A few years ago, I wrote an article for Utah Genealogy Association’s CROSSROADS Magazine on how I determined the ports of arrival for a few of my immigrant ancestors. I had an older relative who assured me that all the family arrived in Ellis Island and later traveled to Chicago. However, after spending a great deal of time researching passenger lists and naturalization records, I realized that none of my ancestors ever arrived through Ellis Island when they immigrated into the U.S. This was a shock to many of my family members. They didn't arrive at Ellis Island? How could that be?
First, Ellis Island started processing immigrants on January 1, 1892. Prior to the opening of Ellis Island, Immigrants entered the port of New York through Castle Garden. This facility was located, in what is now the Battery in Manhattan and was the first New York immigration station from 1855-1890. So, if your ancestor arrived into the U.S. prior to 1892, they were never processed at Ellis Island! If they arrived in New York prior to 1892, most likely they went through Castle Garden.
In addition to the immigration facilities in New York, our ancestors also arrived at other ports including Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, San Francisco, Miami, Savannah and New Orleans. Many Irish immigrants landed not only in New York but also at Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore. If you can't find anything on your immigrant ancestor from the Ellis Island or Castle Garden records, it's a good idea to check the records from these other ports.
Ports in Canada were also used by our ancestors in their travels to North America. This would include many immigrants who proceeded into the U.S. These ports of entry included Quebec City, St. John, Halifax and North Sydney, Nova Scotia and Vancouver. Traveling from Ireland or England to Canada was a faster, less expensive and a safer way to immigrate to North America versus other U.S. ports. Traveling across the Atlantic back in the 19th century was far from safe with unexpected storms as well as poor onboard sanitation which resulted in the rapid spread of disease. Many were already ill when they boarded these ships. Diseases would then spread rapidly aboard these immigrant vessels.
The Library and Archives Canada holds passenger lists in its collection for the years 1865-1935. Some of these records are available on the website. The British government in Canada also had a quarantine station on the island of Grosse Île near Quebec City from 1832-1937. These records included births and burials at sea. These records are available for this location and for the other Canadian ports at http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/.
You can find more on Ellis Island and research their database at https://www.libertyellisfoundation.org/. The database for Castle Garden can be found at http://www.castlegarden.org/. Passenger and immigration lists are available on microfilm at the National Archives and its regional facilities. There are some passenger lists from New York locations available on the National Archives website https://www.archives.gov/. Other pay sites such as Ancestry.com also has passenger lists in their database at https://www.ancestry.com. Stephen Morse also has a great searchable index for Ellis Island, Castle Garden as well as the other immigration sites on his website http://stevemorse.org/.
As I mentioned, none of my ancestors ever arrived through Ellis Island. A few went through Boston, some arrived in Philadelphia and others sailed into Canada and proceeded into the U.S by train through places like Port Huron, Michigan.