The First U.S. Immigrant Gateway
Julie Grates, Contibutor
October / November 2005
When many Americans think of their ancestors at long last arriving in New York Harbor and catching their first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty they assume that their predecessors then headed straight to Ellis Island to be processed. However, many of their relatives probably didn’t go to Ellis Island, but instead were sent to the little-known immigration center called Castle Garden at the Battery.
Castle Garden was the city’s first official debarkation point for immigrants, from 1855 until 1890. In 1892, Ellis Island took over the immigration process.
According to The New York Times, “More than one in six native-born Americans are descendants of the eight million immigrants who entered the United States through Castle Garden in Lower Manhattan.”
Castle Garden was originally built as a fort in case foreigners tried to attack New York. The fort was later renamed Castle Clinton after a former mayor and governor. Four years after being built, the army abandoned Castle Garden. The city added a roof and turned it into an opera house and theater.
In 1820, the U.S. government decided to start keeping records on all immigrants. The process was extremely chaotic, since there wasn’t an official center. In order to make the process more orderly, the state turned Castle Garden into an immigration center in 1855.
From 1855 to 1890, eight million immigrants passed through Castle Garden, mostly Germans, Irish, English, Scots, Swedes, Danes, Russians and Italians.
This year, Castle Garden celebrates its 150(th) anniversary. The Battery Conservancy was formed to rebuild the area into a 23-acre park. To celebrate the anniversary the Conservancy hosted a free music festival at the Castle during the end of July. The premise of the festival was to showcase all the different cultures that came to the United States during the Castle era. Different performers showcased the rhythms, beats and sounds of their respective cultures. Dublin native Susan McKeown, now residing in New York City, performed at the festival. The Irish Voice deemed her, “one of the most powerful and distinctive voices in Irish music.” Her music can be described as fusing traditional folk music with a harder contemporary adult rock sound.
In addition to creating a park at Castle Garden (or Castle Clinton as it is now called), and hosting a music festival, the Conservancy has also started a website to honor Castle Garden and its 150(th) anniversary.
Castlegarden.org is a free website, providing a database of 10 million of the 12 million immigrants who arrived at the Port of New York during 1820-1892. The website will be a great help for Americans looking to trace their genealogy ♦
My ancestors came by way of Canada, entering at Quebec as survivors of the sinking of the Hannah in April 1849. As the Americas encompass the US as well as Canada, it’d be interesting to hear from other descendants arriving by way of Canada.