Researching Family History: Did immigrating ancestors see the Statue of Liberty?

Published: Tuesday, June 19 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

My friend Bill and I stood there gaping at the enormous Statue of Liberty. We were taking pictures just after coming down the spiraling staircase, which seemed to go endlessly up inside the statue.

While surveying this magnificent engineering image, we came upon a plaque near the pedestal of the statue with these words:

“Give me your tired, your poor,

"Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

"The wretched refuse of your teeming shores

"Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me

"I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

The words, from a sonnet written by Emma Lazarus in 1886, struck us with profound reverence. This memory has stayed with me, and while doing research, I have seen pictures of immigrants on board ships who were cramped on deck. Many immigrants appear to be looking with anticipation for any sign of America and its values. These immigrants were on the brink of entering a new world. “Maybe they were looking for the statue if they came at a time after it had been erected in 1886," I wondered, and asked myself if some were my own ancestors.

This incident took place in the spring of 1969, while Bill and I were stationed at Fort Hamilton in New York City and training for chaplain assistant assignments in the Army Reserve. After an early wake up that morning, we traveled with a few others from the school to the dock where a ferry took us out to Staten Island.

Since our visit, I have found some of my ancestors who did come through Ellis Island, but not all had the opportunity to see what our eyes were beholding.

Bill and I had a new found respect for what the statue represents and our work in the military of the country we were learning to defend. Before this experience, through photographs in newspapers and encyclopedias, we just took for granted that statue stood for liberty.

“Since 1886, the Statue of Liberty has stood tall in the New York Harbor as an international symbol of freedom and democracy,” according to the history.com website. Since my visit, while researching for clients' ancestors and my own, I found some ancestors who came through Ellis Island, which opened in 1892, and others who arrived in New York just a little earlier, before the statue was erected. For those who did come after, I wonder if any ancestors wrote in their diary or journal about seeing the statue, even from a distance. What kind of an effect did it have on them? If they could speak to us today, what would they say?

Of course, New York City was not the only port to accept immigrants. Other ports on the eastern shores were established in Boston, Philadelphia, areas of the Chesapeake Bay between Maryland and Virginia, and earlier many immigrated through the shores of North Carolina and Charleston, South Carolina.

On our western shores, immigrants were found coming from China as well as other places in Asia through ports such as San Francisco, Seattle, etc. When I started thinking in these terms, I began to realize that “America's Golden Door” lay also at all other ports. I like to think in terms of the other ports of entry as having the spirit of the Statue of Liberty.

Perhaps you may be an immigrant who came through New York not so long ago. If you saw the great statue, what were your feelings at the time? Is your experience written down for posterity, even if you came through a different port? Did the feelings well up inside you and move you to action? The feeling is more than just the lump in the throat and a tear in the eye, it is the fire by which we are motivated to do something — for our ancestors and posterity.

Immigration records can be found at the LDS Family History Library in Salt Lake City. Of course, the knowledgeable consultants and volunteers can help you get started in your search. You can also do a search on ellisisland.org to see who came through Ellis Island.

This experience has given me a greater appreciation for my ancestors to connect with who came from far and near through any port.

Genealogy graduate Russell Bangerter is president of Ancestral Connections, Inc., at ancestralconnect.com. He is a professional genealogist, author and speaker; and adviser to Treasured Souls to Keep, at treasuredsoulstokeep.com.

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