Now What? Ellis Island Alternatives

By Sharon DeBartolo Carmack Premium

Q. By what routes or under what conditions, other than via Ellis Island, might immigrants have entered the United States between 1880 (before Ellis Island opened) and 1892 (after it was activated)?

A. In the 19th century, the five major ports of arrival receiving significant numbers of newcomers were Baltimore, Boston, New Orleans, New York and Philadelphia, with New York receiving three-fourths of all arrivals by the 1880s. Also in use throughout the 19th and well into the 20th century were about 96 other ports on the Atlantic, Pacific, Gulf Coast and Great Lakes. Some of these records survive.

Prior to the mid-19th century, no immigrant inspection stations existed. Then in 1855, Castle Garden, located on an island off the southern tip of Manhattan, opened. Here, short inspections and medical examinations of arriving passengers took place. Castle Garden gave way to Ellis Island in 1892. The two most famous inspection stations were New York’s Ellis Island (1892 to 1957) and San Francisco’s Angel Island (1910 to 1940). New York was the busiest port, receiving up to 5 million immigrants in a single year.

Keep in mind that some arriving vessels docked at more than one port, stopping first in Boston, for example, and then making a final arrival in New York. Check indexes for all ports if you’re having trouble finding your ancestors.

Many immigrant families arrived through Canadian ports, some settling for a time in Canada before coming to the United States. The US government kept no records of border crossing until 1895. By then, the US government realized that about 40 percent of those who arrived in Canada had the United States as their final destination.

Most original passenger arrival lists, recorded from 1820 to 1957, and the Canadian border crossings have been microfilmed and are available through the National Archives, the Family History Library in Salt Lake City and its Family History Centers. The National Archives’ regional records services facilities have films for the ports in their jurisdiction. Immigrant and Passenger Arrivals: A Select Catalog of National Archives Microfilm Publications details the availability of records and indexes for each port. This catalog is available on the National Archives’ Web site <>, or you should be able to locate a copy at most genealogical libraries.

From the April 2003 issue of Family Tree Magazine.