Ellis Island Archivist Sheds Light, Shatters Myths on Immigrant Experience

NEW YORK – Few ethnic groups in the United States are as interested in their roots as Greek-Americans are, but as memories fade and loved ones pass away, people end up wishing they knew more about the lives of their forbears.
George D. Tselos, Supervisory Archivist and Head of Reference Services at the Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island since 1999, shared genealogical research tips and some family history with The National Herald.
Tselos is a native New Yorker and the only federal employee at Ellis Island with a parent who passed through its gates. His father, noted art historian Dimitri Tselos, arrived there in 1915 as a teenager from the village of Arvanito Kerasia in Arcadia.
His father’s story is instructive. “He could not remember the name of the ship that carried him, but he knew he arrived Christmas Day of 1915,” Tselos told TNH.
Lesson 1: Any fact that you can extract from your family can lead you to crucial documents.
In this case, the document is the manifest of a ship named the Ioannina. Dimitri Tselos was listed as a workman, and his indicated destination was Chicago, to meet his older brother who sent him train fare.
The Statue of Liberty Ellis Island Foundation has a searchable database for all people coming through New York at www.libertyellisfoundation.org/passenger. It is free.
Ancestry.com charges for the information it provides, but it has “many things besides passenger lists…they are a whole genealogical research company.”
The Citizenship and Immigration Service has digital access to over immigration records like naturalization petitions. People can also access military service records, and 72 years after they are taken, the government releases census data.
Tselos clarified some of the misconceptions about how Ellis Island operated.
The ships did not dock directly on the Island – the docking facility was not big enough. They docked at commercial piers around New York Harbor. “The cabin class passengers, first and second class, were given a cursory inspection – on the assumption that they had money and the government need not be concerned about them,” Tselos told TNH.
Unless they had a health problem they never had to set foot on Ellis Island. The third class – previously known as steerage – were put on passenger barges and ferry boats and brought to Ellis for mass inspections.
The immigrants were given tags when they disembarked from the ships that indicated their name and where they appeared on the manifest.
Lesson 2: Don’t believe everything you hear.
Tselos said, “It is only folklore that the inspectors on Ellis Island were the people who changed the immigrants’ names.
It cannot be true, because the names as written on the manifest were written by the ticket company for the shipping line and were copied by the purser’s office – they were handed off to the immigration officer when the ship landed in New York.
When one of Tselos’ colleagues tries to debunk the myth, “people scream and yell at her and tell her she’s lying… They say ‘grandpa told me that’s what happened.’”
The manifests are legal documents required by the Federal Government, and the inspector, whatever his feeling about the names, would have been in serious trouble if he had crossed that name out and written something else.
“We do have reliable, anecdotal evidence that inspectors or others sometimes offered the immigrants advice about their names. They made suggestions that they explained would make them less subject to less discrimination, but the inspectors did not change the name,” Tselos said, adding that “A lot of names were changes when people decided to seek citizenship.”
Lesson 3: Go back to the sources and try as many variant spellings of the names as possible: Gus, Kosta, Costa, Dino, Constantine, Konstantine, etc. Double up or eliminate consonants. Tselos was unsuccessful until he tried the original “Tsellos.”
He urges everyone to interview and record their relatives. He taped his father for seven hours in the 1970s.
Tselos learned that after the death of his grandmother, his grandfather was determined to get his family out of the village. His father was sent to Cairo where he worked in a family-owned business and studied at a French Catholic school. After returning to Greece for a few years, he was sent to the.
Dimitri Tselos wanted to be an artist, but his passion was balanced with common sense. While attending art school, he determined he could not make a living as a painter, but he also liked art history, and the humble immigrant proceeded to earn degrees at the University of Chicago and Princeton.
He met his future wife, an American of English descent, when he was teaching at NYU.
George Tselos also arrived in the history field by a circuitous route. He studied biology through the beginning of graduate school but then he became interested in politics. After teaching in college, he became an archivist.
At Ellis Island he is also the head of reference services. Tselos supervises the archives, the library, and the oral history program.
When he went to research his family in Greece, he found that Church records stopped in 1920, but he hopes to find information in Greek National Archives.
Next spring, he will speak at a presentation of the Education and Cultural Committee of the Hellenic American Chamber of Commerce at Holy Trinity Cathedral in New York.