A few weeks ago I did a lecture on Immigration into the Port of New York: Ellis Island and Castle Garden, at the Sarasota Genealogical Society. I received a call this week from a gentlemen who wasn’t able to attend the presentation, but wanted to know how to find his ancestor who had arrived in New York, prior to 1892 when Ellis Island opened.
Beginning in 1820, the government required a ship’s captain to provide a manifest of passengers to the custom officials upon arrival. These lists contained the name of the vessel, the master, port of embarkation, date and port of arrival, passenger’s name, sex, age occupation and nationality. Prior to 1855, passengers into New York were discharged on the docks and had to make their own way. They were routinely exploited by con men who took their money for nonexistent jobs or housing, or sold them phony tickets to various destinations. In 1855, the government of the State of New York created the first immigrant receiving station to prevent exploitation of the massive influx of immigrants. The location was at the end of what is now Manhattan Island. Originally The West Battery it was built between 1807 and 1811 to protect the city from British invasion during the Napoleonic Wars and in 1815 was renamed Fort Clinton after New York’s first governor, George Clinton. By 1822 the Federal Government had no need for it and it was ceded to NYC, renamed Castle Garden and used for band concerts and other entertainments. Castle Garden is best known as the site of the debut of the Swedish Nightingale, Jennie Lind in 1850. By 1855 when NY was looking for a place to land immigrants, the lease on Castle Garden had expired and after authorization from the State Legislature, the commissioners of immigration received their first lease.
Although conditions immediately improved for the immigrants, the increasing numbers took their toll. A Congressional committee investigating in 1887 recommended that the federal government take over responsibility for immigration and when the government’s contract expired in April of 1890 the federal government took over and moved the receiving station just a short distance from Castle Garden to the Barge Office where immigrants were received until the completion of Ellis Island.
So how do you find the records of your immigrant ancestor who arrived in New York before 1890? Unfortunately, when the WPA created the indexes for New York immigration, they only got to 1946; then continued from 1897. That created the dreaded “unindexed years” from 1846-1897. In the past, unless you had very accurate information regarding the arrival date and ship for your ancestor it was very difficult to find them during that time.
In 2005, a website CastleGarden.org filled in some of the missing time period. A few things you need to know about this site. According to the copyright on the site (and from my experience) it has not been updated since it was originally launched. Also, although Castle Garden only operated from 1855 and 1890, the website states it includes records of immigrants who arrived between 1830 and 1892. (My great grandparents, however, arrived in 1891 and they do not appear to be in the database). The year range in the search box allows a range of dates from 1820 to 1913. I have also found an individual in this database who arrived in Boston, not New York (confirmed with the manifest). Finally, the Advanced Search feature was never implemented, so you can only do a simple search, limited by dates. This website is a free website so it’s still the first place to check for your ancestor, but, if they are not there, don’t assume they didn’t arrive at Castle Garden as this site is not complete.
A second place to check is Ancestry.com. This is a subscription database but if you don’t have a subscription, check with your local library. One of their databases is New York Passenger Lists 1820 - 1957 which also covers passengers from the Castle Garden years. Until recently, I had not been able to find my great grandparents in this database, either. FindMyPast.com has a database of passengers leaving the UK between 1890 and 1960 (an emigration list) and my great grandparents and their children appear in this database, leaving Liverpool on August 26, 1891 on the Majestic and sailing to New York. Why didn’t they appear in either Ancestry or the Castle Garden databases? On a recent trip to the National Archives in Washington, DC, I pulled the manifest for the Majestic and went through it line by line. I thought that perhaps they were on a page that was unreadable, and therefore not indexed. That was not the case...they were clearly (to me anyway) identified on the manifest. So maybe this ship wasn’t in the Ancestry database? I then searched for other names that appeared on the manifest, including the family directly below my Beightons and they were there. I finally searched for all of the Inft [Infants] on board and found the family indexed as Brighton...in fact, they were in the index twice with varying given names.
The bottom line is that CastleGarden.org or Ancestry.com are the likely places to find your immigrant ancestors who entered between 1855 and 1890 at CastleGarden. If you don’t find them, they may have been indexed incorrectly, the manifest might not have been readable, or they arrived at a port other than New York.