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The Family Tree Magazine staff had to do without their intern last Monday,
as I spent the weekend in New York. Being the amateur genealogist that I am, I couldn’t
pass up the opportunity to visit Ellis Island. Here’s a tip for the tourist: don’t
visit Ellis Island on a Saturday afternoon in late July. It took me no less than 3
hours to make it through the line (which has airport-style security) and onto the
ferry. Luckily, it was a beautiful day—had it been 5 degrees warmer, I don’t think
I would have made it.
I vaguely remember a visit to Ellis Island on my first trip to New York when I was
ten years old. My grandpa showed me (I forget how or where) a record for “Frank Sena”
(his grandpa’s name) from Italy. During my research at FTM however, I learned that
all of my ancestors came to America before 1892—the year that Ellis Island actually
opened. The “Frank Sena” my grandpa showed me could have been any number of people.
Ellis Island consists of a big, beautiful building (now the Ellis Island Immigration
Museum) on an island surrounded by trees and gardens. Despite its physical beauty
(and the hundreds of tourists running around), the building has an eerie quality.
Maybe because of the “horror” stories I learned in school—of people waiting for weeks,
being inspected in six seconds and turned away for seemingly silly reasons—I felt
uneasy as I passed through the exhibits.
The Museum itself is somewhat scattered, and unless you do the audio tour for another
$8 (I opted out of this), it may be difficult to know where to go. There are many
unmarked, unlocked doors, so I had to suspend my usual fear of “breaking the rules”
and be a bit adventurous. While searching for the exit, I wandered into a room and
was asked if I was there to pick up a record (there’s a station where you can search
for your ancestors and print the actual records—or you can order them from EllisIsland.org).
I didn’t see any original records though, which was disappointing.
(me in the Great Hall on the second floor)
The two parts of the Museum that were the most memorable were the “Barbie Dolls of
the World” exhibit, and some lone “graffiti columns.” The Barbie Doll exhibit—which
took up a large portion of space on the first floor—made part of me wonder, “What
is this doing here? Don’t they know this is a historic site?” and the other part think,
“This is such a brilliant idea.” If I was ten (okay—maybe five) years younger, and
you asked me to wait in line for three hours, you better believe I was walking away
with an Italian-themed Barbie.
After being a bit dumbfounded by the Barbie exhibit, I was relieved to see some genuine
artifacts in the form of two or three graffiti columns, located in a dim hallway on
the second floor. The columns had been stripped of paint to reveal original drawings
and writing from immigrants who had been waiting (presumably, to be examined). I couldn’t
read any of what had been written (it was faded and written in foreign languages),
but the columns finally made me feel connected to the many people who had passed through
In other news, my family tree search continues! Thank you for your comments on my
past posts—your advice has been very helpful. I’m learning that genealogy is largely
about the process—you can’t learn everything in a week! I have made some exciting
discoveries on my mother’s maternal line, which is now traced back to colonial Massachusetts
and Connecticut. I may not be a Mayflower descendent, but I’ve discovered some ancestors
that journeyed to America shortly after the Mayflower landed, in the 1630s and 1640s.
I will update with more details later this week.