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“We see the Lady!”—Tales from the Immigrant Journey

The trip to America wasn’t an easy one for many of our ancestors. There was seasickness, less than appetizing food, crowded conditions, and the fear that when they arrived they would be turned away. But it was a life-changing journey for millions of immigrants who passed through Ellis Island and other U.S. ports. Sometimes stories of that journey were passed on to family members, but too often they were lost to time.

Beginning in 1973, the Ellis Island Oral History Program, created through the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, has been collecting first-hand recollections from immigrants who came to America during the years Ellis Island was in operation (1892-1954). Audio files of the 1,700 interviews can be found on Ancestry.com  and they are full of rich stories and details about life in the old country, the journey to America, and their early experiences in their new home.

The Trip to America

Rose Milazzo emigrated from Naples in 1901 when she was seven.

We started at Naples and boarded the ship and… my last meal was in Naples and I got seasick and didn’t eat another meal until we got to Ellis Island… [My mother] had funny ideas that if they caught me seasick, they’d throw me overboard, so she hid me from the authorities or even from a doctor which maybe could have helped me a little bit… We used to be pushed on deck because they’d have to clean the steerage where we come from, so it was easy to hide me under a blanket… We spent Christmas on board. I was under the blanket but I could see that they gave out figs and they gave out delicacies that they wouldn’t give out ordinarily. So we landed at Ellis Island and got a delicious soup with white bread.

Estelle Schwartz Belford, a Jewish Romanian immigrant described her trip in 1905 when she was five years-old.

I remember riding in this wagon to a certain cousin in this large town and that was the first time that we saw houses almost that you could see across from one house to another, and everything was just wonderful… We stayed in a town by the name of Beltz for two days also. We stayed there for about two days also with somebody else that we knew and I had an uncle there who was a politician, and through him we were able to ride across the border because in those days you couldn’t get out of that town…and people had to really steal their way across, but we were able to ride across the border.

And then we got to the seaport…Antwerp. And we stayed there only for about a day or so and then that was the first time my mother saw a lot of people in one room, like in the waiting room and she was telling us this story that when she went into the ladies room and, there was a lot of sinks there from what she described, and mirrors and the toilets on the side and we children were standing by the mirrors. She came in and she saw us. She didn’t see herself, she saw us in the mirror, she never saw a mirror before. And she thought we were there and she started scolding us, “Come over here,” and then she realized, and she was very much embarrassed. My mother was a very, very sensitive person, and all the way through she would make one little mistake and people laughed and then she wouldn’t say another word.

About life on board the ship in steerage, Estelle tells us,

It was terrible, the whole trip… You didn’t change your clothing every day on board the ship… Once, a few people came down from upstairs and spoke to us children and gave us some candy, the first time that we ever saw any candy or sweets and we were so happy to get it….

The meals were brought to you very sparingly. The food was so bad that sometimes my mom would say, “Don’t eat it.” or “Eat very little.” She herself was very sick. She was confined to the bed the whole trip through, and we three kids would stand around her. We were allowed to go out on the deck. And people from first class would look down at us and they felt sorry for us. And many times they would throw down an orange, or apples or some food, and the children would all stand by, and I remember, this one would catch this, and this one would catch that, and you were lucky enough you’d get something, and being as my mother was sick, if it was an orange or so, we’d bring it to her…My mother [had never seen] a banana, none of us ever saw a banana.

Here’s Estelle’s description on their first sight of the Statue of Liberty.

And then all of a sudden we heard a big commotion and we came to America. And everybody started yelling they see the Lady, the Statue of Liberty. And we all ran upstairs and my mother got out of bed. We went upstairs and everybody started screaming and crying. You were kissing each other –people that you didn’t even know before that were alongside of you and you never paid any attention. Everybody was so excited that you see America and you see the Lady with her hand up, you know.

You can almost feel the joy through that passage. These stories and many more can be explored for free on Ancestry.com. For those of us who don’t hit the family history lotto and find an ancestor in this collection, you can still get a real feel for the conditions our ancestors experienced on their way to America. Try searching for interviews of people who share your ancestor’s ethnic heritage to learn more about life in the old country. Search for someone who traveled about the same time to get a feel for ship conditions. Whether or not you learn something new, you will enjoy the time spent listening to these interviews. They are precious pieces of history that will thankfully be preserved for posterity thanks to this project.

Three Days, Three New Classes

I hope you’ll join me and several of my Ancestry.com colleagues for three days of free online classes.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012, 8 PM ET
Ancestry.com Searches: A Behind the Scenes Look
John Bacus

(Note: This class was last night but will be archived soon in the Learning Center. John gave a very good presentation on some of the inner workings of Ancestry.com search and some great tips.)

Learn how search at Ancestry.com works AND get an inside view of tricks you’ll need to take full advantage of its power. John Bacus, Ancestry.com Search Product Manager, walks you through the tech side and presents you with plenty of tips, advice and even a few workarounds—all of which will help you make your next search at Ancestry.com more effective, productive, and better than ever.

John is a Principal Product Manager at Ancestry.com, where he is responsible for the core search features of the site, such as search forms and search results. Prior to his time at Ancestry.com, he held search-related product management roles at AltaVista and eBay. John’s interest in genealogy was first piqued with the family history his grandparents put together when he was a child, and has enjoyed validating and building upon the research they did with two curious minds, some spare time, and a motor home.

Click here to register.  

Thursday, 24 May 2012, 3 PM ET
Common Surnames: Finding Your Smith
Juliana Smith

Despite his common moniker, your ancestor was unique. Get the tools and tips you need to find your ancestors with common surnames in this free one-hour class with Juliana Smith. In this class you’ll learn how to craft the best search on Ancestry.com, and how to save your findings in a way that makes it easy to pick your family out of the crowd.

Juliana has been working for Ancestry.com for just shy of 14 years and began her family history journey trolling through microfilms at the tender age of 11 with her mother. She is a certificate holder in the Boston University Genealogical Research program, and wrote the “Computers and Technology” chapter of The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Her favorite part of family history is discovering the stories in the records of her ancestors.

Click here to register

Thursday, 25 May 2012, 1 PM ET
Forward thinking: Tracing the children of your ancestors. And their children…
Crista Cowan

Are you stuck in your march back through time identifying ancestors? Turn around. Revitalize your research. Rekindle your desire to continue with some success. Descendancy research utilizes much of the same methodology as ancestral research but can lead to a whole new way of looking at your genealogy. Often it can lead to discovery of cousins who have missing pieces of the puzzle needed to complete your picture of common ancestors.

Crista Cowan has been doing genealogy since she was a child and has been an Ancestry.com employee since 2004. Known as the Barefoot Genealogist, Crista brings her passion for family history into her presentations and provides common sense solutions for the challenges we face in the search for our ancestors.

Click here to register