Known for honoring immigrants who came to the U.S., the Ellis Island National Museum, which is part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument, now offers a virtual experience called “The Dedicated Passenger Search,” to help users explore their connections to 17+ million immigrants who entered the U.S. through the Port of New York during 1820-1957. The virtual experience is said to replicate a visit to the Family History Center inside the museum to help people along their genealogical journey.
For $30, foundation experts conduct a personalized search through its passenger database, which is home to about 65 million arrival records. With a successful search, donors receive two copies (a digital version and a hard copy on archival paper) of the ship manifest displaying the immigrant’s arrival.
Jackie Schalk, site manager and director of the American Family Immigration History Center at the museum, said, “It’s an amazing offer to be honest. What users do is fill out a form with various questions, ranging from: What is your ancestors name? Was their name changed when they came to the U.S.? What was your ancestor’s spouse’s name? What is your ancestor’s birthday?’ Along with any other relevant information to help find the person they are looking for.” After that, experts will search for your ancestor with the information provided and will email you the results they find.
“This whole process is done over email,” Jackie said, “our experts are very familiar with the concept of immigration and what was going on at the time when many of these individuals came to the U.S.”
As a result, many people who have used this service found out new information about their ancestors that they didn’t know, “many people come back to us shocked to find out that their family member went by a different name before they came to the U.S., she said, sometimes by finding out this new piece of information will trigger memories, which can help narrow our search.”
This was the case when Jackie worked with famous designer, Michael Kors, last year when she helped him realize that a key component to a story, he was told about his great grandmother was different than what he thought. “When I worked with Michael Kors, he explained to me that his great grandmother came to this country alone at 9 years old on a ship to Boston. However, after further research we found out that she actually came to this country at 18 years old and arrived in Hoboken, New Jersey.”
The whole purpose of this service, which, before the pandemic, was offered in person at the Family History Center on the first floor of the museum, is to illuminate the past of these individuals to help bridge families with their ancestors so that their story lives on through them. This concept has always been important to Jackie, inspiring her to help others to learn more about their past through their ancestors, resulting in a 13-year career with The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation.
“I grew up in an Italian household. We would have big family reunions every year and would pull out our big family tree and talk about our ancestors and their stories,” she said. “My family came through the port of New York. My great grandfather’s story is actually told at Ellis Island. I am very passionate about telling people’s stories and am fearful that if they are not spoken about, they will be forgotten.”
A way to combat this, she said, is to ask questions to family members who are still with us. “I ask my grandma questions all the time, for example if she gives me a piece of jewelry, I ask her where did you wear this? Who gave it to you? Along with other questions about her past. I am passionate about what I do and love helping families discover where and who they come from, she adds, it’s the best job in the world.”
When asked if this service would be offered after the museum opens after the pandemic, she said, “I would love to offer this service after things start to go back to normal.” Users, she adds, have been very pleased with the virtual service, it has been a source of positivity during a difficult and stressful time.”
Suzanne Mannion, Director of Public Affairs at The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, Inc., echoed Jackie’s sentiments, saying, “The Foundation is very glad that the Dedicated Search Service has been so very well received. Our intention is to continue the service even after the American Family Immigration History Center reopens so our experts can continue helping people explore their family history.”
Another source of joy for users and visitors to the museum is its permanent exhibition “The American Immigrant Wall of Honor,” which celebrates the history and origins of all Americans. The Wall of Honor displays names of immigrants of all eras, even up to the present day. Included are names representing all ethnicities, all years of arrival, all points of entry, and all modes of travel.
With a minimum $150 donation an individual or family name is inscribed on the Wall of Honor. Supporters also receive an official Certificate of Recognition.
- Due to COVID-19, donors will receive a digital Certificate of Registration, which can be shared. Delivery of the printed Certificate of Registration will be mailed as soon as it is safe to do so, and regular shipments can be resumed.
- Names are inscribed annually. Donations made by January 31, 2021 will be added to the Wall of Honor in summer 2021.
For those interested in inscribing their ancestors name on the wall, Jackie said, “There are currently 5 panels left with room to inscribe 3,300 names, adding to the current amount of 770 panels with over 775,000 names currently inscribed on the wall.” ■
If you are interested in learning more about the museum, its virtual “Dedicated Search Service,” or the State of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, check out the links below: