree with the other gurus – http://www.stevemorse.org is the place to go. But first, did you look up the family in the census. Depending on when you think they arrived, you need to look up the appropriate census. Let’s say, he arrived in 1845, then you would look him up in the 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880 and 1900 Census, there is a column for date of immigration on most of them. However, you did not give the surname. You can also use soundex index to find similar names. If you know the town they are from, you can search on that.

  18. Carol Robertson wrote on :

    In most instances, the names were not changed. However, Polish names were frequently mispelled. What is the surname of this family?

  19. photodetective wrote on :

    It’s best to start by creating a timeline of their lives and work backwards in time using census records and city directories. They may have anglicized their name. Say their name out loud and spelling it phonetically also helps

  20. sshayward wrote on :

    What are the common forms of Surname spelling?
    What are the approximate dates of their arrival?
    Where did they settle?
    My great-grandparents also came from Poland in the late 1880’s. Some of the census reports say Poland, others, Austria. Your grandparents may not have come through Ellis Island. I would start by writing down the most common spelling of the Surname and then all other forms. Try to find them in a Census Report based on your knowledge of where they lived. This may take some time as you may have to go through a number of sheets and alternate forms of spelling. My great-grandparents settled in a Polish community in Nebraska which is not uncommon and generally immigrants followed family and friends. Gather all family notes and start interviewing your own family. Start local and work backward.

  21. adnil1962 wrote on :

    I used to think that “Ellis Island” officials changed my Lithuanian surname. However, there is little truth in these “name change” stories. While immigrants’ surnames often changed as they adjusted to the new country and culture, they were very rarely changed upon their arrival at Ellis Island. Here is a great article: http://genealogy.about.com/od/ellis_island/a/name_change.htm

    You must find out all you can about the immigrant in American records so that you will be able to recognize him or her in the foreign records. By establishing as many known facts as possible, you can continue the search in the immigrant’s home land using whatever records are accessible and available for that time period.

    The best strategy is to use all the American records that you can so that you may recognize your immigrant with his family and associates. As a minimum we need to know the immigrant’s full name as he used it at the time of immigration, his birth date or age when he came, his birth place or last residence, the year he or she immigrated, and the port that they most likely entered. Although some immigrants came alone, many came with other relatives, villagers, or those of the same religious beliefs. If you suspect that your immigrant’s name was mangled, look for his associates and extended family in the records. Your research target may be “standing” next to them. For other name search strategies see: http://www.familysearch.org/eng/search/RG/images/US_NameT3_Name_Variations.pdf

  22. MaryDouglass wrote on :

    It is a myth that names were changed at the port of entry. That was done by the family later to better “fit it.” Ellis Island records begin in 1892 and end in 1954. They may not have come through that port of entry. I suggest you begin with the last US census on which they appeared and work backward. The National Archives has a wealth of immigration records. I also recommend John P. Colletta’s book, “They Came in Ships: A guide to finding your immigrant ancestor’s arrival record.” Your local public library can get this for you interlibrary loan if it is not already in their collections.

  23. MaryDouglass wrote on :

    When did your grandparents arrive in the US? Ellis Island records begin in 1892 and end in 1954. Before that, immigrants used Castle Garden. It is a myth that names were changed at Ellis Island or any other port of entry. Any genealogical search begins with family records. The work backwards in the US census from their death dates. The National Archives has a large collection of immigration records. I also recommend John P. Colletta’s book, “They Came in Ships,” for a concise guide to finding your immigrant ancestor’s arrival record. Your public library can find this interlibrary loan if it is not already in their collection.

  24. dhooper wrote on :

    Depending on when your grandparents arrived, they didn’t have to come through Elllis Island. And names were not changed as much as they were just misspelled due to the language barrier between the arriving immigrants and the immigration clerks. One of the best websites I can recommend you to use is the “one-step portal” at http://www.stevemorse.org. You can enter the surname of your grandparents using wildcards to search. For example, if you aren’t sure exactly how to spell the name variations, just put the first few letters, then an asterisk, then the last letter or two. I am pretty sure the site also allows for a “soundex” search. Be sure to check that option–it will search by “sound” rather than exact spelling. Hopefully you have narrowed down the year they arrived to a time frame of “x” number of years. If you need more help, send me some detailed information and I will see what I can do. Good luck!

  25. JaniceMSJ wrote on :

    The first problem might be that they didn’t actually come through Ellis Island. People came through several other ports as well. Also, people’s names were not changed as they arrived; immigrants changed their names themselves after arrival, usually in an effort to assimilate and find employment. I recommend you go to stevemorse.org (note that is .org, not .com) and use Steve Morse’s much better search interface for the Ellis Island database.

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