Friday, September 17, 2010

Ellis Island Oral Histories- How I learned Something New!

R.M.S. Orduna

A few weeks ago I received an email from advertising their new database of Ellis Island Oral Histories. Ancestry has some great passenger lists into New York Harbor, ship images and other immigration records. Personally, I had already found all my Ellis Island records for my own family records at the website . I examined the new Ancestry database, didn’t find my Roberts family who arrived in 1915 nor any of their cousins who preceded them to America from Leeds, England, and so I carelessly dismissed the new information as “NOT FOR ME”.

What a big mistake! Just a few days ago I read Leah Allen’s post “Ellis Island Histories” at her blog, “The Internet Genealogist” at Leah had the brilliant idea of looking up the ship Madonna on which her ancestors had arrived from Italy. She described listening to a recording from a gentleman (unrelated) who had arrived on the Madonna just two months earlier than her own ancestor. She gained a lot of information from that recorded interview, and listed all the positive things to help her understand her own great-grandparent’s arrival at Ellis Island.

I made a comment on her blog about how I also found a recording from a woman named Florence E. Norris, of Manchester, England, who arrived on the Orduna in July 1915 one month earlier than my own grandmother, Bertha Roberts, who arrived on the Orduna on 15 August 1915 from Leeds, England. Florence was only 21 years old, and Bertha was 19 that year. There were many similarities between their stories, but it was only upon re-listening to the recorded story that a huge piece of history jumped out at me.

I was very lucky to have the journal of Bertha’s father, John Peter Bowden Roberts, which he wrote during his passage to America on the Cunard steamship Orduna. I wrote a blog post about his journal here I also had my own recording of Bertha telling her life story in the 1970’s, which I transcribed and posted here These two valuable heirlooms have given me so much information about their immigration that I was complacent, thinking I knew everything there was to learn about their Ellis Island experience. Boy, was I wrong!

In re-listening very carefully to Florence’s recording, I heard her describe how the Orduna had been shadowed by a German U-boat as it passed through the Irish Sea. The passengers on board did not know about this incident until they read about it in the New York newspapers after leaving Ellis Island. The Captain had saved their lives by running the American flag up the flagpole, so the Germans thought it wasn’t a British ship. Florence’s husband had arrived earlier in America that year- taking passage on the Cunard ship Lusitania! It was the last successful trip the Lusitania would ever take to America, since it was sunk on the very next passage.

Newspapers! What a story! I immediately found a dozen stories in the on-line New York Times archives confirming my grandmother’s story and Florence’s story. When my grandmother’s family boarded the Orduna at Liverpool a month later, the crowds of people on the wharves were begging them not to board. No wonder it was a scary moment Grammy mentioned in her own recording, and no wonder Florence mentioned that she vowed never to return to England after her experience! During Grammy’s voyage everyone slept on the top deck with their life jackets on until they had left the Irish Sea. This was only three years after the Titanic incident. Can you imagine the fear?
The Roberts Family in Leeds, England
Bertha is the baby here.
She was 19 years old the year they sailed on the Orduna to America.

You will want to listen to the recordings at this valuable Ancestry resource. If you don’t’ find a family member’s recording, you just might find someone who came from your ancestor’s village, region, or who traveled at the same time as your ancestor, or like Leah and I, someone who had arrived on the same ship. Listen carefully to the stories… you might learn something new, too!

For more information:

Wikipedia’s description of the R.M.S Orduna, including the 1915 incident with the German U-boat A New York Times article about the SS Orduna’s first voyage to New York from Liverpool in 1914 Another New York Times article describing the German U-boat attack on the Orduna, dated 19 July 1915 Another New York Times article, dated 21 July 1915, with a passenger’s description of the U-Boat incident

Copyright 2010, Heather Wilkinson Rojo


  1. Sounds great, Heather; I'll have to check it out! I love it when research takes a new turn and you are able to feel just a little more in touch with the people behind the dates.