finding your roots

Maggie Glyllenhaal and Robert Downey, Jr.

Hal Smith April 23, 2012

The mention of ancestors who first saw America from Ellis Island reminded me of a trip to Ellis Island on a theatre trip to New York City a few years back (the wife and I try to catch some Broadway and off-Broadway shows in NYC every few years).

Using the resources available there for tourists curious about their ancestors, I couldn’t find any trace of my father’s German family. It turns out there’s a very good reason why; a reason that people are not aware of with respect to Ellis Island. Arrival in America at Ellis Island was for indigents, the people who came to America with not much more than the clothes on their backs. Or in other words, steerage passengers.

My father’s family were solidly middle class, they had property to sell in Germany, savings, etc. before their departure for America. People in the middle and upper classes went through regular Customs with very little fuss and were allowed off their boats directly into New York. As a result, there isn’t much trace of my father’s family in official records as there is for families who came through Ellis Island where there are volumes of official paperwork still in existence.

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  • Marty Porter

    April 23, 2012 at 8:38 pm

    I’v been researching all lines of genealogy since seeing Roots and reading about Alex Haley’s research. Like Mr. Haley, I’m also a retired military person so I felt some kinsheip. I’ve found many, many interesting facts and stories over the years since my Dad’s family (Porter) has been in America since 1634 and my Mom’s (Austin) since 1638. Many, many times I’ve said “what a small world”!! Both Porters and Austins came from southwest England, lived less than 100 miles from each other and then settled around the Boston area. Lo and behold, 300 years later descendants from both families met and married in Illinois. Unfortunately, they never knew the histories of their families before they died.
    Thanks again for your show and all your efforts over the years to show people they can find their familiy history.

  • Jo

    April 27, 2012 at 5:37 am

    Nonsense. Passenger lists include ALL of the passengers on the ship. Usually the first class passengers are listed first, second class after that and steerage last. You probably didn’t use enough creative spelling to find your folks. Sometimes, it is better to get naturalization records first as they usually contain the ship’s name and the date of arrival (at least in the Ellis Island era). Genealogy research is a specialized subject we are not born knowing how to do. There are lots of online resources (try for links), books on how to do research in libraries and available to buy, genealogical/historical societies which offer courses, and many other educational resources. If you learn how to do the research and persist in it, I am sure you will find the passenger lists with your folks unless they got destroyed (fire, flood, human error). Try for a better search engine for Ellis Island. As a general rule, wealthy and educated people left far more records of their lives than poor and/or illiterate people.

  • garth tuttle

    April 27, 2012 at 2:38 pm

    Also, be aware that Ellis Island has not always served as the port of entrance for trans Atlantic emigrants.
    Beyond that, there are census and tax records – here and in Germany (mind that Austria, Switzerland, and other nations had
    German residents ) ; there are also city directories, which served until phone books became universal.
    Lastly, when my German ancestors left Hamburg, it was an independent city-state; Germany per se did not yet exist .

  • Rebecca Webb

    April 28, 2012 at 2:20 am

    I have always wondered where I came from. It helps to know what your family was before you came to be. It also helps explain family traditions that may differ from traiditons of your friends. While doing some research I found a small line on my father’s side showing family having been in America since the 1600′s. My father’s father’s family still eludes me even today. While taking a break and trying to find something on my mother’s side of the tree I ran across a cousin whom has the family tree on my mother’s mother’s side of the family back to the early 600′s in some branches. The most interesting thing I have found out is that I am related to William the Conqueror. I went online and found that by sheer luck, I am related to the President Bush(es) as well as Maggie and Jake Gyllenhaal. What an incredibly small world this is.

  • Arly Helm

    May 1, 2012 at 1:56 am

    I believe it is “Maggie Gyllenhaal,” not “Glyllenhaal.”

  • Gerald Roth

    May 6, 2012 at 8:41 pm

    I recently viewed a re broadcast of the show featuring Maggie Glygllenhaal.
    She was shown a large book of famous people to whom she is related.

    For your information, George W. Bush was incorrectly shown as born in 1947 instead of 1946.

    Thank you for your attention. It was a very interesting show.

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About the Series

The basic drive to discover who we are and where we come from is at the core of the new 10-part PBS series Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the 12th series from Professor Gates, the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. Filmed on location across the United States, the series premieres nationally Sundays, March 25 – May 20 at 8 pm ET on PBS (check local listings).

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