When an immigrant ship arrived at a U.S. harbor, it didn’t just pull up to a wharf and the passengers streamed out.  In the mid-1800s, the new immigrant usually went through a process somewhat like this:

As the ship neared the port, a tug pulled alongside and tied on to tow the ship closer to the harbor.  When close enough to the port but still a distance away, the ship’s crew dropped anchor.  Then, all waited for the inspection team to board and examine passengers for diseases.  If all went well, the next day the ship docked at the wharf and began the debarkation process.

Several lists were made of the passengers by the immigration authorities.  (I’ll blog more about those lists in a later post).

Finally, passengers left the ship, usually the First Class passengers first, the steerage class left last.

Now, let’s talk about New York for a minute.  New York had SO many immigrants they had to come up with a more efficient way for processing them.  Thus, Castle Garden and later Ellis Island were established.

If your ancestor sailed into New York harbor in 1880 and you’ve told everyone he went through Ellis Island, I’d have to correct you.  Why?  Because Ellis Island did not start processing immigrants until 1 January 1892.  Prior to that date, immigrants went through the Barge Office on the Battery at the tip of Manhattan.  Also known as Castle Garden, this site processed New York immigrants from 1855 to 1890.

There’s a great timeline on the Ellis Island website.  It shows that the present building we have today opened 17 December 1900.  The facility closed on November 1954.

If your ancestor arrived in New York:

  • 1820 to 1892 = Check for your family name among the 11 million immigrants in the Castle Garden database.
  • 1892 to 1924 = Check for your family name among the 22 million immigrants in the Ellis Island database. You may search by name or by ship.

Ancestry.com has published a great article on their website titled, “Following in the footsteps of Ellis Island’s Immigrants,” by Barry Moreno, 8 September 2009.  Moreno describes the Ellis Island immigrant experience.