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Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Castle Garden: The Precursor to Ellis Island

When we think of U.S. immigration, we often think of Ellis Island. But Ellis Island didn’t come into play until 1892. Millions of people came to the United States in the years prior.

From 1790 to 1820, immigration was virtually unregulated. It is estimated that between 5000 to 6000 people came freely to the young country. (These numbers do not include enslaved people.) Due to frequent overcrowding and often inadequate provisions on the ships that transported the newcomers, many of them arrived ill and exhausted.

In an effort to improve the conditions on these ships, captains were required to provide passenger lists to the U.S. customs officials beginning in 1820. Mostly, localities were left to help the new arrivals through entities like New York City’s Commissioners of Emigration. A July 24, 1855 New York Times article characterized the situation:

The “land sharks” included swindlers, thieves, or purveyors of undesirable jobs and atrocious accommodations.

The State of New York opened the first immigration station in the country at New York City’s Castle Garden in 1855 in an attempt to combat these problems.

Castle Garden began life as a military fort known as West Battery, constructed on an artificial island off the southern tip of Manhattan in the lead-up to the War of 1812. In 1815, it was renamed Castle Clinton in honor of the city’s mayor. Through an act of Congress, the fort was ceded to the city of New York in 1822. Two years later, it opened as an entertainment center called Castle Garden.

By the time Castle Garden began processing immigrants in 1855, the city had filled in land to connect it with Manhattan. It served as the main immigration depot in the United States for the next 35 years.

In addition to accounting for the immigrants, procedures were put into place to check the spread of contagious diseases by assessing their health conditions while still on the ship and then being rechecked once they arrived in Castle Garden.
Translators were provided for arrivals who did not speak English so they could be accurately registered. They could send letters or telegrams. Food and drink were available. Immigrants could exchange money and buy railroad tickets without fear of being swindled. Welfare agencies assisted those planning to stay in New York in securing legitimate employment and satisfactory accommodations.

By the time Castle Garden was closed in 1890, more than 8 million people had passed through its doors.

Today, Castle Garden is operated by the National Park Service as the Castle Clinton National Monument.

In my August newsletter, the third installment of the prequel to The Legacy details Anna's experience at Castle Garden. Sign up for my free newsletter at:

Ann Markim

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  1. Some of my ancestors came into the US through Castle Garden. Over a century later, I had an office in a high rise in downtown Manhattan with a view of it, albeit in its restored form as Castle Clinton, once more. Thanks for an interesting post!

    1. You're welcome. Thanks for stopping by. Cool that you had a view of it. I hope to visit Castle Clinton some day.

  2. Fascinating. I loved my visit to Ellis Island as I had family go through there. My granny had a friend who went through Ellis Island from Scotland, but came home again as she got too homesick. She was an interesting lady.

    1. Thanks for your comment. The experience of your granny's friend (or an imagined version of it) could make a good novel:)

  3. Castle Gardens: the name sounds like a vacation resort. I had no idea it existed let alone its varied history including a port for immigrants before Ellis island.
    A very informative post, Ann.

  4. Thank you for your comment. I'm glad you found the information interesting. So did I when I was researching the experiential history of my great grandparents.

  5. Ann, I too found this post so very informative since I wasn't aware of Castle Gardens either. My grandfather and grandmother came from Italy through Ellis Island, and my Scottish side also went through Ellis Island. Thanks so much for sharing such interesting information. I'm going to have to go check if any of the Scottish side came over before that and maybe went through Castle Gardens--you've stirred up my blood and mind now. Thanks.

  6. There are computerized lists of people who came through Castle Garden at

    Best of luck.