“Ellis Island” and “immigrant” have become synonymous. But not all immigrants entered America through the famous federal immigration facility in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty.
The federal government didn’t even start keeping track of immigrant passenger arrivals until 1820. A number of references, however, do compile state and local lists of arriving immigrants. For a guide to these and other tips on tracing your immigrant ancestors, see the December 2000 issue of Family Tree Magazine.
From 1855 to 1890, some 8 million immigrants via the Port of New York came through Castle Garden at www.nps.gov/cacl/. These records, along with those dating from 1820, are available on microfilm at the National Archives and Records Administration at www.nara.gov, 700 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20408, and its 13 regional offices. Copies of the microfilm are also available from the Family History Library at www.familysearch.org and its local Family History Centers nationwide. Pre-Ellis Island records are indexed only from 1820 to 1846, however. (This is important because not all the other ports are completely indexed pre-Ellis Island.)
Ellis Island opened in 1892 and served during the peak years of US immigration, until 1924, when immigration processing was moved abroad under the direction of US consulates. If you’re not sure whether your ancestor came through Ellis Island and thus is included in the new database at www.ellisislandrecords.org, your family’s ethnicity offers a good clue. Though Ellis Island welcomed immigrants from everywhere, it opened after the largest influx from Germany, Scandinavia, Great Britain and Ireland. And by 1900, emigrants from Austria-Hungary, Italy and Russia had supplanted northern Europeans as the chief sources of new Americans. Immigrants from these three nations alone made up 75 percent of the Ellis Island traffic in its busiest year, 1907, when more than 1 million came through.
In short, if your ancestors came from eastern or southern Europe, the odds are good they’re among the 17 million in the new Ellis Island database. Keep in mind, though, that New York was the largest but not the only doorway into America. From 1910 to 1940, 250,000 mostly Asian immigrants entered through the “Ellis Island of the West” in San Francisco, Angel Island at www.angelisland.org. Boston and Baltimore were other popular ports. Passenger arrival lists for these alternate destinations are kept at the National Archives.