Whether you are trying to get more details on a particular ancestor who immigrated to the United States or your just at the beginning stages of researching your family history, odds are high that one or more of your ancestors came through New York City. Almost a third of all Americans, 100 million people, are related to immigrants who entered the United States at Ellis Island. When we include Castle Garden, New York City’s original immigration station, it is clear that more than a third of all Americans can trace their ancestry to immigrants who arrived in New York. Overall, between 1855 and 1954, 20 million people arrived in the city of New York. The passenger records of those arrivals are available online and in many cases are very detailed.
Your first stop in your research efforts, in person or online, should be at Ellis Island, the first federal immigration station in the United States. Anyone interested in history should visit and search the Ellis Island passenger database. 12 million immigrants came through this port between 1892-1954. Along with the usual information of name, gender, age, and nationality, the records provide you with the port of departure, the ship name, the last place of residence, expected destination, the number of pieces of baggage and the date of death if your ancestor died during the voyage.
I found the passenger’s list to be very helpful in my research. When I searched the database, I looked for ancestors on my mother’s side, Armstrongs, from County Tyrone, Ireland who took up residence in Providence, Rhode Island. I found Francis Armstrong, listed as a 29 year old women from County Tyrone who could read and write and sailed on the ship, City of Rome, from Londonderry with two pieces of luggage. She listed her occupation as a student and final destination after processing, as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her basic information suggested a possible connection, but once I saw her destination as Pittsburgh, the possibilities seemed less likely. It is possible that she changed her plans and went to Providence or that she moved there after living in Pittsburgh for a short time. Though I did not find a definitive answer on my relation to Francis, knowing the intended destination opened a new line of family research for me. The Ellis Island database also provided another important lead, it disclosed that immigrants from County Tyrone sailed out of Londonderry, which means that my ancestors very well may have taken passage on the ship, City of Rome, on a different date. Because Ellis Island provides detailed information on each ship, I could visualize what the journey and living conditions might have been like for immigrants such as Francis Armstrong.
If you have checked the Ellis Island passenger lists, but come up empty-handed, do not give up, it may be that your ancestors immigrated to the United States through the port of New York City before 1892. The first immigration center in the United States and New York, was at the lesser know Castle Garden, located at the tip of Manhattan. 8 million people entered the United States here from 1855-1890. What makes this database unique is the fact that they have immigration records from before Castle Garden opened and after it closed. The database contains information on a 11 million immigrants and covers the years 1820 to 1913. Therefore, a search of Castle Garden and Ellis Island passenger records gives you access to 134 years of ship’s records and a higher likelihood of finding relevant information about your family history
A cursory search for Armstrong ancestors at Castle Garden did not yield any new leads, but did disclose, that instead of departing from Londonderry, earlier immigrants from County Tyrone, departed from Liverpool, England. For those leaving the county in the early years, the trip to America was certainly more costly. Especially, for someone like John Armstrong who paid for his own ticket. As the image below shows, these earlier records contain information not in the Ellis Island records, such as the name and address of relatives left behind in Ireland and names, cities and addresses of relatives in America. Such details can help you verify information you have collected in your earlier research and sometimes allows you to correct misinformation that a relative unwittingly told you. Unfortunately, like John Armstrong’s record, not all passengers told the inspectors details about their relatives in Ireland and America.
The Castle Garden database can be useful in asking larger questions about immigration and your family history. In my case, I wanted to not only find information on my ancestors and what city they sailed from, but also, how many people left County Tyrone for America. According to the records which have survived, 1,240 citizens of County Tyrone, Ireland sailed to America and were processed in New York City. Though it is likely that more people came from that area than are recorded, it was useful to see the actual names of people behind the numbers.
In conclusion, if you still haven’t found the ancestor and answers you have been looking for, visit, in person or online, Ellis Island and Castle Garden. Good luck on your research and let me know what you find.
Written by Sean T. Moore, Historian
My History Matters
To search Castle Garden records. http://castlegarden.org/
To search Ellis Island records. http://www.libertyellisfoundation.org/passenger