6 Ways To Find Hidden Information In Ellis Island Ship Manifests

Did you know you might be overlooking hidden information in Ellis Island Ship Manifests? There’s more there than meets the eye if you take the time to snoop around. Here’s 6 ways you should train yourself to scan for each time you look at an Ellis Island Ship manifest; in fact, you might want to go back to the one’s you’ve already found and give them another look over!


More than 51 million immigrants passed through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1957. Records were kept and logged, not just at Ellis Island, but also at the ship’s port of departure in Europe. This accounts for some of those mysterious annotations.


For this particular record, the typed portion was entered in Rotterdam, and the handwritten portion at Ellis Island, basically updating the information taken by the European officials. If you look closely, the typed entry says: “claims to be a U.S.A. citizen” which is what the family must have told the officials at Rotterdam. Once they arrived in Ellis Island, the U.S. customs officials verified that indeed they were and penned in his notes to the affirmative. The number at the top-left is probably his visa number.


The more you explore Ellis Island ship manifests the more you’ll see that the forms vary from ship to ship, country to country over time. Some contain more biographical information than others; the point is to scour these forms for every shred of information you can. This form from the SS Cassel which sailed in 1906 from Bremen to New York contained actual biographical information! I wish they all did.



Many of the Ellis Island manifests have more than one page. It’s a TOP TIP to make sure you always scan for a 2nd page when looking at these records. The Ellis Island site always has multiple records in their search results; Ancestry and Family Search don’t always have them.


An often overlooked source of information are the companion European records! If a ship left Bremen and sailed to Ellis Island then the German authorities would keep their own records as would the US authorities. I’ve found these to be useful as they often contain information that the US manifests either don’t have or are more legible. You will have to learn a few new words to decipher these ship manifests as the German records were kept in German, and the Italian ones in Italian, etc. With Google Translate, it’s as easy as pie! Jawohl! 


There’s no getting around trying to decode bad handwriting when it comes to old documents, and Ellis Island ship’s manifests are no exception. I have a copy for a great-grand uncle that has been sitting in my files for almost a year and I still can’t make out what the most important portion says where it lists the name of the relative he was staying with. What has helped me out is sharing these trouble spots on trusted social media sites where others are researching similar interests. These communities have been invaluable to me, and others. Ask for help, then offer your assistance to others with their queries 🙂


Take a look at at that mess! Fortunately, they all aren’t that bad. The point of research is to make sure you look across the entire line on which your ancestor is listed and transcribe EVERYTHING you can.

Bad handwriting not only makes it difficult for us to read, they often stem from mis-transcriptions from the source. Always be aware of this in your research: that the hits that your search results are based on are often faulty because of someone else’s error in entering that data. A TOP TIP is to make notes of these, and on places like Ancestry take the time to offer your edit if you know the correct information as a fact. For example, this ship manifest on which I found an ancestor was indexed as 1904, when in fact it was actually 1902.



The beauty of family history is that the more you are persistent, the greater the payoff. Sometimes ship’s manifests will offer up unexpected gems like the one I found with a great-grand uncle. He appears on line #20 (the underlined entry); however, on line #15 just above him (where all the arrows are pointing) appears his brother-in-law. I would never have found this unless I took the time to look over the entire page. It says “brother-i-l” to my relative on line #20. How cool is that?!?

Always read around your subject ancestor to see if there are others who come from the same TOWN, have the same NAME, have the same ADDRESS at their destination, etc.



Learn more about Ellis Island forms at Family Search.

How To Find Your Ancestors On A Ship’s Manifest – Part 1

How To Find Your Ancestors On A Ship’s Manifest – Part 2

How To Find Free Declaration of Intention and Petition for Naturalization Records

Deciphering Ship’s Manifest Symbols

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