Posted by Juliana Szucs on April 6, 2015 in Website
City of New York, 1856. (Castle Garden at the bottom left). Sketched and drawn on stone by C. Parsons (Currier & Ives). From the U.S. Map Collection, 1513-1990 on Ancestry
City of New York, 1856. (Castle Garden at the bottom left). Sketched and drawn on stone by C. Parsons (Currier & Ives). From the U.S. Map Collection, 1513-1990 on Ancestry

Our immigrant ancestors’ journey to America is an important part of the family story. Your ancestor probably entered through any of the more than 70 federal immigrant stations located along the country’s shores, the most famous of which was New York. In our latest free research guide, we’ve gathered interesting details you might not know about 6 major U.S. immigration ports – New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, Galveston, New Orleans, and San Francisco. Here are just a few:

New York: Quarantine

Prior to July 1855, there was no immigrant processing station at New York. Passengers and crew were inspected onboard by a health official and if any were infected with an infectious disease, all passengers and crew were sent to the “Quarantine” on Staten Island. Built in 1799, the Quarantine was a compound of hospitals surrounded by six-foot high wall in Tompkinsville.

From the start, the residents of Staten Island resented the Quarantine, blaming it for disease in the surrounding communities. In September of 1858, a mob burned down the hospitals. Following the blaze, the quarantine station was relocated to a large ship, the Florence Nightengale, which was anchored in the Atlantic Ocean. In 1866, the quarantine station was again relocated to Hoffman and Swinburne Islands, where it remained until moving to Ellis Island in 1920.

Philadelphia: Geography

Located more than 100 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, Philadelphia would seem an unlikely candidate as a major immigration port of entry, but 1.3 million immigrants passed through the port. The route took immigrants around Cape May at the foot of New Jersey, into Delaware Bay and up the Delaware River to Philadelphia, adding more than 200 miles to the journey from Europe. And the route wasn’t without its hazards. The Delaware River often froze over during winter, limiting early immigration to warmer months

Baltimore: A Transportation Network Is Born

During the 19th century, a robust transportation network began taking shape in Baltimore. By 1818, the National Road (also called Cumberland Road) linked Cumberland, Maryland, with Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia). Baltimore completed a series of turnpikes in 1824 that ultimately connected the Chesapeake Bay to the Ohio River. The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (B&O) began serving passengers in the late 1820s and by 1852 had reached Wheeling as well. These inland transportation routes, coupled with Baltimore’s geographic location as the westernmost seaport on the East Coast, made Baltimore an attractive port of entry for immigrants seeking a route to the U.S. interior.

Galveston: The Immigrants

Beginning in the 1830s and 1840s, groups of Swedish and Norwegian immigrants began arriving in Texas, with many entering via Galveston. During this same period, large groups of Germans were also settling in Texas, predominately in the Galveston/Houston areas, with some moving on to San Antonio. Competing with Galveston as ports of entry were Matagorda, Velasco, Aransas, Corpus Christi, and Indianola, but European immigration via Galveston continued to increase.

Between 1907 and 1914, Jews escaping the Russian pogroms were encouraged to immigrate through Galveston because there were fears that an influx of Jewish immigrants through the more popular Atlantic ports would result in a wave of anti-Semitism. It is estimated that 10,000 Jewish immigrants passed through Galveston during this period.

New Orleans: Return Trip Immigration

The city of New Orleans quickly rose to prominence as a commercial center as exports like cotton and other agricultural products from the South left for trade centers in Europe. On the return trips captains offered a cheaper passage than some other routes. Although the trip was longer than the journey to some other ports, the price was right for many Irish, German, and French immigrants.

In the early 1800s, steamboat travel enabled travel upstream from New Orleans through the lower Mississippi River Valley, and this provided a convenient route to the fertile lands of the Mississippi Valley.  The steamships brought produce from the interior to New Orleans for export and return trips northward brought many of the immigrants who had arrived through New Orleans into the American heartland on the next leg of their journey.

San Francisco: Gold Rush Immigration Sea Routes

In 1848, the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in California triggered a migration of more than 300,000 people to the gold fields. While a few made their fortunes through side ventures, most worked very hard for very little. Those who went faced dangers from disease, accidents, and violence.

With so many people flocking to California in search of gold, every available means of transportation was employed. For those coming from the east coast of the U.S. or Europe, some chose to make the trip by sea, rather than face the long trek across the United States. But the voyage by sea had its perils as well. The sea voyage could mean a trip around Cape Horn, where ships were tossed in turbulent, windy, and iceberg-filled waters, and were often blown near Antarctica.

The trip could take up to eight months and onboard conditions were horrid. Food spoiled quickly in the equatorial heat, and worms and rodents got into supplies. Skilled captains might be able to shorten the trip by traveling the Straits of Magellan, a sea passage around the tip of South America, but this, too, was considered a dangerous trip. The narrowness of the passage at certain points made it a difficult route to navigate.

A shorter trip took passengers to Panama, where they embarked on canoes to navigate the Chagres River. From there, things were more difficult, as the remainder of the passage to the Pacific meant a 50-mile hike through the Panamanian jungle where gold seekers were at risk of contracting cholera, malaria, and yellow fever. Those who survived this leg of the journey often arrived in Panama City to find a shortage of ships. This meant that they would have to wait, sometimes for weeks, to obtain passage on a northbound ship to California.

Want to learn more?  We’ve got more interesting information on these six ports and tips for locating your ancestor’s arrival record in the largest online collection of passenger lists.

Download our free guide here.

Juliana Szucs

Juliana Szucs has been working for for more than 20 years. She began her family history journey trolling through microfilms with her mother at the age of 11. She has written many articles for online and print genealogical publications and wrote the "Computers and Technology" chapter of The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Juliana holds a certificate from Boston University's Online Genealogical Research Program.


    • Juliana Szucs

      Toni, Thanks for pointing out the oversight of Ward’s Island. While not a processing station, some of the passengers who arrived ill or destitute at Castle Garden were shipped to Ward’s Island as well as the Quarantine on Staten Island. There is more information on the conditions there in Terry Coleman’s Coming To America. I’ll update the guide with a mention of Ward Island.

  1. John Bowman

    My great-great-grandfather was Harbor Master of New York when the scene at the top of this post was created. His great-great-great-great-great-grandfather arrived in Nieuw Amsterdam in 1623. Without, I did not know this. What a wonderful resource this is.

  2. Royce

    My Grandfather came through Ellis Island from Nusco Italy on
    Aug 30, 1900 on the EMS alone at 12 years old. Any info about the port on this date I would love to have like how he would have gotten to Maryland, Thank you so much for what you have given us so far.

  3. Louise

    If anyone is looking for info on immigrants that came through Galveston, keep in mind that the island’s public library’s special collections (Galveston & Texas History Center) are still very much physical-only… they’ve only recently started upgrading their archives system and digitizing some of the more interesting bits of their collections, which means you have to visit in person or call and speak to an archivist if you’re looking for stuff on your ancestors! 🙂

  4. Hi – I was looking for my mother’s arrival at the port of Boston, out of Halifax N.S. on or about Christmas day 1927 or 1928. Her name was Mary Theresa O’Leary and she embarked on her trip here in St. Johns, Newfoundland. If you can be of any help, I would be grateful. A.B. Salvato

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