US Immigration History

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History[edit | edit source]

Millions of immigrants have entered the United States, most arriving in the 18th and 19th centuries. Prior to 1890, individual states (rather than the federal government) regulated immigration into the United States. These regulation efforts were varied and inconsistent. In 1890, the federal government took official control of immigration and built a large immigration center on Ellis Island.[1]

Castle Garden[edit | edit source]

Castle Garden in New York City was the first official immigrant receiving station in the United States and was opened on August 1, 1855. Castle Garden operated as an Emigrant Landing Depot until April 18, 1890, when the United States government assumed control of immigrant processing. In total, the center processed approximately 8 million immigrants (mostly from northern and western Europe). [2][3][4]

  • When immigrants disembarked at Castle Garden, they had to register with their name, birth place, and destination.
  • A clerk at the Railway Agency would then purchase a railway ticket for the immigrant to travel to that destination. The immigrant's baggage would be weighed and checked to his destination.
  • Exchange brokers for immigrants to exchange foreign currency and a restaurant were also located at the center.
  • A station for letter-writing was also available, in which an immigrant could send a letter free-of-charge to inform family or friends of their arrival.
  • The Ward's Island and medicinal department was an important bureau at Castle Garden. There, immigrants without the means to support themselves would be cared for until assistance came from friends or the immigrants would be disposed of as laborers.
  • A large blackboard with the names of ships who were or would shortly be at port was kept for friends of the immigrants to know when they arrived and locate them.
  • The Labor Exchange was where immigrants, and others, could apply for and generally find employment.
  • Immigrants could also find boarding houses to rest for one or two days before heading out to their destinations.[5]


Castle Garden was a very busy and important immigrant receiving station. To illustrate, in 1869, 2884 letters written from immigrants to their friends were forwarded, over $41,000 was sent from these friends in return. Also in 1869, 4393 telegraph messages were forwarded, and 1351 answers were received. Also, 504 steamers and 209 sailing vessels arrived carrying passengers.[6]

Castle Garden Records[edit | edit source]

Records from Castle Garden can be found at The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, Inc.. Records (numbering around 11 million) range from 1820 to 1892.

Ellis Island[edit | edit source]

  • Ellis Island was designated as the site for the new immigrant screen station in 1890, in part because Castle Garden could no longer handle the flow of immigrants.[7] On January 1, 1892, Ellis Island opened in the New York Bay.

Ellis Island operated as the United States' official immigrant inspection station until 1954. The station was the gateway for over 12 million immigrants who entered into the United States.[8][9]

  • Ellis Island housed an immigrant receiving station, dormitories, hospitals, kitchens, a baggage station, an electrical plant, and a bath house.[10]
  • A fire broke out on June 15, 1897, destroying almost everything (including records). The island was closed until December 17, 1900 while it was being rebuilt.

Ellis Island Records[edit | edit source]

Records from Ellis Island can be found at www.libertyellisfoundation.org. Records (numbering around 51 million) range from 1820 to 1957.</span.

Legal History[edit | edit source]

  • Before 1820, any regulation of immigration was a function of the state.  "An Act to Regulate Passenger Ships and Vessels of 1819" was the first federal legislation to regulate how immigrants came into the United States. This act did not restrict anyone from coming in. Rather, it attempted to improve the conditions on board the ships on which incoming passengers came. By requiring the master of the ship to prepare a list of the incoming passengers, the government could get an idea of how much space existed on board for each passenger. The lists were to be prepared upon arrival in the United States and given to the customs official of that port. The lists came to be known as Customs Passenger Lists. This act mandated that these lists be copied each quarter and sent to the Secretary of State. These copies usually contain the name of vessel, name of port of embarkation, name of port of arrival, and the names of the passengers.
  • There were not any restrictions on immigration into the United States until 1875. In this year, Congress enacted legislation prohibiting two classes of aliens from entering the country: criminals and prostitutes.
  • The 1876 Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional for states to regulate immigration and to tax incoming passengers. Up to this time, the states had been head taxing incoming passengers to compensate for the public costs of imprisoning immigrants that became criminals and of housing insane immigrants.  By this ruling of the Supreme Court, these taxes would continue, but now under the regulation of the federal government.
  • The "Passenger Act of 1882" changed what information was to be included in the Customs Passenger List prepared by the master of the ship. There was also a federal immigration law issued in the year 1882. The Treasury Department was given administrative control over immigration. A 50 cent head tax to pay for public charges (taking care of the lunatic and the criminals) was also put in place.
  • By the Immigration Act of 1891, in addition to criminal and prostitutes, incoming polygamists and seriously contagious people were to be deported. The office of "Superintendent of Immigration" was created under the Treasury Department, which further centralized control of immigration to the federal government. Ship masters had to list name, nationality, last residence, and destination of every alien immigrant.
  • The Immigration Act of 1893 did not change restrictions from 1891 much, but required that ship manifests now be delivered to an inspector of immigration instead of a customs official.  Manifests were now to be made at the time & place of embarkation rather than at debarkation. To be included on this manifests were full name, age, sex; married or single; calling or occupation; able to read or write; nationality; last residence; sea port for landing in the US; final destination, if any, beyond the seaport of landing; who paid for the passage; whether in possession of money; whether going to join a relative and his name and address; whether ever before in the United States, and if so when and where; other facts that may cause the passenger to excluded.[11]

Statistics[edit | edit source]

The United States is a nation of immigrants of which a majority came from Europe. Between 1820 and 1974, 46,712,725 immigrants entered the United States; 76.8% of these immigrants were Europeans.

The following chart documents the number of European immigrants, their country of origin, and what percentage they were of all European immigrants:

Country Number of Immigrants Percentage
Germany* 6.95 million 28%
Italy 5.26 million 21%
Great Britain 4.84 million N/A
Ireland 4.72 million N/A
Austria-Hungary 4.31 million 17%
Russia 3.36 million 13%
Sweden 1.27 million 5%
Norway .85 million 4%
France .74 million 3%
Greece .62 million 2%
Poland .50 million 2%
Portugal .40 million 2%
Denmark .36 million 1%
Netherlands .36 million 1%
Switzerland .35 million 1%
Other European Countries 1.01 million N/A

* Germany led the world between 1820 and 1974 with 6.95 million of its people emigration to the United States; heavy German emigration also occurred to Argentina, Australia, Russia, Brazil, Canada, Uruguay, and Paraguay.

The following chart documents the number of immigrants from non-European countries and their country of origin:

Country Number of Immigrants
China .48 million
Japan .39 million
Turkey .38 million
India .09 million
Rest of Asia .81 million
Canada 4.04 million
Mexico 1.85 million
Central American 1.59 million
South America .58 million
Africa .10 million
Australia .11 million
Rest of World .41 million

[12]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. "Ellis Island History," The Statue of Liberty - Ellis Island Foundation, https://www.libertyellisfoundation.org/ellis-island-history
  2. Arbeiter, Nancy Levin. "The Port of New York Before Ellis Island". AVOTAYNU XXI (Fall 2005): 27-34.
  3. Wikipedia contributors, "Castle Clinton," Wikipedia: the Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Castle_Clinton, accessed 8 August 2018.
  4. "Ellis Island History," The Statue of Liberty - Ellis Island Foundation, https://www.libertyellisfoundation.org/ellis-island-history
  5. Krbechek, Blanche. "About Castle Garden: Notes from an 1871 Article." Kashubian Association of North America Newsletter (Summer 2008): 4-5.
  6. Krbechek, Blanche. "About Castle Garden: Notes from an 1871 Article." Kashubian Association of North America Newsletter (Summer 2008): 4-5.
  7. "The History of Ellis Island," GGD 45 (January 2006): 30-31.
  8. Wikipedia contributors, "Ellis Island," Wikipedia: the Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ellis_Island, accessed 8 August 2018.
  9. Arbeiter, Nancy Levin. "The Port of New York Before Ellis Island". AVOTAYNU XXI (Fall 2005): 27-34.
  10. "The History of Ellis Island," GGD 45 (January 2006): 30-31.
  11. Tepper, Michael H. American Passenger Arrival Records: A Guide to the Records of Immigrants Arriving at American Ports by Sail and Steam. Updated and enlarged. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing, 1993. (Family History Library book 973 W27am 1993.)'
  12. Parade Magazine, 24 January 1976.