I look into a colleague’s family history and explore the data nightmare that was early 20th Century immigration at Ellis Island
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Erik Oehler: Me and my colleague, Sarah Jones.
Erik Oehler: Have a seat in this chair, so you're closer to the mic.
Sarah Jones: All right.
Erik Oehler: And you know why you're here.
Sarah Jones: Yes.
Erik Oehler: So, tell me your family's Ellis Island story.
Sarah Jones: I always wondered every time... my maiden name is Vollo and everybody-
Erik Oehler: V-O-L-L-O?
Sarah Jones: V-O-L-L-O, and everyone used to call me Boyo. And I always said, "Why do people say that?" And I went to my father and I said, "Do you guys get this a lot?" And he says, "Yes. Actually we have a funny story." And so that prompted me learning a lot about my great-grandparents and when they came over from Italy. Sarah Jones: So they came over around 1905 and they came over in bunches. So half the family would come. At one point, my great-grandmother actually got denied because she was sick. And when she came back with more of the family, they separated into two different groups. The group that I fell into, my family line fell into, was the group that spelled their name wrong. So they spelled it V-O-L-L-O. In Italian, the proper name is V-O-L-O.
Erik Oehler: So, there was just a sect of your family that was spelling their name wrong the whole time. 1900's?
Sarah Jones: 1900s, early 1900s.
Erik Oehler: Or the early 1900s. And nobody's correcting them.
Sarah Jones: No.
Erik Oehler: Which is nice.
Sarah Jones: And think about it. That everything then was so manual. People aren't writing all the time. It's not-
Erik Oehler: Right.
Sarah Jones: If you think back to even the education back then, people aren't used to notating, documenting everything all the time. So when they had to come to Ellis Island and do all of this, I think it was a little bit of uh-oh.
Erik Oehler: Sarah's family story isn't unusual. Between 1892 and 1954, over 12 million people entered the US through the Immigration Inspection Station at Ellis Island. And though her case appears to be just some family members misspelling their name, a lot of families believe their names were changed by immigration officials when they entered the country. Today, instead of a look forward at some new kind of technology, we take a look back to understand just what a data nightmare this all was, what resources are available out there now to make sense of it all, and we get Sarah some answers about her family's journey to the US. For Alaris, a Kodak Alaris business. My name is Eric Oehler. Welcome to Data Dives.
Erik Oehler: To get one thing out of the way immediately, immigrations and customs officials never changed names at Ellis Island. Several stories from the New York Times in New York Public Library make it very clear. Vincent J. Cannato's, book, American Passage: The History of Ellis Island, explains. "Names were not changed at Ellis Island. The proof is found when one considers that inspectors never wrote down the names of incoming immigrants. The only list of names came from the manifests of steamships, filled out by ship officials in Europe. In the era before visas, there was no official record of entering immigrants, except those manifests. When immigrants reached the end of the line in the great hall, they stood before an immigration clerk with the huge manifest open in front of him. The clerk then proceeded, usually through interpreters, to ask questions based on those found in the manifests. Their goal was to make sure that the answers matched."
Erik Oehler: Inspectors didn't create the records. Rather, they checked the names against those recorded in the ship's manifest. The manifest was created by the ship company before the trip, when the passenger booked their ticket. Just like buying a plane ticket today. The manifest would then be presented to officials at Ellis Island when the ship arrived, and that journey isn't comparable to anything we endure today.
Erik Oehler: Just imagine spending two weeks in cramped accommodations aboard a steamship. You get off the boat, leave your baggage. Everything you cared to bring with you, your whole life in a separate room. And then you're herded into the Great Hall, where you sit and you wait. Wait to be called for a medical inspection. You undergo a medical exam, show your identification and you're asked questions such as your age, destination, employment. It took about five hours. For the majority of immigrants, this was the finish line. They were ferried to Manhattan and could start a new life.
Erik Oehler: If you didn't pass the medical inspection, you were labeled with whatever ailed you. E-for eyes, L-for lameness, X-for mental disability. If you identified as a polygamist or an anarchist, you were sent back, deported. If you were suspected of having a disease like measles or tuberculosis, you were sent to the second floor to undergo another round of exams by US public health officials. Your stay here in quarantine could last for days, sometimes weeks. The medical building contained 275 hospital beds, contagious disease wards, x-ray facilities, labs, and a morgue. Between 1900 and 1954, there were 355 births and 3,500 deaths recorded at Ellis Island.
Erik Oehler: If you passed the medical exam, you were sent to wait in line to answer the remaining questions to be asked by inspectors. It usually took about two minutes to decide whether or not to admit an immigrant into the country. Inspectors had the right to ask why people were immigrating, and could deport or detain them on that question alone. Although the entire process include dozens of tests, questionnaires, exams, and interviews, the average stay wasn't that bad. No longer than five days. Of the 12 million people who passed through its doors in 1892 to 1954, only about 2% were deemed unfit and sent back.
Erik Oehler: So to reset Sarah's case from earlier, her family had some members that spelled her name, V-O-L-L-O and some that spelled it V-O-L-O. She knew her great-grandparents names were Sam, or Salvatore and Grace. They come over, most likely together and they were from Palermo, Italy. She knew Grace was young when she came over, 16 or so. And as her family lore tells it, she was sent back on her first trip for medical reasons.
Erik Oehler: My first stop was libertyellisfoundation.org, a database of all the ship manifests and passenger records. To construct the timeline, I needed names and dates that lined up with the info I had. There were no Salvatore Vollos with two L's to be found. But I found several records for Salvatore Volo with one L.
Erik Oehler: Only two of these made sense timewise and departed from Palermo. One in 1906 and one in 1909. The 1906 Salvatore lists his birthplace as Caltanasette. With the 1909 one listing it as Caltanissetta. Caltanasette doesn't exist, so this is possibly error number one.
Erik Oehler: The birth dates also vary by a year, possibly error number two. But otherwise, it's reasonable to assume these could be the same person.
Erik Oehler: Next, I needed to track down Grace. Looking through the passenger list from Salvatore's 1909 journey, hailing from Caltanasette, appearing on the line below Salvatore Volo, 17 year old Grazia Trupia. I had a Salvatore. I had a Grace.
Erik Oehler: To confirm this, I went to the census records. You can view these through our friends at the National Archives at archives.gov, or through services like Ancestry.com. Ancestry seems to have more thorough indexing, as my searches for the Volo clan turned up a lot more results. Each census, a decade apart shows the evolution and growth of the Volo family. New kids arrive. You can see boxes change from no to yes as they learn how to speak and read English. And Grace and Sam Volo are building their life in America.
Erik Oehler: One of the suggested records in Ancestry site, went to findagrave.com. Which shows Grace Trubia, with a B, Volos headstone. Which she shares with her husband Salvatore.
Erik Oehler: This was another odd corner of the internet as findagrave.com has thousands of pictures of headstones shot and uploaded by random photographers. So what do we know now that we didn't know before?
Erik Oehler: Records throughout the 20th century were wildly inaccurate. In just this one family, depending on which census or immigration record you look at, Sam Volo changed, or maybe corrected his name, adding an L somewhere between 1909 and 1920. He was born somewhere between 1884 and 1887. Grace's maiden name is either Trubia with a B, or Trupia with a P. And she was born sometime between 1892 in 1894. Back to Sarah to reveal the news. My colleague Marissa joined us.
Erik Oehler: Where is he? There. There's a bunch of Salvatore Volos. So.
Sarah Jones: Palermo.
Erik Oehler: Yes. So this is where it gets crazy. But this is 1902, and as you'll see later, this... some things don't add up. He would have been 34 in 1902. So we have one timeline where there is a 1902.
Sarah Jones: I also may not get my story right.
Erik Oehler: 34 year old Sal... I'm getting there. So we, what we have to do though, is eventually tie this Sal Volo to a Grace.
Sarah Jones: Grace.
Erik Oehler: Right?
Sarah Jones: Yeah.
Erik Oehler: So I look on the ship manifest for that one. I don't see a Grace. But they might not have come over on the same boat, entirely possible. We also have this story that Grace was sent back at a certain point. So we have to validate that somehow and get that uncovered.
Erik Oehler: So I go through all these Salvatore Volos and try to find the one that has a Grace on the ship manifest.
Erik Oehler: And we get to this one. In 1909 from Caltanasette, which is a nice sounding name. And when you go into this ship manifest, this ship departed from-
Sarah Jones: Palermo.
Erik Oehler: Palermo. Point of departure, Palermo. Comes in married and he's 24 in 1909. It's now we have a version where in 1909, we have 24 year old new at... we'll call him SV two.
Erik Oehler: And if you look in the ship manifest here, which I have a copy of here for you.
Sarah Jones: Oh my gosh.
Erik Oehler: And you go down to-
Sarah Jones: Can't read it.
Erik Oehler: Right? Line 16 has a Salvatore Volo, and then two lines later, we have Grazia Trupia.
Sarah Jones: You're right.
Erik Oehler: No Graces. You can't find a Grace in any of these manifests. But Grazia is Grace in Italian. And she's from the same place, Caltanasette, as Sal Volo.
Erik Oehler: So, now we have a link between Grace and Sal. This takes me to the census records. Which you can get through an Ancestry.com. I signed up for a two week free thing and I just started looking up... and this includes immigration records, census records, death records, everything. And you go through here and you start to see different... here's a passenger and crew list, Sal Volo 1906.
Sarah Jones: Yeah.
Erik Oehler: Now this is where it gets interesting. So 1909, 1906... because you said that there's this story where Grace got sent back.
Sarah Jones: Yeah.
Erik Oehler: So in here, there is a Sal Volo, possibly SV two, because 1906 to 1909 could be four years apart. Who knows? SV two, question mark, comes over in 1906 from Palermo, Italy again. Male, 20, I keep going through these things. Here's his 20... here's his record at 24, the same one as the one we just saw in the Ellis registry. And then we keep going.
Erik Oehler: And here's where it gets interesting. So this is the census record for a Sam Volo birth year, 1887. Which puts him at a, give or take, a year. Because they always say ABT. So it's always these approximate-
Sarah Jones: That's it. Bay street.
Erik Oehler: Yes. That's what I was getting to, yes. So he's in Rochester, Bay street, all this. And I'm like, "All right, this has got to be our guy." And then you look at the family tree, and there's Grace a couple of years younger.
Sarah Jones: Mary, Anna, those are my great-aunts.
Erik Oehler: All right so see, we're getting somewhere. So we have confirmed that this is probably the guy and-
Sarah Jones: That's my gramp. These are his kids. Anna, Mary, Jo, and Sam.
Erik Oehler: Perfect. So, this is in 1909 and this is the, so this is what we're assuming is the immigration year. And this is our Grace. Great. I've got Grace on the other end. Now I have to get this Grace back to Grace Trupia and look at the suggested records. Grace Trubia. Not Trupia.
Sarah Jones: That's where they're buried. Look at, this is my grampa.
Erik Oehler: Yeah.
Sarah Jones: This is my great-aunt and this is my great-aunt.
Marissa: Oh my gosh.
Erik Oehler: How-
Sarah Jones: Yeah.
Marissa: There it is.
Erik Oehler: Trubia. Oh yeah, that was the other...
Sarah Jones: There you go. There it is.
Erik Oehler: The linchpin.
Sarah Jones: That's it.
Erik Oehler: Exactly.
Sarah Jones: So I think I, I think my dad spelled the name wrong when he came into the-
Sarah Jones: This is it. That's her.
Erik Oehler: That is the Grace of record.
Sarah Jones: That is the Grace of record.
Erik Oehler: After I recorded that conversation with Sarah, I looked a little deeper and found Grace was deported on that 1909 journey for medical reasons, just like her family said.
Erik Oehler: The question I still had was, why the inaccuracy? Why the difficulty in tracking down actual dates people were born, correct spellings of names? Historian cite a few reasons for this. One, families had such poor literacy skills and had too many other day-to-day concerns, like trying to make ends meet, that they really didn't care about dates.
Erik Oehler: Two, sometimes the census takers interviewed the person themselves and got the correct date. Other times, the person wouldn't be available, so they had to find a neighbor or a relative who knew as much as possible about the person, but still had to guess at specific dates.
Erik Oehler: Three, if your ancestors are from places with the old Julian calendar, and then later immigrated to an area using the newer Gregorian calendar, than different dates could in fact be correct for the same person under the respective systems.
Erik Oehler: And four, most official government documents these days requires signatures at the bottom, verifying the accuracy. In old days, signatures weren't required. So the government official could fill out the paperwork even after the person left, without them still there. Any incomplete portions, like the birth year, would just be estimates. Even if the person was there, they might be too illiterate to review the document completely for accuracy. Some people knew enough to know how to sign their names, but not much else.
Erik Oehler: My thanks again to Sarah Jones, my office neighbor, and our United States and Canada marketing manager. Each and every episode of Data Dives is brought to you by Alaris. A Kodak Alaris business delivering scanners, software, and services that help businesses go paperless. If you enjoyed this episode, please consider leaving us a review on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. Like it, share it, get it out there, whatever social media platforms you use. And for more episodes of the show, please subscribe wherever you get your podcasts or check us out on alarisworld.com. For Alaris, the Kodak Alaris business, and the Data Dives podcast, my name is Eric Oehler. Thank you for listening.