On the ferry to Ellis Island in New York Harbor, I tried to imagine how my Italian great-grandfather Umberto Tosti might have felt when he arrived here at age 13, some 120 years ago. What would it be like to finally see Lady Liberty after spending weeks crammed on a ship with little more than the clothes on your back? I also wondered what he'd think of the selfie-stick-wielding tourists angling for Facebook-ready pics. Mamma mia.

Managed by the National Park Service, Ellis Island is a special place for many reasons, not least because, unlike many of our historic monuments, it celebrates ordinary people. An estimated 40 percent of us are related to at least one of the 17 million whose arrivals were recorded at this facility from 1892 until its closing in 1954. It would be tough not to be moved by the sight of the iconic Great Hall, now a quiet open space with high vaulted ceilings but once a noisy, crowded spot where many prayers were answered or (in 2 percent of cases) not.

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In my great-grandfather's day, the arrivals from steerage came here to be processed — the inspectors turning up eyelids with buttonhooks to check for signs of disease. Welcome to America!

The best reason to visit Ellis Island today, though, is that it's easier than ever to make a personal connection to a key era in American history. When I visited last year, I stopped by the museum's American Family Immigration History Center — a large modern space with computers in cubicles. Here I searched the passenger records on libertyellisfoundation.org, a slick site redesigned in 2014. I was able to not only pull up grainy photos of the ships my relatives sailed in on but also view electronic images of the ships' handwritten manifests.

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I found arrival records for four of my great-grandparents, which researcher Catherine Bartos helped me save to an account I had created. Although I could do the same search from home, Bartos sharpened my learning curve dramatically, showing me how to look for close matches — useful, since some names were spelled incorrectly in the database (Tosti was listed as "Tosto," for one).

Another new feature at Ellis Island: Last year the 25-year-old museum opened a large permanent exhibit dedicated to U.S. immigrants after 1954. It includes the heart-wrenching, more recent history of people desperate for asylum, including Haitians in the late '50s and modern Afghan refugees.

With this, along with a four-year-old exhibit dedicated to the pre–Ellis Island immigration era, the museum is now better able to tell our country's story — one that, after all, has largely been shaped by immigrants. —Christina Ianzito

Expect more 

If your ancestors came through New York Harbor between 1820 and Ellis' opening in 1892, you'll soon be able to search for them, too. Records from those years should be fully accessible later this year.

Do your homework
Search the records website (libertyellisfoundation.org) before visiting in person. Then, at the History Center, a researcher can help fill in the blanks.