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A Discussion About Errors in the Ellis Island Database (EIDB)

Spelling Errors | Other Considerations | EIDB Research Strategies | USCIS Essays

SPELLING ERRORS

Misspellings on the manifests and on the Ellis Island site are legend.  You cannot depend on the spelling you have to be correct.  This applies to all data found on the manifest - Names, villages, everything!   Listed below are some of the more pervasive errors you will likely encounter.  You will likely encounter more than one error.  These items apply to many historic documents.

  • Looks-Like  First, consider sloppy penmanship and pursue a looks-like strategy.  "W" might in fact be a "UI" or a "vi" or a "eu", for example.  Consider all the possible "Alternate Spellings" that Ellis Island Database offers.  These are primarily "looks-alike" matches.

  • Sounds-Like  Consider that the ship's purser (who created the manifest at the port of embarkation) wrote the name as it sounded to him, especially in the case of illiterate emigrants.  He may or may not be familiar with the language spoken.  Use the 1-step web page to ferret out these possibilities. (See also "They Changed our name at Ellis Island")

  • Typed Transcription - Consider that the Ellis Island web site transcriber (a volunteer who typed info written on the manifest into the "typed", searchable form found on the Ellis Island site, who read the manifest, read it incorrectly or didn't understand old cursive handwriting.  Consequentially the name was mistyped.  I've seen too many people assumed that something typed must be correct - NEVER!  ALWAYS CHECK THE HANDWRITTEN MANIFEST YOURSELF!

  • Language Rules - Consider that a name may have been spelled in conformance with other language rules of the time.  For example, Slovakia had been ruled by Hungary, hence the Magyar rules may have been utilized.  Village names may be entirely different today.

  • Diacriticals go AWOL - Most manifest scribes seem to have little interest in including diacritical (accent) marks onto the traveler's name or village.  More often, the Latin alphabet was used and letters replaced with a sounds-like equivalent.

Other Considerations

1. DON'T ASSUME that the way the surname is spelled today is the "correct way" or is the way your ancestor spelled it or the way it was recorded in government documents, either before or after immigration.  Various governments ruling your ancestor's territories over time imposed their own spellings of villages, surnames and given names.  It is folly to think that if you can't quickly find your name in the database based solely upon the spelling variations you have been given.  It's likely in there somewhere, just in a form you never imagined!

2. Manifests were prepared by the Purser (clerk) employed by the Shipping company.  They were prepared at the port of departure.  The Purser was faced with spelling the spoken names provided by illiterate immigrants.   The U.S. immigration officers rarely modified the ship's manifests, other than to clarify overt mistakes.

3. You may never find a "correct" name.  Names evolved over time, changed by circumstances and language.  A particular spelling may be relevant for only a particular place and time.  For example, my surname takes the forms "Tarkulich" (American), "Tarkulič" (Slovak), "Tarkulics" (Magyar) and "Tarkulicz" (Archaic Magyar.)  One of my research villages "Ulič" (Slovak) had been known as "Utczas" (Archaic Magyar) and "Ulics" (Magyar.)

4. Expect to find few common trends - The number of transcribers were great, the consistency and rigor lacking.  The frequency of these errors is great and the occurrence common - expect to find your name misspelled.

4. Ellis Island 1-Step Tool - Rather than exclusively using Ellis Island Database as your search engine, I recommend Steve Morse's "front-end" tool, where he allows you to search by many other characteristics.  He also has employed sounds-like search mechanism.  You enter your criteria into his 1-step web page and he in turn sends the request to Ellis Island Database, which presents the results in the familiar form.

5. Ellis Island Database Name Permutations - A shareware program available for purchase of US$20.  May be helpful if you're having a "senior moment", "brain cramp", "brick wall" or the like.  Free to try.

6. JewishGen Introduction - JewishGen has put together an excellent list of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) about the Ellis Island web database.

7. Don't rely exclusively on automation tools such as Ellis Island Database or 1-step.  Use your intuition and family history knowledge to consider other name possibilities.

 

8. "Hand Cramp" or Laziness: Consider Fewer Letters  If your search is seemingly dead-ended, consider searching on fewer letters of the name.  For example put in the first three, four or five letters (and all likely alternates) and see what comes up.  Sometimes the word begins legibly but ends up illegible.

 

9. "They changed our name at Ellis Island" - Nothing could be further from the truth.  In fact, the US Immigration Agency USCIS went so far as to publish an article to refute this relentless urban legend.

 

Useful U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)/INS References

The USCIS has authored many FAQs and articles on the immigration process, facts and folklore.  Several of these most useful references are cited here below and found in full detail on the following page.

 

 

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Last Update: 27 April 2013                                                    Copyright 2003-2013, Bill Tarkulich