Ellis Island seems to receive all the publicity for immigrants arriving in New York City. Many people do not realize that Ellis Island did not begin operations until 1892. More than 73 million Americans can trace their ancestry to immigrants who arrived in New York City prior to that year. From 1830 until 1890, these new arrivals first stepped ashore at Castle Garden in lower Manhattan.
The site of Castle Garden remains as one of the oldest public open spaces in continuous use in New York City. American Indians fished from its banks, and the first Dutch settlers built a low stone wall with cannons as a battery to protect the harbor and New Amsterdam. The stone wall was later converted to a street that is now the well-known financial center called Wall Street.
The Castle Garden immigration processing center started operation in 1830. By 1890, the arriving throngs were overcrowding the center, and there was no room to expand the facility since the ocean and the city surrounded it.
After reviewing several possible sites, the United States government selected Ellis Island for the establishment of a new federal immigration center for New York. On the island, it would be easier to screen and protect the new immigrants before they proceeded out onto the streets of Manhattan. Castle Garden processed its last immigrant in April 1890.
After the closing of Castle Garden in 1890, immigrants were processed at an old barge office in Manhattan until the opening of the Ellis Island Immigration Center on January 1, 1892. Then a huge fire at Ellis Island occurred during the night of June 14, 1897. The fire burned the entire immigration complex to the ground. Nobody was hurt, and nobody knows why it happened or who started it. However, many state and federal records were lost in that fire.
Immigration processing was moved back to the old barge office in Manhattan while Ellis Island was being rebuilt. In December of 1900, the new Main Building on Ellis Island was opened, and 2,251 immigrants were received that day. In a single day in 1907, 11,747 immigrants were processed at Ellis Island. .
Castle Garden was soon forgotten by almost everyone, with the exception of those who processed through the facility and later generations of family genealogists. Castle Garden was soon converted to other uses. A theater stood on the site for many years and was used by the likes of Phineas T. Barnum. Today it is a city park, called Battery Park, and is the departure point for the ferry to the Statue of Liberty. Today's Battery Park is actually bigger now than it once was, having been extended into the harbor over the years by landfill.
While the Ellis Island fire of 1897 did destroy some of the records of Castle Garden, the ships' manifest records of those years survived.
Now the Battery Conservancy has created an online database of information about 10 million immigrants for the years 1830 through 1892, the years before Ellis Island opened. All these records are extracted from the original ship manifests. If you are one of the more than 73 million Americans who are descended from those who entered at Castle Garden, you can probably find your ancestors in this database.
This week I went to the Castle Garden site and conducted several searches with great success. I found that the site's free "Quick Search" allows you to search by first name, last name, date range, place of origin, occupation, and name of ship. You can search by any combination of those elements. Anything that is unknown can be left blank. The result will be a display of all the matches to the parameters you supply.
As usual, I started with my own surname. A few seconds later I was looking at a list of 78 immigrants who share the same last name as mine. I was a bit disappointed to find that one immigrant was listed with a first name of "Mr." while his wife's first name was listed as "Mrs." Another's first name was listed as "Professor," and a fourth seemed to have the first name of "Unknown." However, the rest of the entries had true first names or initials listed, as expected.
By clicking on menu items, I found that Professor Eastman was 34 years old when he arrived from Liverpool, England, on the ship Abyssinia on February 17, 1871. He was a music professor. Perhaps that is enough information for a descendant to make the connection, even without a listed first name.
The following is an example of a more typical entry:
Port: Liverpool & Queenstown
The Quick Search that I used allows you to easily find an individual or family. Quick Searches are free of charge.
The site also offers Advanced Searches: the ability to search the database using more fields. An Advanced Search allows everything that a Quick Search allows, plus the ability to search by gender, age upon arrival, and destination. The site states that Advanced Searches are "ideal for scholars and those interested in genealogical research." An Advanced Search costs $45.
Unless you are searching for a very common surname, I suspect that the free Quick Searches will suffice for most genealogists.
CastleGarden.org is a great resource for educators, scholars, students, family historians, and the interested public. The site currently has 10 million records in its database, with another 2 million records yet to be entered. Donations are solicited to help maintain this site for all.
For more information about the online Castle Garden immigration database or to search the records yourself, go to http://castlegarden.org