Opinion

Castle Garden

Did your ancestors emigrate to the U.S. in the 19th century through New York City? The first name that comes to most genealogists’ minds is Ellis Island. But prior to 1893, Ellis Island as a port of entry didn’t exist. If your ancestor came into New York between 1820 and 1892, they would have entered through a port of entry known then as Castle Garden.

Castle Garden, now the Castle Clinton National Monument, is a part of the Battery, a waterfront open space in New York City which citizens use as a recreation area today. 

It was originally a Native American fishing site, part of that infamous purchase of what is now New York by the Dutch. The Dutch settlers identified the area as a natural defense site and built a stone wall with cannons, called a battery, which is where the name originated. The battery was designed to protect New Amsterdam from invasion. The city was later ceded to the British, who renamed it New York. 

According to its website, CastleGarden.org, over 100 million Americans can trace their ancestral entry to the U.S. to Castle Garden. From 1855 to 1890, Castle Garden was America’s first official immigration center operated jointly by New York City and New York state. Only in 1890 did the federal government decide to take control of all American ports of entry and regularize immigration issues. 

Prior to that time, immigrants could enter the U.S. from any American port. Each state and town or city had their own rules for entry, and not all of those records survive. 

With the advent of federal control, Castle Garden closed and immigrants were processed through the U.S. Barge Office in another area of the Battery waterfront while a new entry center was under construction. That center, Ellis Island, opened in 1892.

What happened to the immigration records from Castle Garden? While today the physical walls of Castle Garden still exist, the passenger lists are in the hands of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

If you go to the website CastleGarden.org, you can fill out a form to search for any record of your ancestor. The search is free, though they welcome donations to help keep the site open and free. Before you search, gather as much information as you can about the family or individual you’re researching.  

The form is brief, but detailed. It will ask for your ancestor’s name, the name of the ship if known, where your ancestor sailed from or lived before sailing and even the province in the country of origin. You don’t need all these, but if you know them it will help in the research.  

And keep in mind that the spelling of your ancestral surname may be mangled. Ship lists were created often by individuals who didn’t speak the language of the passengers buying tickets, so be prepared to try different variations.

For those of you whose ancestors came through Castle Garden, happy searching.

Columnist Nancy Battick of Dover-Foxcroft has researched genealogy for over 30 years. She is past president of the Maine Genealogical Society, author of several genealogical articles and co-transcribed the Vital Records of Dover-Foxcroft.  Nancy holds an MA in History from UM and lives in DF with her husband, Jack, another avid genealogist. Reader emails are welcome at nbattick@roadrunner.com.

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