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. Continue reading…