Castle Garden: Immigration Before Ellis Island


Did your immigrant ancestors land at Castle Garden or Ellis Island? Or did they arrive in New York before those facilities existed? The answer matters because it determines where you should look for them in records.

Don’t worry—New York passenger lists for all those eras are available for free on FamilySearch. This history of Castle Garden can help you understand which collections you should search and what your ancestors’ experience may have been like.

Immigration before 1855

Between 1790 and 1820, an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 people freely immigrated to the United States each year. They traveled on sailing ships that were often dangerously overcrowded and without adequate provision for passengers’ health and comfort. Starting in 1820, to ensure safer traveling conditions, ship captains had to provide passenger lists to U.S. customs officials.

This new rule didn’t protect immigrants at the docks in New York City, where many landed. After weeks on board, the exhausted, seasick travelers were often met by thieves and others who preyed on the arrivals’ ignorance about their new home. Many travelers were swindled, robbed, or herded toward undesirable jobs and accommodations.

History of Castle Garden Emigrant Landing Depot

The Castle Garden Emigrant Landing Depot was the first USA immigration station.

In the 1850s, New York City and state officials pooled their efforts to create a more protective landing experience. Their solution was the country’s first immigration station: the Emigrant Landing Depot at Castle Garden. At the time, Castle Garden was already a local landmark. Originally a military fort on an artificial island, the city had filled in land to connect it to Manhattan and turned the old fort into a theater and restaurant complex. (World-famous opera singer Jenny Lind performed there in 1850.)

Castle Garden opened to immigrants in 1855 on the eve of a dramatic wave of European immigration. During the next 35 years, more than 8 million people passed through Castle Garden, especially from Germany and Ireland, and later from Italy and Eastern Europe. The place was a cultural cacophony. According to the New York Historical Society, Yiddish immigrants coined the term “Kesselgarden” from their experience here, meaning “any space that was noisy, chaotic, and confusing.”

Ellis Island Replaces Castle Garden

Some of this chaos can be chalked up to so many new arrivals crowding together from so many different countries. Additionally, the Immigration Act of 1882 imposed new immigrant screening requirements for which the facility was ill-equipped. Dishonest employees made things worse for immigrants, too. Castle Garden wasn’t always the safe haven it was meant to be.

In 1890, the federal government took over immigrant processing, citing corruption at Castle Garden as one reason. Castle Garden’s Emigrant Landing Depot closed. A temporary facility opened at the nearby Barge Office while the new Ellis Island Immigration Station was being built. When that facility opened in 1892, it ushered in an even more massive wave of migration.

Castle Garden and Ellis Island Immigration Records

Whether your ancestors arrived in New York before, during, or after the Castle Garden era, you can now search for them in free FamilySearch record collections:

New York Passenger Lists (Castle Garden) 1820–1891

This collection combines surviving passenger lists for those who arrived during the Castle Garden era with previous New York arrivals (back to 1820) and federal records kept before Ellis Island opened. You can search the name index for your ancestors or browse the record images.

New York Passenger Arrival Lists (Ellis Island) 1892–1924

Search for your immigrant ancestors in this index of names and record images for immigrants who passed through Ellis Island from its beginning until 1924.

New York, New York Passenger and Crew Lists 1925–1957

These post-Ellis Island passenger lists include nearly 29 million indexed names of international arrivals in New York Harbor and at New York airports, and are linked to 5 million respective images of the original records.

Passenger arrival lists from Castle Garden can help in your search for your ancestors.

Research Tips

When searching these collections, use whatever clues you already know about your immigrant ancestors to identify them on passenger lists. These tips may help:

  • Their year of arrival may appear on U.S. censuses. Overseas birthplaces may appear in obituaries, church records, or other records.
  • Information about their friends and family who came from the same place may provide additional clues.
  • Name spellings were generally inconsistent in the 1800s, and mistakes could have occurred with language or literacy barriers. Search with various name spellings, and consider results that seem possible, even if the spelling isn’t familiar to you.
  • Though most immigrants during this time period arrived in New York, not all did. Port of arrivals may be listed on your ancestors’ naturalization records. (This article on U.S. passenger lists may help direct you to records of other ports.)

Ready to get started? Begin searching for your ancestors:

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About the Author
Sunny Jane Morton teaches family history to global audiences as a speaker and writer. She is a contributing editor at Family Tree Magazine (U.S.) and content manager for Your DNA Guide. She is co-author of How to Find Your FamilyHistory in U.S. Church Records and author of Story of My Life: A Workbook for Preserving Your Legacy. Find her at