Myths & Misconceptions

Where are the Books?

There are many myths and misconceptions associated with Ellis Island, but one stands out above all others…


This is the most common question heard by our expert researchers at The American Family Immigration History Center. 

It certainly is a romantic notion – examining actual documents that were held and signed by your ancestor a century ago. Alas, this is not reality, despite what Hollywood tells us.

(Thank you, HITCH! *) 

While the image shown in the Will Smith film replicates a passenger manifest, those original paper documents no longer exist. Decades ago, the U.S. government converted millions of immigration passenger arrival records to microfilm before selling them for paper pulp.  

The records are now available digitally. On April 17, 2001, the Foundation, in collaboration with FamilySearch, launched the Ellis Island database. Originally containing records from Ellis’s peak years (1892 through 1924), the Foundation has expanded the resource, which is now home to some 65 million Port of New York arrival records covering 1820-1957.

Before the passenger records could be digitized, the information had to be transcribed from the microfilm. Tens of thousands of volunteer hours were spent on this monumental task, which often required deciphering damaged images, phonetically spelled names and locations, and 19th-century handwriting.

As such, the database has some errors, which the Foundation updates as correct information becomes available. This may be one of the reasons many Ellis Island descendants mistakenly believe that their family name was changed at Ellis Island. For more on this Ellis Island myth, check out “Names Not Changed at Ellis Island”, an educational video featured in the Foundation’s library of free Educational Resources.

Depending on the year of arrival, a passenger manifest included up to 33 data points, among them family and given names, age, marital status, literacy status, nationality, port of departure, U.S. destination, identifying marks. These details may not answer every question about your ancestor, but they provide key details about their start in America.

To begin your search, go to our free online database. Visit the “Embarking On Your Genealogical Journey” section of our Educational Resources page for research tips. If you can make your way to Ellis Island, come to the Family History Center where our experts are available to help.

Don’t have a connection to Ellis Island and the Port of New York? Check out the records of notable Ellis Island passengers.

Enjoy the journey!

*Don’t try accessing Ellis Island via your Jet Ski!