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Overheard in GenForum: Castle Garden
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

August 23, 2001
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: I am seeking any information about "Castle Garden." I found my great-grandfather in the 1880 census saying he came from England and since Ellis Island wasn't open then, I'm guessing he came through Castle Garden. I can't seem to find any information about this place or its location. Any information would be a great help. -- Julie

A: Most people think that Ellis Island has existed since people started arriving on ship in New York. And in some cases, people assume that if someone immigrated to the United States, they had to go through the port of New York. This is a misconception.

There were a number of eastern seaboard ports that our ancestors used to arrive in the United States. In addition to the port of New York, passengers entered the country through Boston, Baltimore, and Philadelphia.

Castle Garden, the port before Ellis Island.

Castle Garden History

Castle Garden was officially opened on 1 August 1855. Before this, there was no set place where immigrants were processed. As the boats pulled into Manhattan, immigrants disembarked from wherever the ship was docked. There was no processing center as we understand it today from our exposure to Ellis Island.

Castle Garden was located on Manhattan, in Battery Park to be specific. It occupied the southwest tip of Manhattan. On the southeast tip of Manhattan sat the Barge Office. At two different times during the history of the port of New York, the Barge Office was used for processing immigrants.

Castle Garden was officially closed on 18 April 1890. By this time it was literally bursting at the seams in trying to handle the onslaught of immigrants swarming through the port of New York. Of course, Ellis Island did not open until 1 January 1892. During the interim eighteen months, immigrants were processed through the Barge Office.

The next time the Barge Office was used was when the wooden buildings on Ellis Island were destroyed by fire on 14 December 1897. The fire did not take any lives, but it rendered the recently built Ellis Island station useless until it was rebuilt. Rebuilding took two and a half years and Ellis Island reopened on 17 December 1900.

Other Ports

As I mentioned earlier, there are other eastern seaboard ports that were also busy admitting immigrants. Many people automatically think of Ellis Island when thinking of an immigrant and often times Ellis Island is used synonymously with the Port of New York. As researchers, though, we do our research a disservice by concentrating solely on the Port of New York.

For more on the different eastern seaboard ports, you may want to read Overheard on GenForum: Passengers: Moodys from Eng to US 1868. This article also looks at what you can expect to find, information-wise in passenger lists of that time period.

Castle Garden Online

In searching the Internet, I found a number of sites that deal specifically with the immigration center by combining the term "Castle Garden" (yes, with the quotation marks) and New York. Here are a few sites with pictures and information.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at rhondagen@thegenealogist.com.

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