Immigration Deportation Immigration: A Story Pieced Together Through Ship Manifests

Immigration Deportation Immigration: A Story Pieced Together Through Ship Manifests

Date published
February 15, 2023

Have you ever had one of those moments in your family research when you uncover something that completely discredits a story that you had known and believed for years? Suddenly you feel blind-sided, while thinking, how did this misinformation take center stage in my ancestor’s narrative?

One of those moments is vividly etched in my mind. A few years ago, newly discovered information conflicted with the family story of how my grandfather successfully boarded a ship and made it to the shores of America as a stowaway.

Everyone in the family had been told that he was a stowaway and it remained an interesting story in my young adventurous grandfather’s life until ship manifests became readily available. How did this family legend begin? No one knows.

When ship manifests originally went online through the Ellis Island website, I could not find a record for my grandfather, Samuel. I set the search aside but came back to it a few years later when the majority of manifests were available for online searching.

After purchasing a membership to, new doors opened up. Based upon my grandfather’s census reports and naturalization papers, I learned that he immigrated to the United States in 1914. Following this discovery, I narrowed the search parameters and found his record. The previous attempt to locate his manifest was unsuccessful because the search was performed using his father’s surname. However, he emigrated from Austria using his mother’s maiden name instead.

When Samuel’s ship manifest was finally located, new information was revealed. Records showed that that he didn’t just immigrate to America one time but instead, he immigrated twice. During his first attempt, he was deported. A variety of additional documents such as the Record of Aliens Held for Special Inquiry and the Record of Detained Aliens provided the essential clues needed to understand why he was deported.

The first time my grandfather tried to immigrate to America was on November 1, 1911. He left the port of Hamburg on the SS Amerika and arrived in New York eleven days later.

                  Immigrants aboard the SS Amerika in 1907 - Courtesy Library of Congress
Immigrants aboard the SS Amerika in 1907 - Courtesy Library of Congress

Stowaways, if found on board, were added to the last page of the passenger list. Samuel’s name was written on page 25 out of 42, indicating that he was not a stowaway after all.

                                                                           Samuel Bernfeld – Line 5
Samuel Bernfeld – Line 5

If an immigrant was required to have someone meet him at the port, he was not permitted to leave until that condition was met. No one arrived to meet my grandfather, resulting in his detainment.

After reviewing Samuel’s original ship manifest once again, it was clear that there were additional items in his entry that did not match up with known family details. While most of the issues were minor, such as the mistaken notation that listed Samuel's grandfather as his father, there was one critical detail that, if correct, could have prevented his deportation. He provided an incorrect address for Jakob.


Contrary to the original ship manifest, the Record of Detained Aliens does not include an address for Samuel’s grandfather Jakob. It is unknown if an Ellis Island authority verified that Jacob did not live at the address originally provided.

There are a variety of reasons why Jakob may not have shown up. Perhaps my grandfather accidentally gave an incorrect address, maybe he provided an arbitrary street name on his manifest not realizing it might be needed, or the incorrect entry could have been a case of human error. Maybe Jakob was never informed that he needed to meet his grandson at the port. In addition, perhaps he didn’t know when Samuel would be arriving and there was no way to contact Jakob due to the incorrect address.

Once it became apparent that Jakob was not going to show up, my grandfather’s name was added to the Board of Special Inquiry list.

                                                          Record of Aliens Held for Special Inquiry
Record of Aliens Held for Special Inquiry

Without family support, immigration officers declared him a Likely Public Charge (LPC). This means that he was considered a risk if permitted to stay. The wave of mass immigration sparked a fear of government dependence. As a teenager with only $4 in his pocket and the assumption on the part of the authorities that he did not have family to go to, he was required to have a board hearing. His meeting was held on November 13 at 1:00 p.m. and he had a second hearing the next day.

                                   Board of Special Inquiry Room at Ellis Island
Board of Special Inquiry Room at Ellis Island

Based upon the correspondence I had with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), it does not look like my grandfather appealed the decision to be deported. Had he made an appeal, his stay in Ellis Island would have been longer than five days and there would have been additional files available about his case. The files that were stored at Ellis Island were destroyed years ago when the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) made the decision to dispose of them. The surviving Board of Special Inquiry files are those from people who appealed the board’s decision at the INS headquarters in Washington, DC. In those cases, most of the retired files can be found at the National Archives in Washington, DC.

During the second hearing, it was determined that Samuel was going to be deported. He left Ellis Island on November 17 aboard the SS President Grant and returned to Austria. Instead of returning to his family home, he lived in Vienna for two years, making costumes for the theatre industry. This job set the foundation for his future career. Years later, Samuel used his newly learned skills during those two years and opened a dress factory.

Samuel’s next attempt to immigrate was in 1914. This time, several of his family members planned the trip together but traveled separately from one another. Samuel, his parents and two of his siblings emigrated from Austria on separate ships during a three and a half month time span. The first person to arrive through the port of Ellis Island, New York came on December 20, 1913. Four more family members arrived in the US shortly afterwards, each on a different ship and on the following dates: January 12, 1914, March 7, 1914, April 4, 1914, and April 6, 1914.

No one knows why they traveled separately but it is most likely due to my grandfather’s deportation experience. Perhaps they thought if they traveled separately, at least some of them would be able to successfully enter the United States. Usually, if a family traveled together and one family member was deported, the rest of the family was also turned away. They may have known this and were not willing to take that risk. Fortunately, each person arrived and was permitted to stay.

About the author:

Wendy Werner is a family history researcher with a passion for helping others locate their roots. She has eighteen years of genealogy research experience.

You can email Wendy at:

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