Ellis Island immigrant extraction: project of mammoth dimensions

Reaching back to lives from nearly a century ago, the Church's volunteer extractors opened the way for those lives to touch the lives of 100 million of their descendants.

Wayne J. Metcalfe of the Family and Church History Department demonstrates features of new history center.
Wayne J. Metcalfe of the Family and Church History Department demonstrates features of new history center. Photo: Photo by John L. Hart

In a project of mammoth dimensions, the extractors have fully automated the records of 24 million immigrants who arrived at New York's famed Ellis Island between 1892-1924, the ancestors of an estimated 100 million Americans.

Now, when a visitor arrives at the American Family Immigration History Center on Ellis Island to seek clues about ancestors, all he or she will have to do is enter the name of the ancestor on a computer. The database will bring up that name — and all names with similar spellings — along with the page number and line of the entry. With a click of a mouse, a digital image of the page will come up on screen for the researcher to look at the original entry. So will a picture of the ship the person sailed on.

The project began after the Church acquired microfilm of the Ellis Island records and began a joint project with the National Park Service and the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation to automate the film. The effort was done as a 1992 Statue of Liberty Centennial project.

The scope of this project is difficult to comprehend: from 1993-2000, the Church volunteers spent some 5.6 million hours — a conservative estimate — in reading often obscure and difficult handwriting, and then keyboarding the information. The information they automated came from 3,685 rolls of microfilm. If stacked flat one on top of another, these rolls would triple the height of nearby Statue of Liberty, standing on nearby Liberty Island.

Working on the seemingly never-ending stream of ships' manifests shaped the lives of the more than 12,000 volunteer extractors from some 602 stakes, said Janeen Stevens of the Bountiful Utah Central Stake. An extractor worker since 1986, she joined the project in 1993 and, in the last two years, spent more than 40 hours weekly on the project, trying to meet the 2000 deadline.

"You get so you think something is missing from your life if you are not at the computer," she said. But she explained that the impact on her life from this project was much deeper than merely having a colossal project to work on.

"It is really a kind of overwhelming feeling you get, and an appreciation . . . as you see the living hordes of people coming out of Europe."

Working on the records was a religious experience, she said. "I felt a closeness to the Spirit when I worked on this. Maybe that is why I didn't want to give it up."

Janet DiPastena, a supervisor in records processing, was testing the software for the growing database when she saw some familiar names, both her grandparents, and eventually found about 15 to 20 other relatives who came to America through Ellis Island. "I was really excited," she said.

Now, this database "will be a good, helpful tool for my relatives who are not members of the Church," she said.

One of the greatest challenges for the extractors was understanding the myriad kinds and cultures through their handwriting, said Brent Peterson, project director from the Family and Church History Department. Most of the extraction was done from paper copies of the film.

"The difficulty of reading the records was the hardest part of the problem," Brother Peterson said. Typically, just about the time the extractors became comfortable with Italian names, a new batch came in with a different nationality. For some records, the extractors couldn't tell which was the surname and which was the first name. Some handwriting was extremely obscure.

To reach the highest level of accuracy possible, five levels of extraction were developed. First, two extractors keyboarded each record, which included 15 to 36 categories of information, and the results were compared by computer. Next, an auditor checked every name on every entry. Then a computerized, random audit searched the records for errors. If there were too many errors, it was re-done. When the material was sent to Church headquarters, the material was audited again and had to be of an acceptable standard.

"Considering the legibility of the document, I believe we have a very good extraction of it," said Brother Peterson. "There is also good reason to believe that the data in the manifests are quite reliable. Though some immigrants changed their names when they came to America, most of that happened in the naturalization process."

The quest for accuracy was always on the minds of the extractors, said Sister LaRue Selwin, who automated the names as a full-time missionary. "You can take a long time and agonize over them," she said. "Sometimes there were a thousand names from one ship. A lot of the names were quite legible, but the ones that were not were a real challenge. As you studied them once, you might think, 'That is indecipherable.' Then you look again and again, and you could see what it was supposed to be. It happened quite often.

"If we hadn't had some help from the other side we probably wouldn't have had it done in the time allotted."

Her insights into that time period led her to observe, "I am so grateful I didn't have to come over on one of those ships."

Wayne J. Metcalfe, director of field services for the Family and Church History Department, said: "This has been one of the most challenging projects we have ever undertaken. This seven-year project has tested the persistence and best extraction skills of our Church member volunteers. The end result is a database that will allow as many as 100 million living descendants to find information about their ancestors or confirm these ancestors."

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