The United States is a nation of immigrants, and New York has been a major entry point into North America from the time Henry Hudson sailed up the river that became his namesake. Immigrants entered the United States across borders and through many ports, and New York was one of the busiest. When we think of immigration through New York, we tend to think of Ellis Island first; however, Ellis Island did not begin operation until 1892. Almost 40 years prior to its opening — in the mid-1800s — Castle Garden (also known as Castle Clinton), located at the Battery at the tip of Manhattan, was where immigrants arriving in New York began their documentation process.
A tip to you genealogists out there. The first immigrants arrived by boat, and the early passenger lists were fairly short; however, those passenger lists (also known as a ship’s manifest) are a good resource for genealogists and family historians looking to find family trees. CastleGarden.org hosts 11 million records from original ship manifests.
The ride over for the first settlers was something less than ideal. Ships were small, quarters cramped, amenities few, and the sail could stall at the whim of the wind. As more people saw their future in the colonies, the ships became even more crowded. As with many things, developing a protocol for ships passenger lists and manifests took time. As situations changed, so did the rules. In the late 1700s, the federal government recognized a need for immigrants to be naturalized – to swear allegiance to the United States rather than keep their loyalties to their original homes.
So began the process of taking care of people with a variety of backgrounds and enabling them to call the United States home. One note: there was little immigration to the United States between 1793 and 1815 due to the turmoil in Europe and the political situation in the United States.
An area on the southern end of Manhattan adjacent to Battery Park began as a military fortress called Castle Clinton during the War of 1812. In 1824, it was renamed Castle Garden and opened as a resort. No one knew what its future would be.
A brief time line:
1790 – Congress passed an act to establish uniform rules of naturalization.
1819 – Congress passed a law designed to improve steerage conditions for immigrants. The Secretary of State was also required to prepare annual reports to Congress on immigrants describing age, sex, occupation, country of citizenship, intended residence, and the number of immigrants who died en route. The report was prepared by the Captain or Master of the ship and delivered to the Collector of the Customs.
1824 – Castle Garden opened as a resort.
1842 – Before this time there was no official national immigration policy. Rules differed from state to state.
1847 – With the support of the German and Irish Emigrant Societies, the New York State Legislature created a Board of Commissioners of Emigration with the purpose of regulating immigration practices.
1855 – Castle Clinton/Castle Garden became the Emigrant Landing Depot.
1890 – The federal government took control of immigration processing and Castle Garden was closed.
1892 – Ellis Island opened.
1924 – Passage of the Immigration Act of 1924 ended mass immigration to the United States diminishing the role of Ellis Island.
1950 – Castle Clinton was named a National Historic Monument.
Castle Garden, like Ellis Island, was a special place full of humanity, uncertainty, and chaos. In the early 1870s, reporter Louis Bagger visited the facility and came away with this impression: “Slowly, one by one, the new-comers passed the two officers whose duty it is to register every immigrants name, birthplace and destination in a large folio – a work that is often rather more difficult than it would first appear to be. In the first place the officer in charge must be able to speak and understand nearly every language under the sun . . . but then arises a second difficulty – the remarkable want of intelligence and the constantly recurring misapprehension shown by some of the passengers.”
With inauspicious beginnings, Castle Garden grew into a haven for immigrants before they ventured onto the streets, highways and byways of the United States. With their personal information ascertained, there were facilities for them to clean up a bit and help find something to eat, a room to meet friends and relatives, and individuals that could be trusted to help them purchase the necessary transportation tickets to their final destination. In short, Castle Garden and its processing of more than 8 million immigrants provided an organizational foundation on which Ellis Island could expand.
Finding immigration and naturalization information can be a bit confusing and exasperating. The foremost problem is with the name and its spelling. As foreign as the names were to the clerks trying to make lists, so were the ways of the United States to the immigrants, and there were misunderstandings. Some foreign languages have sounds and symbols that don’t translate well into English. Clerks attempted to write down what they heard. Errors were made. Even though the spelling may not match the current name, it can provide a sense of how the name may have sounded when spoken.
Finding the records may be a bit daunting. Some of the best known online websites are listed below.
• The Castle Garden website hosts 11 million records from original ship manifests. They are presently digitizing 1.3 million records.
• The National Archives has several online passenger list series.
• Immigrant Ships Transcribers Guild is a group of volunteers transcribing ships lists. To date, over 12,000 passenger manifests have been indexed.
• Ancestry.com ($$$) has some indexes and document images.
• FamilySearch has started a new project indexing U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Records.
Making sense of, or finding, immigration records may be difficult. To help get over the immigration hump, Record Click has a number of expert genealogists who can provide advice and assistance. They can help determine a strategy for researching ship’s lists or assist you in the search. There are also genealogists familiar with researching foreign countries.