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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, May 8, 2001

Wired In
Searchers crowd Ellis Island database

By Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writer

The immigration records posted at the Ellis Island Web site are in such demand that getting past this welcoming page into search results can be an exercise in patience. Site officials are adding new servers.
Passengers aboard the Good Ship Genealogy don't have as rough a ride as the one endured by immigrants ferried through Ellis Island. At the moment, however, I'm feeling a bit storm-tossed myself.

I've been hanging out at EllisIsland.org, researching century-old shipping records to learn about my maternal grandfather from Ireland and my paternal grandparents from Italy. It hasn't been smooth sailing.

Hawai'i isn't exactly loaded with descendants of people who came through the New York City immigration portal at Ellis Island, but they're out there. Several of my friends volunteered names of relatives they believed arrived here between 1892 and 1924, the years for which immigration records are filed at the new Web resource.

My dad, another Net-aholic like myself, has blazed the trail for our clan, already raking in a small pile of interesting facts about his Italian kin that he gleaned from the site. They're facts meaningful to nobody else but us, of course, but that doesn't diminish their value.

For instance, it was common family knowledge that my grandmother named my dad after an Italian passenger ship that happened to be in port the day he was born. But now we know that some of the family had arrived in New York Harbor on that same vessel. Maybe Grandma hadn't left such an important decision to chance, after all.

Also, along with the records on individual passengers, EllisIsland.org lets you consult the ship's manifest, which can provide interesting details about the voyage. Dad found that one of his cousins, age 2, had traveled with another relative in a separate crossing from her parents. That says a lot about the family disruptions that emigration causes.

So it was with great enthusiasm that I logged onto the site, a remarkable piece of archiving work by the American Family Immigration History Center, no doubt about it. But it seemed the center's administration had not anticipated the crushing demand on the Web site: 27,000 users per second. They're supposedly adding up to 10 servers to handle the load of hits, but for the moment the virtual road to Ellis Island is littered with constant crashes.

I wondered how Dad had weathered the polite go-away-come-back-later messages, the cryptic error screens belched back by the overworked computers, the endless delays in dishing up info when it does work.

The answer: He's retired. He has time to wait and keep trying (he's discovered that 10 p.m. is a good time to try, since the rest of the nation's sleeping by then). But even his patience is wearing thin.

Sometimes the problem is purely technical: The computer simply can't handle the request, and you get a "search failed" screen, or one containing only the decorative background. Sometimes it's one of site design: You have to perform a general passenger search first, and only get a chance to narrow it down in Round 2. By then, you might have yanked your hair out or felt the site's cyberbouncer boot you out the door.

But sometimes it's a human failing. Maybe your relative never came through Ellis Island and your folks just thought they did. Or maybe they did, but those devoted volunteers tapping in the information missed one (they had to miss a few, right?).

Or maybe there's a quirk of spelling you hadn't considered: One friend asked me to look for her great-grandfather from Austria (or was it Hungary?). "It was Cooperschmidt, I believe. or Kooperschmidt," she said. She found out later it was Kupferschmidt, but even that name didn't turn up. But you can't assume the immigration staff spelled it right, either.

Grandma's name was Josephine, which the Italians would have spelled Giuseppina.

I found a record of her return to New York at age 31, following a trip back to Italy, but none for her original arrival at age 17. There are tantalizing possibilities in even the information gaps like these, however. Perhaps they'd misspelled her name the first time and she hadn't the guts to correct them (by age 31, of course, she probably intimidated them).

And I noticed her name was now hyphenated: Giuseppina Malfatto-Viotti. Certainly seems odd for the time.

But considering it was Grandma, not at all surprising.

Vicki Viotti is The Advertiser's technology writer. She can be reached by e-mail at vviotti@honoluluadvertiser.com or by phone at 525-8053.