Ellis Island online records include Latvians

A new online resource promises to aid Latvians searching for ancestors who came to the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The American Family Immigration History Center has made available passenger lists of ships entering the port of New York from 1892 to 1924. In all, more than 22 million immigrants, passengers and crew members came to America during this period.

The records became available April 17 at www.ellisislandrecords.org.

Perhaps hundreds of Latvian immigrants passed through New York on their way to new homes throughout America. Family history researchers wanting to review ship passenger lists previously had to travel to New York to view the original documents. Now searching may be done from a home computer, although the popularity of the site may try one’s patience.

Searching is simple, but at least a couple rules must be kept in mind.

First, during the time period covered by the records, many Latvians would have spelled their names using the old Gothic orthography. Thus, Ozols could very well appear in the records as Ohsols. A search for the surname “Ozols” found three individuals, but “Ohsols” returned nothing. The shorter version “Ozol” returned 18 names, while “Ohsol” yielded eight.

Second, Latvian immigrants who arrived in the years immediatedly following the 1905 Revolution may well have traveled with forged documents or under pseudonyms. For example, just because the family name was Kalniņš back in Latvia doesn’t mean that was the name used by a revolutionary trying to find a temporary home in the United States.

Once a user has completed the free registration with the center, detailed ship records may be viewed. Even these, however, only provide basic information: Nineteen-year-old Juris Ohsol, for example, arrived in New York on Sept. 30, 1922, on the Cunard ship Aquitania, which had set sail from Southampton, England. Additional features include information on the ship and its manifest, so users may learn with whom an ancestor traveled. The online system also allows annotation if users want to add additional information that may be viewed by others.

Search results may be refined, but users searching for Latvian ancestors may face problems here. “Latvian” or “Lettish” are not listed as ethnicities which can be used to tweak results, which is not surprising because for much of the period covered by these records Latvia was a region of the Russian Empire. In additional, “Libau” (Liepāja) is not listed as a port of departure, because for the voyage westward to America many Latvians changed ships at European ports such as Hamburg or Southampton.

Users of these records should keep in mind that they only cover the Ellis Island immigration center and the port of New York. However, immigrants from Latvia also arrived at other ports. For example, among the earliest arrivals in the late 19th century were Jēkabs Zībergs and handful of other Latvians who disembarked at Boston. Others may have first arrived in Canada and only later moved to the United States.

The records were put on line with the help of volunteers from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The church has as one of its missions the cataloguing of all people. Others involved in the project are Compaq, FamilyTree Magazine and Hostcentric.

The popularity of the site overwhelmed the history center’s server, according to news reports. Millions of users tried to gain access to the site on its first day of operation. The history center now limits access.

Aquitania postcard

A postcard shows the Cunard Line ship Aquitania, on which many immigrants came to the United States.

Andris Straumanis is a special correspondent for and a co-founder of Latvians Online. From 2000–2012 he was editor of the website.

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