GenToday-L Archive

Castle Gardens and Ellis Island

by Shirley Hornbeck

PUBLISHED WITH PERMISSION in the March 1999 edition of GenToday-L

The history of immigration spans American history. This movement of people ultimately brought 42 million immigrants into this country. The government passed no immigration laws until 1819 and even then they only covered the standard for steerage conditions on sailing vessels and made provisions that limited immigration records must be kept. Not until 1882 were immigration regulations made at all uniform. During the peak years of immigration, from about 1900 to 1914, as many as 5,000 people a day were processed through Ellis Island.

But before Ellis Island, Castle Garden, an old fort on the lower tip of Manhattan (now Battery Park), was designated in 1855 as an immigrant station under state supervision. When the new federal law was passed in 1882, Castle Garden continued to operate under contract to the U. S. Government, but by 1890, it's facilities had long since proved to be inadequate for the ever-increasing number of immigrant arrivals.

After a government survey of potential locations, a 27 acres parcel of land called Ellis Island was the site chosen to establish an entirely new U. S. immigration station. The history of Ellis Island tells us that the Dutch had originally purchased the land from the Indians and established the colony of New Amsterdam. It had a succession of owners before the American revolution when Samuel Ellis bought and linked his name to it. New York purchased Ellis Island in 1808 and in turn sold it to the federal government who wanted to build a fort on it. Fort Gibson was fortified just before the War of 1812 but it saw little action during the war. It was used primarily as a munition depot until it was transformed in 1892 into an immigration center. Construction began in 1890 and hundreds of workers labored at a large three-story reception center, hospital for the ill and quarantined immigrants, laundry facility, a boiler-house and an electric generating plant. Smaller buildings included a dormitory, restaurant and baggage station. Over the years, ballast from ships dumped near Ellis Island built it up, and the landfill and completion of sea walls brought it to it's present size. When it was completed and dedicated on Jan 1, 1892, it was a self-contained city.

Annie Moore from County Cork was the first person processed at Ellis Island from the SS NEVADA and she was presented with a ten-dollar goldpiece. The ships CITY OF PARIS and the VICTORIA were also processed that day. Passenger lists for these and hundreds of other vessels, which entered New York and other American ports, have been preserved on microfilm and are available for those who wish to trace their ancestor's passage to America.

The life of the first station at Ellis Island was short. All the pine-frame buildings burned to the ground in a disastrous fire on June 15, 1897. Construction began immediately to replace the structures with fireproof buildings of brick, ironwork and limestone trimmings. It took 2-1/2 years to complete and the station reopened again in Dec 1900.

Emigration became a topic of conversation in communities all over Europe. The United States promised fulfillment of grand dreams, which could no longer be kept alive in their native lands. For some, it meant religious or political freedom; for others, freedom from conscription. For the majority, it meant opportunity and the chance to improve their economic conditions. However, rumors had circulated about those who were denied entry because they looked suspicious or did not promptly answer the questions of immigration inspectors. The joy and excitement of reaching the "promised land" was mingled with the terrible dread of being rejected. Most had sold all their possessions and property, often going into debt to finance their journey. Yet, they came by the millions.

Passengers of "means" escaped the rigors of the Ellis Island ordeal by being processed aboard the vessel itself, then delivered directly to Manhattan. The poorer classes sat sometimes three to four days in the crowded harbor waiting their ship's turn to disembark passengers. Once on the island, Inspectors who looked for the ill closely observed them and infirm, empty stares indicating feebleminded and shortness of breath of those who climbed the stairs to the registry hall. The room looked like a stockyard with its metal pipe partitions, which were later exchanged for benches.

The Registry Hall was frequently referred to as the "Hall of Tears". It was filled to the walls with would-be Americans wearing numbered tags pinned to their clothes awaiting the battery of legal and medical examinations and hoping to be allowed to stay. Some family members might be accepted and theirs rejected. The painful decision to stay or return with a loved one had to be made on the spot. Some could not face the disgrace or ruin of deportation and it is estimated that as many as 3000 immigrants committed suicide. To enter the U. S. the immigrants knew that one must be disease-free and create the impression that they could make a living. The first doctors they saw made a quick examination and noted any suspicions with a chalk mark on the right shoulder of the immigrant. People thus marked were held back for further examinations by a second group of doctors. Trachoma, a potentially blinding and highly contagious eye disease, was the most common reason for detaining an immigrant. Most though got a clean bill of health and only about two percent were turned back. Once the doctors had passed an immigrant, they then proceeded to the registration clerks where names were always a problem. This is where names were twisted as most immigrants could not spell their name so clerks jotted down names as they sounded. Some name changes were deliberate when immigrants took new names for themselves knowing they had a better chance of getting a job. Once they were passed through here, they went to the baggage room to claim their belongings. Then they went to the money exchange desk where they exchanged their money for American dollars. Next they went to the railroad agent where they purchased a ticket to their destination. If they were bound for other than New York, they traveled by barge to New Jersey rail stations and from there they entered the mainstream of America.

At the end of WWI, many Americans were eager to see immigration restricted. The Immigration Act of 1917 carried a demand for a literacy test and reduced significantly the number of arrivals but only for a short time. The number of arrivals in New York soon climbed again and 500,000 immigrants entered through the Port in 1921. The government then enacted newer and more powerful methods of exclusion in 1921 and again in 1924. Soon the traffic through Ellis Island subsided to a trickle. A final revision of the "National origins" quota system went into effect in 1929 and the maximum number of all admissions was reduced to 150,000. As a result, in Nov 1954, the last immigrant and the last detainee left Ellis Island and the General Services Administration (GSA) declared the immigration center as surplus property.

Ship arrival records had to be filed with the local Custom House. It is estimated that only about 40 percent of those records have survived and was turned over to the National Archives. All ship passenger lists, which have survived, have been microfilmed. Those microfilm copies for the Port of New York between 1846 and 1907 are not indexed. All other ports are indexed. Many immigrants before 1891-92 entered through cities such as Boston, Philadelphia, Charleston, New Orleans and cities on the west coast of the U.S.A.

Restoration of Ellis Island began in 1982 with the renovation of the Great Hall. A genealogy exhibit where visitors will be able to search for immigrant information is planned. A computer will retrieve data on individuals including the name of the vessel on which they arrived, port of origin, arrival date in New York and other relevant details. It is expected that the number of tourists visiting the reborn Ellis Island will be the same each day as the average number of immigrants who passed through its days of operation as a receiving station.

In your search for your immigrant ancestor, look for Certificates of Citizenship issued to individuals who had completed all the requirements of entry. They were often saved and passed down in families. This certificate may show no more than the name of the immigrant, the country from which he relinquished citizenship, the date of the event and the name of the court where naturalization was finalized. The location of the court is the key to finding additional papers, which may provide more detail. Not all aliens were naturalized but if they were, the documents in court records will provide information necessary to trace your ancestor's Americanization. You may find additional information including port of arrival and name of the vessel. Naturalization laws were not made uniform until 1906. Prior to this time, aliens could naturalize in any court but information varied from court to court.

The National Archives and its eleven branches are natural starting places for obtaining naturalization information. It should be noted that it was usually required that an alien be a resident of this country for at least five years. The Declaration of Intention or "first papers" were completed and filed with a court soon after the immigrant arrived in this country. You might find these in port cities. After the five years stay in America, the immigrant was required to go to court once more and file his "final papers". It was not necessary to do this in the same court as the "first papers". Certain groups of people were naturalized without filing a Declaration of Intention. Wives and children of naturalized males generally became citizens automatically. Those who served in the U. S. military forces also became citizens after an honorable discharge. Military records then become another source of information.

Passenger Lists are available at the National Archives and at some of its branches. They consist of custom passenger lists, transcripts and abstracts of customs passenger lists, immigration passenger lists and indexes to these lists. The records were created by captains, or masters of vessels, collectors of customs and immigration officials at the port of entry. They document a high percentage of the immigrations between 1815 and 1914 when most immigrants came to the U.S. Most came through the port of New York and Ellis Island and there is an Index to Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York 1897-1902 however there is no index for New York arrivals for the period 1847-1896. An alphabetical index of passenger lists for 1902-1943 has been microfilmed. Unless an exact date of arrival is known, it may take many hours of searching the lists of ship arrivals. For more specific information on passenger lists, naturalization records, military records and other collections, consult the Guide to Genealogical R esearch in the National Archives.

Over a million immigrants came to the colonies before 1820 but few were recorded on passenger lists. Most of the known lists have been published and many have been indexed in Filby's Passenger and Immigration List Index and Supplements (11 volumes) but you must know the full name, approximate age and date of arrival, also their nationality. To search the U. S. Customs Passenger Lists in the National Archives after 1820, you must know the full name, age, approximate date of arrival and port of entry. You may find in these records the name, age, sex, occupation, country of origin, port of departure, destination, date of arrival, name of the vessel. Immigration lists or "ship manifests" which began being used in 1883 give more detailed information.

The genealogical treasure house of the world, the Genealogical Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon)is engaged in the most active and comprehensive genealogical program known to the world. Microfilming is the center of this genealogical operation. Trained specialists throughout the word are micro filming documents; land grants, deeds, probate, marriage, cemetery, parish registers and have accumulated over a millions rolls thus far. They are available in Salt Lake City and through branch libraries across the country. Now there is an extraction program being worked on by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints where the subject is the records of Ellis Island from 1892-1924. The finished product will become part of Family Search which is the program that includes the IGI, Ancestral File etc. held at Family History Centers. The LDS extraction statistics for 1997 show Ellis Island had 3,553,067 individual entries. Approximately 28% of the Ellis Island project have been completed. The Family History Library has microfilm copies of county naturalization before 1930 for many states and it has most federal court naturalization records before 1930.

Where records are available, it is quite possible to reconstruct the history of an entire family. Finding these records, however, is only the beginning of the project.

Check the Index to the Passenger Lists available at your local Family History Center and most large genealogical libraries. You can request a search of the Passenger Arrival Records by requesting Form 81 from the National Archives or e-mail your request for the form to:

This article is from GRS Monthly Newsletter and is copyright 1998 by GRS. It is re-published here with permission of the author.


I know my great,great is nancy Lockwood born in1852 . I went to the Elkhart Library they have no records, and no one in my family knows where to look. So what can I do for info?

Looking for any fam: Andrew Jackson Stallions bc 1843: m. Delilah Walker 1865, Blount County, TN. Ch: Isabella, Texanna, John W., Andrew Jackson, Jr., Ellen S., Mattie Florence, David T., Clemmie, Adra. Ch: b. between 1866-1881.

Seeking Dominico Fazio line (b.1835-Davoli, Italy d.1900 Buffalo, N.Y.)md Barbara Procopio (1851-1908)Barbara's maternal line MESSARI. A son Salvatore FAZIO came to US 1899 md Josephine LONGO Buffalo, N.Y. Dau Erminia (Mae) DeFazio md Andrew Eugene NELSON(b. abt 1908) s/o PEAR NEILSON (Sweden)& Margaret McCAFFREY (County Cork,Ireland & Omagh Cty, Tyrone).

Seeking surnames of Gioeli, Paonessa, Leuzzi, Raddis, Hodgson, Pineso. Elyria, Ohio/Buffalo N.Y.

Researching a John & Elizabeth (GRAY) MARSH who lived in Wheeling, West Virginia during 1860 & 1870 census. (ch: John, William, Charles, Elizabeth, Albert, Harry, Nora, and Nelly) Does anyone know of this family?

Margaret N. PINCHBACK b. ca. 1852, Tenn. Married Reuben Perry HICKS, 1874 Weakley Co., Tenn. >Fulton Co., Ark. bef. 1875 >Clay Co. Ark. in 1899,extremely ill.

William Shuster came Kent County, Maryland from NJ. or PA.1856. He is blacksmith in Hainsville w/son Samuel. William d 9/11/1871 his wife Racheal d 2/11/1867. Samuel Md Sarah Sharp. No further dates for Samuel.

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  • Ellis Island Interviews
  • After Ellis Island

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