Now, it can be as simple as a few clicks of a computer mouse.
On Tuesday, Ellis Island officials and the Mormon church introduced a new database containing arrival records for the 22 million immigrants who entered the port of New York from 1892 to 1924.
The database, which includes 70% of all U.S. arrivals recorded during that period, is available to Ellis Island visitors and on the Internet.
``This is the tool everybody's waiting for to go back to Ellis Island and find their ancestors,'' said Wayne Metcalfe, who helped direct the project for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
At Ellis Island on Tuesday, 103-year-old Marinus deNooyer, of Wayne, N.J., and his family members visited and checked out their family history. DeNooyer emigrated from the Netherlands at age 7.
The searchable database includes immigrants' names, their port of origin, age, nationality, hometown and marital status.
Visitors to the new American Family Immigration History Center at Ellis Island can take home printouts of the information, and purchase a copy of the original immigration records and a photo of the ship that brought their ancestors to the United States. Online visitors will be able to order the records and photos in about a month.
Until now, Ellis Island information was only available on microfilm at the National Archives in Washington, or at the Mormon church's Family History Library in Salt Lake City. The church encourages members to try to identify ancestors, so they can be baptized into the faith after death.
Over the past several years, church volunteers have worked with the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island Foundation to compile the information from manifests immigrants filled out on board ship.
Stephen Briganti, president and chief executive of the foundation, said he used the new database to track down his grandmother.
``There's great interest now in finding one's family history, where they came from, what their life was like, what diseases they might have had,'' Briganti said. ``This is certainly going to help that process along because this really is the story of America.''