The American dream is probably not more than a cliché to people who know the “Old World” through yellowed photographs and family lore. But for the 12 million immigrants who first walked on American soil at Ellis Island, the Old World is where the ultimate family origin myth began. From 1892 to 1954, Ellis Island was open for business. Immigrants were asked 29 questions at the New York gateway, including name, occupation, and the amount of money they had.
People interested in hearing stories from the voices of immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island had to brave flocks of tourists and a ferry trip to the museum up until recently. But now, thanks to a partnership between the online genealogy group ancestry.com and the National Parks Service, the oral histories of Ellis Island immigrants are available online, and for free, to anyone who wants to click.
The voices in these hour-long oral histories have the gravelly, well-worn emotional timbre familiar to anyone whose older relatives hold forth and bend the family's ears over Thanksgiving dinners. Collected by members of the National Parks Service beginning in 1970, the interviewees discuss their experiences arriving in the United States, but also give perspective on how their lives have been in the country some of them believed was "paved with gold" before they arrived. What is remarkable to a 21st-century audience is the kind of high-stakes stories these voices describe: children lost in an overwhelming crowd, fathers embracing families they didn’t expect to see again, a Hershey bar tossed to a daughter as a symbol of America’s prosperity.
"My father came running through the turnstile and he squatted on his knees with his arms outstretched," Lillian Galletta says between sobs, of her arrival at Ellis Island in 1920. "We were so happy to be together."
Todd Godfrey, the Senior Director of U.S. Content at ancestry.com, feels that the narratives are an ideal compliment to images of primary documents like passport applications and traveler lists found on their website. What’s more, he says, the oral histories illustrate “how the American dream that they were seeking turned out” after immigrants arrived at Ellis Island.
For all of the people whose great-greats' last names went from Svensson to Swanson, or who grew up hearing the Ellis Island origin myth, a living, breathing piece of the puzzle is alive.
To search the database of 1,700 oral histories, head to the New York City Ellis Island Histories, or click below to hear a few clips from oral histories now available online.
Here, the late Lawrence Meinwald remembers the moment he got to Ellis Island with his father.
For Lillian Galletta, the memory of her father welcoming her family at Ellis Island taps into her deepest emotions.