Castle Garden: America’s Lesser-Known Immigration Center

Family History
15 September 2023
by Ancestry® Team

For many people, the name Ellis Island conjures up images of multitudes of immigrants stepping on American soil with little more than the clothes on their backs and a burning desire to pursue the American dream. But, prior to the opening of Ellis Island, more than 8 million immigrants passed through a lesser-known site in New York—Castle Garden, the country’s first official immigration station.

Before 1855, the United States had no formally designated immigrant receiving centers. Immigrants who arrived by ship simply disembarked wherever it docked and disappeared into their new life. Castle Garden changed all that.

If you’re researching your family’s history, Castle Garden immigration records can provide important information about relatives who arrived in the Port of New York prior to the opening of Ellis Island. In fact, Castle Garden’s archive of records may go back as far as the early 1800s, documenting immigrants arriving in New York prior to the existence of a formal immigration center. 

From Fortification to America’s First Immigration Center

Before Castle Garden became America’s first official immigration center, the site protected New York City against possible attack from the British Navy. The fort, known as Southwest Battery, rested off the southern tip of Manhattan. However, its 28 cannons never fired upon an enemy, and in 1823, the land became property of the city, which transformed it into a public entertainment center called Castle Garden. At that time, it featured a promenade and an exhibition hall.

As the United States began to firm up its immigration policies in the mid-1800s, Castle Garden was repurposed as an immigrant processing center. Known as the Emigrant Landing Depot, it registered more than 8 million individuals who arrived in the country by ship. From its opening in 1855 to its closing in 1890, when immigration became a national matter, approximately two out of three U.S. immigrants, predominantly of European origin, passed through the doors of Castle Garden.

Those who arrived within its stone walls were checked for signs of contagious diseases and then registered by clerks who took down vital information, such as their country of origin and their final destination. These new arrivals could then purchase steamboat or railroad tickets to various U.S destinations, exchange currency, or take advantage of the center’s concession stand and public bathing facilities. They could also head to a nearby labor exchange to wait for work.  

Although Castle Garden was designed to be helpful to immigrants, it could also be chaotic and/or dangerous. Travelers who found themselves here could easily fall victim to rampant corruption and theft. Castle Garden was also no place for weary immigrants to rest, as they had no place for them to lay their heads and were required to leave by nightfall.  

Castle Garden to Ellis Island and Beyond

Landing at Ellis Island, 1902, Library of Congress[1]
Landing at Ellis Island, 1902, Library of Congress[1]
Toward the end of the 1800s, religious persecution and economic woes led to mass emigration from Europe. Unprepared for the volume of immigration, Castle Garden eventually closed its doors.

The federal government, which had recently begun taking over immigrant processing, began constructing a new immigration center on nearby Ellis Island. During the lengthy transition, the Barge Office at the Battery served as a temporary way station for immigrants. Ellis Island, which opened to immigrants on January 1, 1892, would serve more than 12 million people over the next 62 years. 

However, unlike the Castle Garden era, when immigrants required no visas or passports, those who arrived at Ellis Island had a higher chance of being deported. This was particularly true in the Roaring ’20s and beyond, when the government tightened down on immigration quotas. Consequently, Ellis Island began processing fewer immigrants. Finally, after serving as a detention center for deportees, Ellis Island finally closed its doors in 1954.

Today, the site, which is now known as Castle Clinton National Monument, is home to the Ellis Island Immigration Museum and the Statue of Liberty’s ticket office. It receives more than 3 million visitors each year. 

Preserving History: Castle Garden and Ellis Island Immigration Records and Research

Castle Garden and Ellis Island immigration archives include about 65 million records cataloging passengers and crew arriving at the Port of New York between 1820 and 1957. Although a fire in June 1897 destroyed ship manifests and federal and state immigration records dating back to 1855, customs lists from this time period are still available. 

These records contain the name, age, and country of origin of each new arrival. The Ellis Island Foundation also maintains an extensive oral history library. Ancestry® has a collection of 2,000 oral histories collected by the Ellis Island Foundation, which chronicles the New York immigrant experience from 1892 and beyond. 

You can access images of passenger lists by searching the collection of  passenger and crew lists on Ancestry.  These images capture each passenger’s given name, surname, gender, age, port of departure, ship names, and arrival date and port. Later records may include additional information, such as hair color and the amount of money a person was carrying.

For example, a Castle Garden passenger search for the surname Guignard returns more than 200 results for exact matches. These results can be narrowed down by ethnicity, country of origin, and other filters, or they may be broadened to account for spelling errors that occurred during an imperfect registration process.

How Castle Garden and Ellis Island Records Can Enhance Family History Research

Castle Garden Landing for Emigrants, Barge Office, Battery, 1850, Wikimedia Commons[2]
Castle Garden Landing for Emigrants, Barge Office, Battery, 1850, Wikimedia Commons[2]
As the first official immigration center in the United States, Castle Garden served as a way station for the millions of hopeful immigrants who arrived on American soil in the mid-1800s. There, after their arrival was recorded, they could wash, eat, and purchase additional travel tickets before moving on to their final destination.

Dating back to the 1820s, records of immigration at Castle Garden can help you gain a clearer picture of where your ancestors came from and where they were headed, so you can trace their next steps into their new lives. Ellis Island and Castle Garden records can also help you discover what types of ancestors may be on your family tree, helping you better understand who you are today.

Start a Castle Garden search or see if your ancestors came through Ellis Island when you sign up for your Ancestry free trial today.