Smolenyak Classic: Finding Knute Rockne in the Ellis Island Database

So why am I calling this a "Smolenyak Classic"?  Well, it dawned on me recently that I have written hundreds, if not thousands, of articles and blog posts over the years, and the Internet being what it is, some of them are still out there, while others aren't.  I had been toying with the idea of re-posting some of them as Classics, and received the final nudge I needed in the form of an email from a fellow working on a book about Knute Rockne.  He could find a reference to one of my articles, but not the article itself.  So here it is -- the first of my "classics."  This one first appeared in April 2004, and while much has changed, it's remarkable how much is still relevant. 

Last month, I had the pleasure of attending the annual Ellis Island Family Heritage Awards where they honor Ellis Island immigrants and their descendants.  This year’s ceremony paid tribute to Martin Scorsese, Paul Tagliabue, Knute Rockne, Robert Rubin, and Dr. Harold Varmus – and under the new “Peopling of America Award” (for immigrants who came through other ports) – I.M. Pei. 

Where’s Knute?

Honorees are presented an elaborately framed copy of their ancestor’s passenger arrival record, and while I was at the event, I learned that the manifest that included famed football coach, Knute Rockne, had been particularly difficult to find.  He had apparently come to the U.S. from Norway as a youngster, but his name – like those of many of our ancestors – had been a difficult one to locate.

Always up for a challenge, I decided to have a go at finding the record myself, and I discovered that he was indeed remarkably well-hidden in the database.  In fact, his situation involved several of the unexpected twists that can occur in the Ellis Island database (EIDB), so I decided to share my search tactics to illustrate how to ferret out your more elusive ancestors.

Data Gathering

Before attempting a search in the database itself, I wanted to equip myself with a few details, so I began by surfing the Internet using google.  By doing so, I learned that:

  • the original form of Rockne was Rokne
  • Knute was an Americanized version of Knut
  • Knute had come here in roughly 1893 with his mother
  • he was from Voss, Norway
  • he was about five years old when he came
  • his father, Lars, had come in 1891 in preparation for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and sent for his family after
  • the family had settled in Chicago

This initial scouting was the equivalent of talking with older relatives, had I been researching my own ancestors.  I had a lot to start with, but hoping to squeeze out a few more bits and pieces of data, I decided to search for the family in census records.  It took a little effort, but by focusing on Chicago and playing with variations of first and last names, ages, and other details, I found them in the 1900, 1910, 1920 and 1930 census records.  From inspecting these images, I was able to learn that:

  • Knute’s father, Lars, went by the name Louis in the U.S.
  • his mother’s name was Martha and she was born around 1859
  • he had a sister Annie who was born around 1884 in Norway

I was also able to confirm the arrival year of 1893 as this was the date consistently given in these records.  To see them for yourself, just search on “Louis Rokne” at (for the 1900 and 1910) and “Martha Rockne” at (for the 1920 and 1930).

Database Diving

With all this information assembled, it was time to go to the EIDB.  Recognizing that I was dealing with a lot of variables – not the least of which was that Scandinavian names come in both farm and patronymic varieties – I decided to use Steve Morse’s search forms (  I chose his short form (gray) form because I find it to be the most helpful for names that are prone to misspelling (2013 note: I use his gold form for almost all searches now).  And since Knut is one of those names that seems to confound many databases, I opted to center my efforts on his mother, Martha.  While I could have played with any combination of selection criteria, I made my first attempt with this trio:

  • first name starts with or is: Mart (I wanted to be sure to find her even if she had come as the old country version of Marta)
  • town names starts with or is: Voss
  • year of arrival is between: 1893-1893

Up popped two hits, one of which was for Martha Pedersen Rohne, age 34, with a residence of Vosservanger.  The age was right and I could easily see Rokne being interpreted as Rohne, so this sounded very promising.  I clicked on the “scanned manifest” option, but couldn’t find Martha on the manifest that appeared.  I realized then that I was dealing with a mislinked image.  Having encountered this situation before, I knew that the image was probably in the EIDB, but that I would have to do a little more work to locate it.  I began by noting a couple of details from the text information above the image: the May 30, 1893 arrival date and line number 597.

Missing Manifests

Armed with these bits of data, I returned to Steve Morse’s site and chose his missing manifests form, designed for just these situations.  Toward the left of the screen, I entered the date I had just copied and hit the “display” button.  This brought me to the opening page of the microfilm that contains the arrivals for May 27-June 5, 1893. 

Doing a little mental math, I realized that I was looking for a ship that had arrived about four days into this ten-day period – or about 40% of the way through the roll.  Of course, this was only an approximation as many ships could have arrived on one day and only one or two on others, but I used this as a rough estimate of how far to jump into the roll.  On the right of the screen, I could see that there were a total of 717 frames (essentially the same as pages), so I calculated 40% of 717 and went directly to page 286 by entering that number in the field called “frame” near the center of the screen. 

286 proved to be the first page for a ship that arrived on May 31st, so I knew I had gone too far.  I went back to page 250 and noticed I was looking at distinctly Scandinavian names, so I thought I might be in the right neighborhood.  Inspecting the left-hand column, I saw that the page contained listings for 216-272.  I knew from a few minutes earlier when I had scribbled down details from the text data in the EIDB that the record I wanted was on line 597, so I used the +1 navigation key to move forward through the pages.  My anticipation increased as I arrived at page 257 and scanned down for line 597.

There she was: Martha Pedersen Rohne (and yes, it looked like Rohne).  Better yet, she was traveling with Anna Larsdatter Rohne (age 8) and Knud Larsen Rohne (age 4).  The names and ages all fit, Anna and “Knud” were the children of a Lars, and their intended destination was Illinois.  I knew I had the right family. 

Where There’s a Will . . .

Looking at the record, I wondered why had Knute been so difficult to locate.  After all, “Knud Rokne” isn’t that far off from the actual Knut Rokne.  Playing with possibilities, I discovered that the transcriber had missed the ditto marks under Rohne in the mother’s name, so the future football coach had been hiding under the name of Knud Larsen.  Had you thought to look under that name, there were 95 candidates to explore.  Even then, when you picked the right one and clicked to see the manifest, you would have been taken to the arrival for a different ship.  Fortunately, even with obstacles like these, there’s almost always a way to find your ancestors in this amazing database, so if Grandpa has eluded you so far, I hope you’ll give it another try!


Seton Shields Genealogical Grant Awarded to Girl Museum

Congratulations to our most recent Seton Shields Genealogical Grant recipient!

Girl Museum is a completely virtual museum that focuses on research and exhibitions about girl culture from across time and space. They recently started the Heirloom Project, which is an opportunity for girls to investigate their own families to find out more about their genealogy and histories through interviews and researching old photographs, artifacts and heirlooms. Girls will submit their discoveries to Girl Museum and become part of a large exhibition that will go online at the end of 2013. The grant award will be used toward the creation of a downloadable PDF guide, several how-to videos and online support for participants. 

You can apply for a grant here.

"Hey, America, Your Roots Are Showing" Available Today!

I'm so excited to announce that today is the official birth day of my new book, Hey, America, Your Roots Are Showing! It's a collection of my favorite investigatory romps from the past decade (check out what Ken Burns, Stephen Colbert and Kirkus Reviews had to say) and I invite you to watch my first ever book trailer video to get a taste!

I'd love to hear your reactions and would be especially grateful if you could share your comments with fellow genealogists, history buffs, and mystery lovers, as well as post reviews on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. "Likes," Tweets and retweets, +1s and so forth also much appreciated.

Finally, I'd also love it if you'd consider joining me at one of my upcoming events in NJ, PA, MD, VA, AZ, TX, OH, IN, CA and even online (thanks to Legacy Family Tree) – and please let your genealogical buddies know, too! The book, video and my speaking schedule are all available on my freshly hatched website,


Hey, America, Your Roots Are Showing

Part forensic scientist, part master sleuth, Megan Smolenyak2 has solved some of America's oldest and most fascinating genealogical mysteries. You've read the headlines, now get the inside story as the "Indiana Jones of genealogy" reveals how she cracked her news-making cases, became the face of this increasingly popular field—and redefined history along the way.

How did Smolenyak2 discover Barack Obama's Irish ancestry and his relation to Brad Pitt? Or the journey of Michelle Obama's family from slavery to the White House? Or the startling links between outspoken politicians Al Sharpton and Strom Thurmond? And why is Smolenyak2's name squared? Test your own skills as she reveals her exciting secrets. Whether she's scouring websites to uncover the surprising connections between famous figures or using cutting-edge DNA tests to locate family members of fallen soldiers dating back to the Civil War, Smolenyak2's historical sleuthing is as provocative, richly layered, and exciting as America itself.

"Watch out Watson and Crick! Megan Smolenyak decodes our
fascinating, complicated past in this tour de force of detective work."
Ken Burns

"Thank you for taking the time to lay out our family map...
You're practically family. You certainly know more about us than we do."
Stephen Colbert

"This splendid book makes genealogy come alive in the most vivid and compelling manner."
from the Foreword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

"Megan is a genealogist's dream, a forensic investigator who can also tell a great story."
Sam Roberts, The New York Times

"Megan is a blessing to cold-case detectives and a master genealogist."
Julie M. Haney, Special Agent, NCIS Cold Case Homicide Unit

"Megan . . . is, hands down, America's greatest genealogist, and this book is proof of it."
Andrew Carroll, editor of the New York Times bestsellers War Letters and Behind the Lines

"The Indiana Jones of genealogy...Megan Smolenyak is a national treasure."
Buzzy Jackson, author of Shaking the Family Tree

"Megan Smolenyak is the genealogist's genealogist - the go-to person for building
your family tree and solving stubborn historical mysteries."
Dr. Spencer Wells, Director of the Genographic Project, National Geographic

"In this breezy narrative, Smolenyak allows us to look over the shoulder of a relentless genealogist as she works the puzzle pieces of her craft. Whether unearthing evidence from Internet databases, newspaper offices, court houses, libraries and cemeteries, consulting translators, historians or her vast network of fellow genealogists, pioneering the use of genealogical DNA testing, solving the mystery or occasionally hitting a brick wall, Smolenyak remains wholly committed, curious and cheery, eager to share her methods and excitement."
Kirkus Reviews, "Bottom-up history from a top-shelf researcher"