Delve into the colourful history of Ellis Island and Castle Garden

3-4 minute read

By Jen Baldwin | September 1, 2020

Ellis Island and Castle Garden immigration

Ellis Island may be the most iconic immigration port in the world. Jen Baldwin provides essential information on both Ellis Island and Castle Garden to help you uncover your ancestor's immigration records.

Ellis Island. Neighbour to the Statue of Liberty. The place where millions of immigrants entered the United States for the first time. The mental picture that many of us form when we think about our family arriving in the New World. But Ellis Island was only one of many important ports at which immigrants arrived.

Understanding the history of immigration to North America is just as important as finding your ancestor’s passenger list or naturalisation record...and will help you to do just that.

Castle Garden came first

Before Ellis Island, there was Castle Garden. While the history of the two sites crosses over for several years, if you have earlier immigrants into America, you will certainly want to check the Castle Garden Immigration Index on Findmypast.

Built on the site of Fort Amsterdam, back when New York City was known as New Amsterdam, it is now part of Battery Park in lower Manhattan. On 1 August 1855, after years of use as a fort, fortifications, administrative headquarters for the Army, a beer garden and restaurant, exhibition hall, opera house, and a few other things, the Emigrant Landing Depot officially opened.

Castle Garden immigration

It was the nation’s first such entity and was run by the state of New York for many years. The federal government took over processing on 18 April 1890 and moved operations to Ellis Island shortly afterwards.

NYC immigration records

There was a great deal of scandal surrounding the immigration centre at Castle Garden and unfortunately, most of the records were destroyed in a fire on Ellis Island in 1897. It is generally believed that somewhere between 8-12 million people moved through Castle Garden as they arrived in NYC.

The Ellis Island story

Ellis Island officially opened in 1892 and saw around 12 million people before it closed in 1954. The site was the busiest immigration inspection station in the United States.

The island is actually connected by land to New Jersey. Originally, the land was used by the military and the US Army attempted to use the area for immigrants as early as 1847.

Ellis Island 1890s

Ellis Island Immigration Station circa. 1896

On 1 January 1892, the first official federal immigration station on Ellis Island opened. The first immigrant was 17-year-old Annie Moore from Cork, Ireland. Nearly 700 people passed through on that first day. Within five years, 1.5 million immigrants were processed. During its history, Ellis Island was the source of countless stories, rumours and scandals that are both forgotten and misconstrued today.

Ellis Island diary

G.M. Jeffries' personal experiences at Ellis Island were published by Sunday Post in 1923. Read the full article.

The site continued to be expanded on until the buildings we know today were completed.

In 1921, the Emergency Quota Act was passed and the number of immigrants declined in huge numbers, ending the era of mass migration. Eventually, the site was changed from a primary inspection centre to an immigration detention centre.

Is the Statue of Liberty on Ellis Island?

Today, the Statue of Liberty – Ellis Island Foundation and the National Park Service manage the Ellis Island and Statue of Liberty sites cooperatively.

Where did your ancestors land in America?

No matter what port they came in through, it couldn’t be easier to track your relatives' travels with the British & Irish Roots Collection, available only on Findmypast. This vast trove of handpicked records can help you discover where your family came from and where they settled.

We'd love to hear your family's Ellis Island and Castle Garden migration stories. Reach out to us using #FindmypastFeatured on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.

Article header photo credit: Inside the Registration Room in the Main Building at Ellis Island, Jen Baldwin, 2019.

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About the author

Jen Baldwin Findmypast genealogistJen Baldwin