Happy 20th Anniversary, Ellis Island Immigrant Database!

What a difference two decades make

Megan Smolenyak
4 min readApr 14, 2021


Author’s memorabilia from the launch of the AFIHC and database

In April of 2001, a miracle occurred. Well, it certainly seemed that way at the time. The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation (SOLEIF) opened the American Family Immigration History Center (AFIHC), launching an online database — digitized and indexed — of the passenger records of millions of immigrants who took their first steps in America at Ellis Island.

Fast forward 20 years, and we expect genealogical companies to provide fresh databases weekly, but I’d like to try to convey what a big deal this was. It was — quite literally — national news. Don’t believe me? Here’s proof:

SOLEIF had partnered with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints which transcribed the massive dataset. 12,000 volunteers had taken seven years — five million man hours — to wrestle with and interpret the handwritten documents so we could surf in our pajamas to find our ancestors’ arrivals. And once we did, we could click right through to see the actual record — for free! This was revolutionary.

Time Travel

Please indulge me as I travel back in time to describe the process today’s genealogists no longer have to endure. To find the immigrants in their family tree, researchers had to already have an approximation of when a given ancestor arrived, physically go to the National Archives or one of the limited repositories scattered across the U.S. that housed these records on microfilm, use Soundex, and then scroll through in the hope of spotting their target. And heaven help you if your name “coded common.” This meant that if the Soundex code for your surname was, say, M530, you would have to sift through the countless Smiths to find your Smoot in their midst.

Once you did, the information provided would steer you to another roll of microfilm that held the passenger record. More mindless cranking until your wrist hurt (only the most upscale of…



Megan Smolenyak

Genealogical adventurer & storyteller who loves solving mysteries! You may not know me, but chances are you’ve seen my work. (