Millions of Americans will be able to trace their ancestors' arrival in America, thanks to a new Ellis Island immigrants database compiled by volunteers from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, launched Tuesday.
The database was compiled and placed online through a partnership among the church, the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation and the National Park Service. Computer searches will be available to the millions who visit the American Family Immigration Center at Ellis Island, plus innumerable more people who will be able to search the Internet.
The launch of the new database, and the contributions by the church, were big news nationwide with The New York Times and CBS radio featuring stories on the project Tuesday.
The NBC television network's "Today Show" broadcast several live shots from Ellis Island, including comments from Lee Iacocca, former Chrysler chairman and the leader of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation. Iacocca talked about his father's journey to America, and said he has waited 20 years for this day.
"You'll be able to come to this center and get in touch with your ancestors," he said, speaking from Ellis Island.
One official announced on NBC that the actual online connections will start on Wednesday.
The searchable database of 22 million names of arrivals to Ellis Island was painstakingly constructed by 12,000 church volunteers, who worked on the project over seven years. The new database will be free to the public on the Internet, at the Ellis Island Web site, www.ellisislandrecords.org.
Century-old handwriting, and microfilms and photocopies that were nearly impossible to decipher, added to the difficulty of transcribing the information. Also, the original information was recorded by many people, who took it down from people from various nationalities speaking different languages.
The intent of the new database, says Wayne J. Metcalfe, director of the LDS Church's Field Services and Support Division of the Family and Church History Department, is to preserve the cultural heritage of the American people.
LDS volunteers were involved because the Church encourages its members to engage in family history research.
Church President Gordon B. Hinckley has stated, "Seeking to understand our family history can change our lives. It helps bring unity and cohesion to families. There is something about understanding the past that helps give our young people something to live up to, a legacy to respect." Metcalfe noted that the Ellis Island data extraction "was a fairly sizable project, accounting for approximately 71 percent of all United States immigration records."
Altogether, volunteers examined 3,678 boxes of microfilms. If stacked flat, the boxes would tower more than three times as high as the Statue of Liberty, from Lady Liberty's robe hem to the top of her torch.
Metcalfe said visitors to the American Family Immigration History Center on Ellis Island will be able to search on computer for ancestors who immigrated to the United States during the period 1892-1924. These were the peak years of Ellis Island's processing of newcomers.
If a visitor to the center discovers an ancestor in the database, a link allows the center to print out additional data for the visitor, including a copy of the passenger manifest and a picture of the ship on which the ancestor arrived.
Visitors to the center also will be able to scan in family photographs and personal documents, and enter audio recordings to store in the center's national family history archive.
Those who search by Internet also will be able to locate an ancestor, then order a printed copy of the passenger manifest and a picture of the ship.
"Because of the uniqueness of the data and limited readability of the microfilm, it has been one of the most challenging projects we have ever undertaken," Metcalfe said. "But our volunteers stuck with it to create this valuable resource."
Latter-day Saint volunteers in 2,700 congregations throughout the United States and Canada worked on the project, donating around 5.6 million hours of work. They carefully examined the original records on microfilm and photocopies, then extracted pertinent information onto data-entry forms or typed it directly into computers.
To improve accuracy, about 100 full-time volunteers at church headquarters in Salt Lake City compared the original microfilms with extracted data and made any corrections that were needed.
"Our volunteers really put their hearts into this project," said Peggy Cook, family records extraction director for a congregation in Sandy. Incentives for many included knowing that they had relatives who had immigrated to the United States by way of Ellis Island, she said.
The partnership among the church, the Park Service and the foundation involved "three very separate groups with very special and specific interests," said Steve Briganti, the foundation's president. They came together to "provide something that is valuable for so many millions of people who want to know about their heritage.
Officials estimate that 40 percent of Americans living today can trace the roots of at least one ancestor through the Port of New York.
Through its popular family history Web site,www.FamilySearch.org, the church has made available to the public a number of other genealogical tools. These include census records and indexes of vital records. The site receives about 9 million hits per day.
The church originally purchased microfilm copies of Ellis Island passenger records from the National Archives. In 1992, during the Statue of Liberty centennial celebration, church officials indicated they wished to automate the records and create a national database.
The National Park Service and the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation expressed interest in a joint project with the church to make the database public.
"This seven-year project tested the persistence and best extraction skills of our church-member volunteers but was certainly worth the effort," Metcalfe said.
"The end result is a database which will allow as many as 100 million living descendants of United States immigrants to find information about their ancestors or confirm these ancestors' first steps on the land of their hopes and dreams."