Finding Immigrants: Port of New York Passengers

Our immigrant ancestor’s journey to America is one of the most important parts of our family history. Some people can trace their immigrant family history back generations to the founding of the original colonies. While others have a relative who came as a crew member, servant, indentured laborer, or enslaved person— and don’t appear on any ship manifest.

Most records of transatlantic passengers in the colonial period are lost or were never kept in the first place. Laws regarding immigration and citizenship were determined by individual colonies.

On March 2, 1819, the U.S. Congress passed the first legislation regulating the conditions of sea transportation for immigrants, the Steerage Act of 1819 (also known as the Manifest of Immigrants Act). One of the key provisions of the law was a requirement that ship captains keep official passenger lists of vessels sailing to American ports. The act got its name after the area in the ship designed for cargo, but was loaded with people who could not afford cabin class.

Immigrants on their way to Ellis Island on the deck of the S. S. Patricia, 1906, Library of Congress

The focus of this article is on passenger lists for immigrants who arrived at the Port of New York between 1820 and 1954. In future articles, information will be provided about other major U.S. ports, some of the minor ports that still have records available, and Canadian border crossings.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, there were five major ports for immigrants coming to the United States: New York, New York; Baltimore, Maryland; Boston, Massachusetts; New Orleans, Louisiana; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Also in use during this period were approximately 96 other smaller ports on the Atlantic, Pacific, Gulf Coast, and Great Lakes. 

Between 1820 and 1920, 35 million immigrants arrived at these U.S. ports, 82 percent coming to the Port of New York.  

Landing at Ellis Island. Emigrants coming up the boardwalk from the barge, which has taken them off the steamship company’s docks and transported them to Ellis Island. The large building in the background is the hospital. The ferry boat seen in the center of the photo operated from New York to Ellis Island. 1902. Library of Congress.

History of the Port of New York

The Port of New York has a rich maritime history. It began in 1659 when the first pier was constructed. By 1770, New York had become the “Breadbasket of the Atlantic,” shipping wheat down the eastern coast of America, and to the West Indies and Europe. Trade continued to flourish and the port became a marketplace for all types of goods.

By the end of the American Revolution, the New York Port was fourth in cargo tonnage. In 1818, the first scheduled vessel service, “The Black Ball Line,” was created. In 1825, the Erie Canal was opened, spurring incredible economic growth in the region. By 1870, New York harbor was the busiest in the Western Hemisphere.

Between 1790 and 1820, an estimated 5-6,000 immigrants arrived freely to the United States each year without regulation. But the ships were terribly overcrowded, unsafe, lacked sufficient provisions, and carried persons infected with contagious diseases.

The Steerage Act of 1819 was the first attempt to help ensure safer conditions and monitor individuals arriving into the country. The passenger lists required by that Act would later become an essential resource for family researchers trying to identify immigrant relatives who arrived at New York.

Between 1847 and 1849, Congress passed a series of laws to regulate the carriage of passengers on merchant vessels. What prompted this legislation were the cholera pandemic that started in 1831 in New York, and typhus epidemics in 1842 and 1847 in North America. The cramped and unhygienic conditions for passengers aboard the merchant ships was believed to be major factors in causing these deadly outbreaks.

Unfortunately, none of these laws protected immigrants from becoming victims at the docks in New York, and many were robbed, swindled, or steered toward undesirable jobs and poor living accommodations.

On March 3, 1855, the Carriage of Passengers Act of 1855 was signed into U.S. law. It replaced the Steerage Act and the other passenger laws adopted in the 1840s. The purpose of this Act was to provide new regulations that would further safeguard the health and welfare of immigrant passengers, and prevent contagious diseases from causing additional outbreaks in this country.

After the 1855 law was passed, New York City and the State of New York decided to consolidate their resources and establish a safe and welcoming receiving station for immigrants.

The Labor Exchange. Emigrants on The Battery in Front of Castle Gardens, New York. Wood engraving 1Illustration in Harper’s Weekly, Aug. 15, 1868.

Castle Garden, originally built as a fort to defend New York Harbor from the British during the War of 1812, was selected as the site for this new reception center. At the time, Castle Garden was already a local landmark and operated as a public cultural center and theatre.

The Emigrant Landing Depot at Castle Garden became America’s first official immigration station, opening at the beginning of the wave of European migration. Castle Garden operated from Aug. 3, 1855, to April 18, 1890.

Immigration Landing at Castle Garden, Harper’s Weekly, May 29, 1880. Wood engraving drawing by A.B. Shults.

Castle Garden welcomed approximately 8 million immigrants, mostly from Germany, Ireland, Scotland, Sweden, England, Italy, Russia, and Denmark. It is estimated than one in six native-born Americans are descendants of the 8 million immigrants who entered through Castle Garden. Today, Castle Garden serves as a departure point for Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island visitors.

Citing corruption at Castle Garden as one reason, in 1890 the federal government took over immigration processing authority from the states. In 1891, the Superintendent of Immigration was established. This meant that the state-run Castle Garden would be forced to close and a new federally operated immigration station would be built on Ellis Island.  

U.S. Barge Office at The Battery, Library of Congress

While the Ellis Island facility was being constructed, from April 19, 1890, to Dec. 31, 1891, immigrants were processed through the Barge Office, located on the eastern edge of The Battery waterfront.

The Ellis Island Immigrant Station opened on Jan. 1, 1892. It was the first and largest federal immigrant processing station, which housed facilities for medical quarantine and processing immigrants.

Ellis Island, Bain News Service, publisher, undated, Library of Congress George Grantham Bain Collection

Tragically, the life of the first Ellis Island station was short lived. All of the pine-frame buildings burned to the ground in a fire on June 15, 1897. As a result, many immigrant records of passengers who were processed earlier through Castle Garden were lost in the fire.

Congress quickly appropriated funds to replace the structures with fireproof buildings. During the two and a half years that the replacement station was being constructed, immigrants were once again processed at the Barge Office. The new Ellis Island station opened Dec. 17, 1900.

During World War I, immigration declined and Ellis Island was used as a detention center for suspected enemies. After the war, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924, which put a quota on the number of immigrants allowed into the country and the number of newcomers sharply declined. Ellis Island was converted from an immigrant processing center to a detention and deportation center, a hospital during World War II, and a Coast Guard Training Center.

In 1954, the last detainee was released from Ellis Island and the “Gateway to America” closed its doors on Nov. 12, after processing more than 12 million immigrants.

Tens of millions of Americans can trace their roots through Ellis Island. Today, Ellis Island is part of the Statute of Liberty National Monument and site of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum.

Did My Ancestors Go Through Ellis Island?

Arriving at Ellis Island, Bain News Service, publisher, Library of Congress, Jan. 1, 1915

Third-class and steerage immigrants coming through the Port of New York were the largest group processed at Ellis Island. These passengers underwent medical and legal inspections to ensure they would not become a burden to the government and that they were not infected with a contagious disease.

First- and second-class immigrants were processed onboard ships entering New York Harbor due to their higher financial status and lower risk of carrying dangerous diseases or having significant health issues. These immigrants submitted to a brief shipboard inspection and then disembarked at the piers in New York where they passed through Customs.

Approximately 2 percent of all immigrants were denied entrance into the United States.

Immigration Record Details

Immigrant passenger lists can provide valuable genealogical information. Passenger lists prior to 1891 typically included the name of immigrant, age, sex, occupation, country of origin, port of departure, date and port of arrival, and name of the vessel.

Further information was added to lists and records published in subsequent years, and included biographical details such as: 

  • Immigrant’s nationality
  • Place of birth
  • Ship name
  • Date of entry to the United States
  • Physical description (age, height, eye, and hair color)
  • Profession
  • Town of last residence
  • Names and addresses of relatives in their former country
  • Final destination (name and address of relatives they plan to join in the United States)
  • Personal belongings, including amount of cash they are carrying

You may find markings, codes, and annotations written on passenger lists. A good resource for explaining these markings is the “Guide to Interpreting Passenger List Annotations,” by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Where to Find New York Immigration Records

The original United States Customs records are held by the National Archives and Records Administration in two microfilm publications: M237, Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, New York, 1820-1897; and M261, Index to Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, New York, 1820-1846. Both of these publications have been digitized and indexed and are available through the resources noted below.

Researchers should note that these databases are not identical, so querying multiple lists may be needed. In addition, keep in mind that some vessels docked at more than one port. For instance, a ship stopping first in Boston may have gone on to New York. Check indexes for multiple ports if you’re having difficulty finding your ancestors. 

National Archives Databases

The following free searchable database is available through the National Archives. 

  • Ellis Island. Created by the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island Foundation, this online searchable database contains entries for 22.5 million arrivals to New York between 1892 and 1924. Registration is required, but it’s free. You can view scanned images of passenger manifests. You can also purchase copies through the site. 

FamilySearch Databases

The following lists are FREE and available online through FamilySearch.  

  • 1820-1891 New York, Passenger Lists. Passenger lists for over 13 million immigrants arriving in New York City from 1820 through 1891 through Castle Garden.
  • 1892-1924 New York, Passenger Arrival Lists (Ellis Island). Name index to lists of 25 million people (not just immigrants) who arrived at Ellis Island, Port of New York, 1892-1924. In addition, this database includes a link to images of arrival lists at the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island website.
  • 1909, 1925-1957 New York, New York Passenger and Crew Lists. Images of passenger arrivals in New York Harbor. Records include aircraft arrivals.

If you need any research assistance using the FamilySearch collections, contact the Family History Library. On Tuesday, July 6, the Family History Library staff in Salt Lake City, Utah, will be resuming their operations following COVID closure. Their staff will be offering patron assistance through their free virtual consultations. These are free, 20-minute consultations via Zoom. Hours are Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. 

Ancestry Databases

If you are an Ancestry.com subscriber, they have also indexed the New York Passenger Lists by ships arriving to New York from foreign ports from 1820-1957. You can search by passenger name and view scanned images of the passenger lists. If you are not a subscriber, Ancestry is also available for free use at many public libraries and the National Archives research facilities (some research rooms remain closed due to the coronavirus, please call ahead). 

Ancestry also has an index-only collection titled “All U.S. and Canada, Passenger and Immigration Lists Index, 1500s-1900s” for those seeking pre-1820 information. 

Other Subscription-Based Sites

In case you’re already a subscriber, there are other paid subscription sites or fee-for-service programs that have New York immigration data from 1820-1957, either in index-only or index and images format, including: FindMyPast, MyHeritage, and USCIS Genealogy Program

Transcriber’s Guild

Another fantastic resource that lists passengers by vessel is offered by the Immigrant Ships Transcriber’s Guild, New York, New York.  So if you already know the name of the ship your relative arrived on or the year, this is a way to expedite your search. What is unique about this site is that you can view the entire manifest at-a-glance to look for other possible relatives on the same ship.

Shipwrecked Passengers Bound for America

Passengers from ships destined for New York but were shipwrecked are probably not recorded in the immigration stations’ records, even if passengers survived and were transported aboard a different ship.

Scholar Frank A. Biebel combed through newspapers and other sources to identify and publish a list of lost immigrants from 339 shipwrecks. He states that the Steerage Act “made no provision for the inevitable shipwrecks, including survivors,” leaving most of the victims as unknown. You can search through the records Biebel discovered at Shipwrecked Passengers Bound for the Americas, 1817-1875

Other Genealogy Sources

It can also be useful to research other genealogy sources to aid in your search for passenger arrivals. For example, Naturalization Records after 1906 can contain details regarding a person’s legal entry into the United States, such as the exact date and ship on which they arrived. 

Census records often show the year of immigration, but have proven a less reliable and accurate source.  

In 2020, the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society published the guide “Tracing Immigrants through the Port of New York: Early National Period to 1924.” This guide details the records and research strategies for use when tracing immigrants who passed through New York City. This guide is sold on their website, but you may also be able to access a copy through your library or a FamilySearch History Center (or one of their affiliate libraries).  

References

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