Five major US ports welcomed passenger ships during the 19th and early 20th centuries: Baltimore, Boston, New Orleans, New York and Philadelphia. New York was seeing three-quarters of all arrivals by the 1880s, when the nation’s largest flood of immigration began. That’s why Ellis Island (and its precursor, Castle Garden, open from 1855 to 1890) gets so much attention.
But ships unloaded at more than 90 other ports on the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf coasts, as well as the Great Lakes—including Detroit; Galveston, Texas; Gloucester and New Bedford, Mass.; Gulfport and Pascagoula, Miss.; Key West, Fla.; Portland, Maine; Providence, RI; San Francisco; Savannah, Ga.; and Seattle. The National Archives and Records Administration has an online list of immigration ports for which passenger records exist.
Immigrants didn’t simply follow their countrymen’s leads; their destination ports often depended on such factors as what tickets cost, when the next ship was leaving, where their relatives had already settled, and where they’d heard jobs were available. So don’t limit your search to ports you’ve heard Germans or Swedes or Hungarians used. Instead, examine your research to see which destinations make the most sense for your family’s situation. And search for clues that suggest exactly where your ancestor arrived.
Boston is the oldest continuously active US port of arrival. Long before Massachusetts Bay Colony formed in 1630, American Indian tribes settled and traded there. After Europeans arrived, Boston became a busy place for passengers, cargo vessels, trading ships and the shipbuilding industry. It was the gateway for expanding the East Coast Colonies.
By the 1750s, the Mid-Atlantic Colonies were growing by leaps and bounds, and Philadelphia replaced Boston as the major center of arrival and trade. Not long after William Penn’s ship The Welcome landed on the shores of the Delaware River, Philadelphia became a leading center for trade and newcomers to the infant United States.
Founded in 1729, Baltimore received thousands of immigrants. It originally was established as a port to move crops along the Eastern Seaboard, as well as cargo to and from international destinations. Newcomers flocked to Baltimore partly because of its inland setting on the Chesapeake Bay—it was the closest Atlantic port to major Midwestern cities and manufacturing centers.
New Orleans became an epicenter of immigration and trading in the early 1700s, when the French owned Louisiana. People and cargo arrived at this port, then traveled north along the Mississippi River to their final destinations You might have heard that certain ethnic groups favored certain ports—for example, Boston was a popular destination for Irish immigrants. But keep in mind that each port has ushered in immigrants of just about every nationality and ethnic background. For example, the greatest influx of Italians came through the port of New York, but significant numbers also disembarked in New Orleans, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Boston.