castle garden, before Ellis Island

Before Ellis Island: Passenger Arrivals at Castle Garden, New York

Editor’s note: The late Carolyn L. Barkley discusses the changing conditions for immigrants arriving in the United States before Ellis Island was the main point of entry. Information includes the challenges one may face trying to locate an ancestor who arrived before 1892, how you may find them, and valuable resources to make your search easier. The history of Castle Garden is extremely relevant, and information related to searching those records is included for convenience.  

Finding the original U.S. port of entry arrival record for ancestors can be a difficult process. For many years, I have searched for the passenger arrival record of my elusive great-great-grandmother Kate Duncan who arrived in the U.S. from Liverpool (assumed to be her departure site, not place of residence) with her father George, her brother George H., and step-mother, Mary in the early 1850s. Although I know they were living in New Haven by 1854, I have as yet been unable to determine a year and port of entry for the family, despite checking microfilm for likely ports such as Boston, Providence, and New Haven. My search has prompted me to learn more about passenger arrival records, ship manifests, and the legislation that governed them. One of the best resources about these records can be found in Mike Tepper’s American Passenger Arrival Records.

Immigration to the U.S. began to increase dramatically in the early 1820s. With the increase in passengers, came an increase in the diseases they carried to America as well as the number of deaths from natural causes, as well as shipboard conditions. In order to control these problems, Congress passed the Steerage Act of March 2, 1819 to help limit the number of passengers carried on each ship. This act required that passenger ships sailing to the U. S. from foreign ports provide lists of arriving passengers and that the Custom Service process these lists on arrival. Beginning in 1820, a ship’s captain prepared the list and filed it with the collector of customs at the port of arrival. These records have been microfilmed and are available in the Records of the U.S. Customs Services, 1820-ca. 1891. Ports included in this record group are Atlantic, Gulf and Great Lakes Ports (M334, M575); Baltimore (M326, M255, M596); Boston (M265, M277); New Orleans (T527, M259, M272); New York (M261, M237, M1066); and Philadelphia (M360, M425).  As the records are usually arranged chronologically by date of arrival (probably the very fact you don’t know), using the soundex indices for the actual lists is essential. The best source for microfilm information can be found in the National Archives publication Immigrant & Passenger Arrivals: a Select Catalog of National Archives Microfilm Publications (1991) and can be ordered on the National Archives website. A big caveat is that the card file index images are some of the ugliest microfilm images known to man, with many totally unreadable. It takes a great deal of research stamina to use these records on microfilm.

Prior to 31 July 1855 ship passengers were not processed upon their arrival in the United States – they simply walked off the ship! Conditions, however, continued to be deplorable aboard ship despite the Steerage Act, and portside treatment offered little improvement. A series of passenger acts were passed by Congress, culminating in the Passenger Act of March 3, 1855 which codified provisions to safeguard the health and welfare of passengers. Once this act was passed, New York went a step further by passing legislation to establish a receiving station to provide immigrants with protection from fraud, among other services. A partnership between the City of New York and the State of New York established the facility in a circular sandstone fort on an island off the southwest tip of Manhattan. Its location today, due to subsequent landfills, is located in Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan itself. Originally known as West Battery, it was renamed Castle Clinton in 1815 in honor of New York City Mayor Dewitt Clinton. It was used by the U. S. Army as the location of a battery to protect the city during the War of 1812, but the army’s use ceased in 1821 and it was leased to the city as a “place of public entertainment,” opening as Castle Garden on 3 July 1824. Through the following three decades Castle Garden was, in turn, a promenade, a beer garden/restaurant, exhibition hall, opera house and theater, hosting concerts by such performers as Jenny Lind. On 1 August 1855 it opened as the Emigrant Landing Depot, the first in the nation, and remained as such until 18 April 1900. Notable immigrants arriving through Castle Garden included Oscar Hammerstein I, Harry Houdini, “Typhoid Mary,” Joseph Pulitzer, and Sophie Tucker. When the federal government assumed direct control of immigration and naturalization in 1890, New York would not allow the federal government to use the Castle Garden facility. From 19 April 1890 to 31 December 1891, processing of arriving passengers was conducted at a temporary location called the Barge Office before moving to the new Ellis Island facility on 1 January 1892. Following the opening of Ellis Island, Castle Garden enjoyed fifty years of service as the New York City Aquarium. It was designated a national monument on 12 August 1946 and today appropriately serves as the departure point for visitors to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.

Although Castle Garden customs records can be accessed via National Archives Microfilm Publication M237 (1820-1850, rolls 1-94; 1851-1891, rolls 95-580), these records can now be accessed more conveniently at either the Castle Garden official website or through a search portal provided by Steve Morse. Research is never quite that easy, however. A major fire at Ellis Island on 13 June 1897 consumed all of the Castle Garden administrative records from 1855 to 1890, most of the records for the Barge Office, as well as those for the first six years at Ellis Island. The fire was so intense that even the records in the underground records vault were lost. Fortunately, the Customs Office passenger lists and their abstracts were safely stored in Washington, DC and are available for our research today.

The Castle Garden website offers free access to a database of information on “10 million immigrants from 1830 to 1892.” The quick search feature allows you to enter a first name, a last name, and a date range from 1820 to 1912. An asterisk can be used for a wild card search. A search for K* Duncan located 11 entries. Sadly, none fit the information appropriate to my Kate Duncan. The name of the ship in the right-hand column was cut off on the first page of hits, and the entries were returned in no recognizable order for the columns displayed (first name, second name, occupation, age, sex, arrival date, origin or ship’s name). With some trial-and-error, I found that if I clicked on the column header label, I could display a small red arrow. By clicking on the arrow, I could sort the column in either ascending or descending order. Once a search is completed, the site offers an opportunity to refine the search by place of origin, occupation, and ship name. Again, caveats apply. Place of origin encompasses only Germany, Great Britain, Ireland, and the U.S., and occupation is not what the term would seem to imply, but rather denotes child, servant, spinster, wife or unknown categories.

As a more user-friendly alternative to searching the Castle Garden site directly, I recommend using Stephen P. Morse’s site “Ship Lists: Searching for Ships in the Castle Garden Microfilms.” His database covers the years 1851 to 1891: pre-Castle Garden (1851-1855), Castle Garden (1855-1890), and the Barge Office records (1890-1891). Where the search on the Castle Garden site requires several steps and a bit of lucky hacking, Morse’s one-step search engine site allows you to enter a first and last name (indicating whether the name starts with, contains, ends with, or is exactly what you enter), the ship name if known, the port of origin if known, occupation, and a span of years for the arrival date. You can also specify whether you want the entries to be sorted by last name, first name, occupation, age, sex and origin and whether you want them displayed in ascending or descending order. I got excited by the choices of occupation offered and tried a search for Kate’s father George, indicating his occupation as coach-painter. I should have realized, however, that I was using a search portal to the Castle Garden web site and thus occupation was limited by the options on the original site. I repeated the search for K* Duncan and received back the identical 11 entries, but also an additional entry for a Keterah Duncan Clark that was not included in the direct search on the Castle Garden site. Be sure when using this site, that you read the frequently asked questions as they will provide invaluable information about using both this site and the Castle Garden site. If I had read them first, I would have not had to hack around to sort my entries! You may want to try searches using both sites, but I think you will find Steve Morse’s one-step search much better in terms of efficiency and actual entries found. Once you find an entry that matches your search parameters, you can get direct access to the manifest images on through Steve’s site. Access to the Ancestry records requires a subscription, or you can use Ancestry Plus at your local library for free.

Castle Garden manifests are an important step in your search for the passenger arrival records of your ancestor during the time period between 1855 and the opening of Ellis Island in 1892. I hope that these records will be helpful in solving your immigration research.

Other resources include:

Immigration and Ships Passenger Lists Research Guide” – a good overview of the subject.

The Immigration Experience” – Includes links to several articles including an account of Castle Garden in 1866 from the New York Times Marine Intelligence Column of 23 December 1886.

Legislation from 1790-1900” – an abstract of immigration legislation from 1790-1893.

Castle Garden, NY” – a list of links to information about immigration through this facility.

American Passenger Arrival Records by Michael Tepper (Genealogical Publishing Co., 1993, reprinted 2001). Chapter 3 covers customs passenger lists in detail including illustrations.

Passenger Arrivals at the Port of New York, 1820-1829 by Elizabeth P. Bentley (Genealogical Publishing Co., 1999). Currently out of print. Please click on notify me button on to be notified when it returns to print.

Passenger Arrivals at the Port of New York, 1830-1832 by Elizabeth P. Bentley (Genealogical Publishing Co., 2000). Currently on sale for half-price.

Ships of Our Ancestors by Michael J. Anuta (Genealogical Publishing Co., 1983, reprint 2006).

Immigration: From the Founding of Virginia to the Closing of Ellis Island by Dennis Wepman (Facts of File, 2002).

They Came in Ships: a Guide to Finding Your Immigrant Ancestor’s Arrival Record by John P. Colletta (Ancestry, rev 3rd ed., 2002).

Image credit: Immigrants at Castle Garden, New York City, 1866. Wood engraving in “Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper”, 20 January 1866, vol. 21, p. 280-281. This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3a38186. By Unattributed [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.





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