Millions of Americans are descendants of immigrants to this country and a large proportion of those immigrants arrived through the Port of New York. Working their way across the country, these immigrant ancestors wound up as far north as Alaska, as far west as California and as far south as deep south Texas. When researchers think of New York and immigration, the first thing that comes to mind is the federal immigration station at Ellis Island which began operations in 1892. But what if your ancestors arrived in New York before then? Most likely they arrived via Castle Garden, also located on Ellis Island.
Castle Garden was the official immigration processing center for the state of New York from 1855 to 1890, at which time the federal government took over immigration processing from the individual states. During the 35-year period of operations, an estimated eight million immigrants, mostly from such nations as England, Germany, Ireland and Scandinavia were processed through Castle Garden, also called Castle Clinton, in honor of a former New York governor.
If your ancestors arrived in New York between 1820 and 1913, you'll want to visit the new Castle Garden website at: Castle Garden Database (1820 - 1913).
You may have noticed that although Castle Garden records officially are officially 1855-1890, you'll find records on this website from 1820 to 1913. The compilers have gathered together as many records as possible, both before and after the official dates. I recommend doing your searches using the full time period unless you are working with a very common name—then you should narrow your focus to approximate arrival years, and even then a first name will be helpful. For example, the surname Jones will get 2177 hits for the years 1820-1821. Although the website doesn't say so, when you get to the results, be sure to click on the surname for the individual record. It will take you to a new page with more data on that particular person, including the port of origin in most cases.
Because Castle Garden is located on Ellis Island, and the Federal Immigration center that began operations in 1892 was also located on Ellis Island, researchers often confuse the two. They were separate structures, operating at separate times; although the history of the island itself is common to both. Here we discuss the history of the island and of Castle Garden.
The land area known today as Ellis Island was once much smaller and barely rose above sea level. Called Kioshk, or Gull Island by the natives, the island was rich in oyster beds which were harvested by Indians for both the meat and the shells. During the Colonial Period it was known as Oyster Island and went through several official owners until it was purchased by Samuel Ellis in the 1770s. During the Revolutionary War, the British sailed into New York harbor and occupied the city. Following the war, the fledgling federal government realized the strategic value of Ellis Island and purchased it from the state of New York in 1808. They built several fortifications there, including Castle Clinton, in an area known historically as the Battery and Fort Gibson. Castle Clinton became Castle Garden when it opened as an official immigration center. The Battery got its name from a low stone wall built by the early Dutch and which was fortified with cannon.
In 1820, Congress began requiring that records be kept of passenger manifests. Some of these manifests are part of the records found on the Castle Garden website. When it closed its doors in 1890, millions of immigrants had walked through its doors. In 1896 the building was converted to the New York Aquarium, one of the first public aquariums in the country.
There are few family researchers with immigrant ancestors who haven't wondered what it was like to arrive in the new country of the United States. For those without family members or friends to great them, it wasn't all that great. Prior to the opening of the official immigration centers, the newcomers were met at the docks by many charlatans. They claimed to represent employers or perhaps boarding houses where the immigrants would be welcome. In some cases the boarding houses turned out to be houses of prostitution hoping to lure young girls into the fold. Some so-called employers did have jobs for the men, but lied to them about immigration rules. They collected large fees, or large portions of the person's wages as fees for coming to the U.S. or to become a citizen. Many immigrants wound up being used as the equivalent of slave labor. As the construction of railroads began, many immigrants were signed up as laborers on the railroad. They were promised many things, but most of those promises weren't kept.
Ellis Island and Castle Garden were connected to the mainland by a land fill. To help protect the new arrivals and control immigration, a 13-foot-high fence was constructed to surround the building. Inside, the newcomers would register, and run the gauntlet of examinations and questioning. The official opening day of Castle Garden was August 1, 1855. Now, 150 years later, the records of this immigration center are available on the Internet for family historians. Good luck in your search.
See also, Immigration: Ellis Island 1892-1955