Finding my great grandmother: The Ellis Island treasure trove

Yesterday on social media I posted a photo of my little Italian great-grandmother, Sesta Pieri, holding me when I was a baby (right). This summer I found the record from Ellis Island from when she came to America from Italy in 1904. It was easy to find the immigration record for my great grandfather (her eventual husband, Domenico Pieri), but I had the hardest time finding her record. Part of the problem was that no one in the family remembered her mother's name and I knew from the story she told me herself that she came over from Italy with her mother when she was just a baby.

After a lot of trial and error, I eventually unearthed the record and it ended up being a treasure trove of information. One of the reasons it was so hard to find was that when they came to America, Sesta's mother listed her maiden name as her surname while listing the children's surnames as Pantalone, the family name. (Keep in mind that this Ellis Island record was actually from the ship's manifest that they sailed on, which the ship's crew would then gave to U.S. immigration when they dropped off their passengers at Ellis Island.) I can only guess that the language barrier was part of the surname problem. The cool thing is that because of this, I not only discovered my great-great-grandmother's first name but also her maiden name. It was Augustina Sebastianelli.

She arrived on June 11, 1904 and she not only had my great-grandmother with her, but she also had two of her other children as well—Pia (5 years old) and Quinto (4 years old). My great-grandmother Sesta had just turned two years old 8 days earlier on June 3. So I imagine that they would have celebrated—or at least marked -- her second birthday while sailing on the ship to their new home. The baby's age was recorded as "1" year old on the record because she was still only a year old when they boarded the ship and provided their details.

Below is an image of part of the ship's manifest from the Ellis Island records (see our full transcription of it here):

The other reason that I had such a hard time finding this record was that the person who did Ellis Island's digital transcription apparently had a hard time reading the cursive handwriting and transcribed my great-grandmother's name as "Setta" instead of "Sesta," which is why searches for "Sesta Pantalone" (and various spellings of the last name) provided no results.

"The Steerage" by Alfred Stieglitz

"The Steerage" by Alfred Stieglitz

The rest of the Ellis Island record turned out to contain lots of other interesting details as well. They sailed on the S.S. Leone XIII from Naples, Italy on May 25, 1904. They traveled in steerage, which was the cheapest ticket. See the 1907 Alfred Stieglitz photo "The Steerage" (right) for an idea of what it was like to travel in steerage.

Augustina was 32 years old when she left from Sassoferrato, Italy. She could read and write. She had $12 with her. Her father paid for the voyage for her and the kids. The four of them were on their way to Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania to meet her husband. His name was Nazarino Pantalone and this eventually led me to his Ellis Island record as well. He came to America when he was 31 years old in September 1902, just three months after Sesta was born. He came to meet his brother, Valentino, who had come to the States a year earlier. Nazarino came to work in the coal mines. He had $30 in his pocket when he got on the ship. 

Nazarino later took the name "George" and that was the name everyone I know remembered him by, so no one in the family had ever heard of the name Nazarino. This was interesting to me because my grandfather's name was "Nazareth" and both he and the whole family were unsure why he ever got that name. It turns out that his mother had likely derived the name from her father's original Italian name. 

Ellis Island. | Photo: Jason Hiner

Ellis Island. | Photo: Jason Hiner

I was amazed at how much information I was able to glean from these immigration records. If you have family members that came to America around the turn of the 20th century you can dig for their records on EllisIsland.org. You can also search for those records and find other helpful resources on Ancestory.org, although that requires a paid subscription after the two-week free trial. It takes a little time to dig through the images and figure out the old cursive writing, but it's well worth it.

This ship, the Leone XIII, was the one that my great-grandmother, her mother, her sister, and her brother came to America on in 1904.