When Annie Moore and her two Irish brothers became the first immigrants to pass through Ellis Island in 1892 they quickly made their way into the history books. After that time, millions more entered the US through the famed processing center and their details are now available as part of the 50 million free records on the recently revamped Ellis Island website.
But what if your ancestors were among the millions and millions of people who came to New York’s shores in the decades before Ellis Island first opened its doors? Where did these pre-Ellis immigrants land? Were their names and details recorded as well?
Luckily, the answer is yes.
From 1855 to 1890 Castle Garden, now known as Castle Clinton or Fort Clinton, was America’s first official immigration center — run in partnership by New York City and New York State. Before the federal government decided to take over processing of immigrants in 1890, and in the two years before Ellis Island opened in 1892, Castle Garden processed and recorded details on more than 8 million individuals.
Unfortunately, some of Castle Garden’s records were lost in the fire that burned Ellis Island to the ground in 1897, but many still exist, and today Castle Garden offers records from 1820 (pre-Castle Garden), through the official years of operation, all the way to 1913 (special records from the Ellis Island years).
The website hosts more than 11 million records combined, making it a hugely valuable, but often overlooked, resource for genealogists.
How to Search Castle Garden Records
If you think you may have had an ancestor who came to New York after 1820 and before 1892, head over to CastleGarden.org and click on ‘Search’ in the menu at the top. When you land on the search page you’ll see a wide variety of options.
We have found that the best way to find what we are looking for on Castle Garden’s site is to limit the search by name and date only. You can add more details, such as last known place of residence or occupation, if you find you have too many results to sort through. However, this will only be likely if you have an ancestor with a fairly common name.
Do remember to take into account possible name variations, spelling mistakes, errors in recording, etc when searching. For example: ‘Anderson’ easily becomes ‘Andersen’ when recording or transcribing.
Enough details are provided on the search results page to help you pick through potential matches fairly quickly. You will see a ‘U’ under ‘Place of Last Residence’ for many of these listings. We have found that this is common on the site. Although ‘Place of Last Residence’ is one of the possible search terms, you are much more likely to find that the place of birth is listed in a record.
Even if you cannot search for place of birth specifically, the site does seem to do a good job of matching search terms across fields so it is still worthwhile to enter a location for last known residence when searching for a common name.
Do refresh the search page and enter new terms if you get no results. We found the site to be a bit glitchy, returning no results when we knew results did exist. A refresh often solved this.
Click on the surname next to the record you want to view to see the record page. Unlike Ellis Island, no original records are available, only transcriptions. But you will find a great deal of wonderful information if you can locate the correct person — including age, exact date of arrival, ship name, country of residence and more. Some less commonly filled in sections, such as ‘Relative Left Behind’ could be an enormous help to building your tree, if available.
Sadly, families are not listed together. You will need to search by surname or ship, and limit by date, to find other members of the same family who may have traveled together.
Avoid entering only part of a ship or location name, such as ‘Montreal’ instead of ‘City of Montreal’ as the system does not seem to search for all terms in some fields, but rather looks for an exact match. Use of the wildcard symbol ‘*’ is helpful for problems like these. Search for ‘* Montreal’ to return records from ships with Montreal in the name. We did this to locate other Andersons who may have traveled in 1880 with the John listed below.
For some reason, perhaps to make copying or transcribing easier, the information appears in editable fields. This is somewhat of a hassle since it is possible to accidentally overwrite information in a field. If you do this, simply refresh the page. The site does not save edits.
Because immigration records do not always contain as much identifying information as we would like, it can be hard to locate the correct record. However, persistence and flexibility in your search terms will usually allow you to find what you are looking for — assuming it still exists.
If you do not find an expected ancestor in these records it is possible that the record was destroyed during the fire we mentioned earlier. It is also very possible that your ancestor came through another location in the US or Canada during that time, or entered the US before or after Castle Garden was in operation.
Check out this article on Ellis Island research for additional resources and keep your eye out on Family History Daily for more ideas on researching immigrant ancestors soon.
Image: “Registering immigrants at Castle Garden in 1866” Wikipedia