The National Parks Service in partnership with ancestry.com have created a free online database of 2,000 oral histories of immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island between 1892 and 1976.
Ancestry.com has a large collection of scanned documents like passport applications and passenger lists of people who passed through what was for several decades the primary port of entry to the United States, but it’s a subscription service. The oral histories project began before there even were such things as .coms, so the site made a deal with the National Parks Service guaranteeing that they would be made available to the general public for free in perpetuity. The recordings were previously available only to visitors at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum.
The voices in these hour-long oral histories have the gravelly, well-worn emotional timbre familiar to anyone whose older relatives hold forth and bend the family’s ears over Thanksgiving dinners. Collected by members of the National Parks Service beginning in 1970, the interviewees discuss their experiences arriving in the United States, but also give perspective on how their lives have been in the country some of them believed was “paved with gold” before they arrived. What is remarkable to a 21st-century audience is the kind of high-stakes stories these voices describe: children lost in an overwhelming crowd, fathers embracing families they didn’t expect to see again, a Hershey bar tossed to a daughter as a symbol of America’s prosperity.
The Ellis Island Oral History Program set out to collect as varied a range of experiences of Ellis Island immigrants as they could. They asked immigrants to discuss their lives in the country of origin, family history, the voyage to New York, arrival and life in the US. Interviewees range in age from 46 to 106 and came from many different countries.
Searchable information includes names, birth dates, countries immigrated from, ages, ship names and any other information flagged during the interview. To search the oral histories, click here. Here’s one short sample of how moving these stories can be. This is Lillian Galletta describing seeing her father upon her arrival at Ellis Island in 1920.
Ellis Island processed 12 million immigrants between 1892 and 1954, although from 1924 onwards immigration was severely restricted and only war refugees or displaced persons came through Ellis Island. Immigrants had to answer 29 questions (name, occupation, how much money did they have, etc.) and were given a quick medical exam. Inspectors deported 2% of those 12 million people for chronic contagious disease, criminal background, or insanity.