Surprising facts about immigration to New York
New York is the state with arguably the strongest connection to immigration in America - hundreds of millions of Americans can trace their immigrant ancestors to the port of New York, which has been the final destination of immigrants for over four centuries.
This lengthy time period and the sheer number of immigrants that came through New York can make finding your immigrant ancestors a challenge, but one well worth attempting - New York immigration genealogy can be fascinating and enjoyable.
Get started by looking over these surprising and interesting facts about New York immigration - at the end of the article, you'll find some of our suggested resources for the different time periods in which your ancestors may have arrived.
We have several immigration-related lectures and workshops coming up in early 2019 - check out our events listing for more information.
New York: Only one port of entry
It is useful to know that the port of New York in New York City was the only official seaport of entry into New York State; not until 1895 were locations along the northern land border with Canada designated as official immigration stations.
If you're looking for an immigrant ancestor who supposedly arrived in in New York, a looking at the records of a station like Castle Garden or Ellis Island (more on the difference below) is definitely going to be your best bet - there weren't any other options on Long Island, further up the Hudson River, or out west. Remember, if you're going off of a memory or anecdote, it's possible your ancestor didn't come to New York State at all - it would be understandable for an older immigrant to conflate the port of Boston, Baltimore, or Philadelphia with the famous Ellis Island.
New Netherland: Not exclusively Dutch
Although New Netherland was a possession of the Dutch, the population contained a very diverse mixture of European nationalities - probably no more than half of the population was native to the Dutch Republic. There were many English settlers (including Scots, Irish, and Welsh) who came to New England and migrated down to New Netherland.
By the time the colony was transferred to England in 1664, only about half of the 7,000 - 8,000 person population were native Dutch. NYG&B members with New Netherland ancestry should search The Record for the many articles on Dutch lines, and read a digital book available on our website for a limited time - Locating your Dutch Ancestors in Colonial America - for more information. Our New York Knowledge Base also has numerous articles dedicated to colonial research.
The Erie Canal had a huge impact on New York immigration
The Erie Canal is often underestimated as a development that had a major impact on New York immigration. The Canal and the vast network of waterways it established provided a form of cutting-edge transportation and allowed immigrants an easy path to areas of the state other than New York City. Moreover, the construction of the Canal itself provided a bevy of opportunities for immigrant laborers.
Immigrants made up a significant portion of the massive workforce, which drew recent immigrants (and those planning their immigration) to the many booming towns north and west of New York City. Many immigrants who arrived between 1817 and 1825 helped build the Erie Canal itself, as well as its many subsequent extensions and tributaries.
The Erie Canal was the first of many transportation revolutions to have an enormous impact on immigration and migration. NYG&B members can access an on-demand webinar on the Erie Canal - Finding Their Routes: Navigating Records of the NY State Canal System, which goes over the fascinating history, and shows how to research your ancestors who worked on this historic project.
Many immigrants arrived at Castle Garden, not Ellis Island
While Ellis Island is the most iconic immigration station in the Port of New York, it didn't open until 1892. Researchers looking for arrivals prior to that year should instead look to Castle Garden, which served New York throughout the majority of the 1800s. Castle Garden saw large influxes of Irish, German (including German Jews), and British immigrants, and was located in the area of modern-day Battery Park, at the lower tip of Manhattan.
Unfortunately, in 1897 a major fired destroyed Castle Garden and most of its records. For this reason, researchers should rely on U.S. Customs lists (see below) from 1819 to 1897, and U.S. Immigration lists for the years after 1897.
Shipwrecked passengers may not have been recorded
While we're all aware of the peril at sea that faced many of the earliest voyagers to America, the trans-Atlantic journey remained dangerous even after steam had replaced sails. Many ships carrying immigrants were wrecked, or sank, en route to New York or other ports. While many passengers died in these tragic occurrences, surviving wasn't all that uncommon.
The problem for family history researchers is that this greatly complicated the immigration process - many of the wrecked ship manifests are not included in standard immigration record sets. Our eLibrary contains a volume by Frank A. Biebel, who collected and transcribed information on the passengers and circumstances of shipwrecks between 1817 and 1875. Click here to read more about this unique record set.
Many immigrants went back home
One thing unconsidered by many researchers is that immigrants didn't stay in America - more than you think returned home either temporarily or permanently. Especially as technology improved, and the journey became safer and faster, immigrants - especially from southern and eastern Europe - would work in America for periods of time and return home, only to eventually travel back across the Atlantic at a later date.
Keep this information in mind when faced with an immigration mystery that seems impossible to crack - could your subject have returned home for a period of time? While the U.S. didn't keep many records related to emigration, immigration records for other countries may hold clues - the British government in particular closely tracked passengers arriving from North America at British or Irish ports, in an attempt to detect Fenians (Irish nationalists) or their supporters.
Many unrecorded immigrants came to New York from Canada
Before 1895, many unrecorded immigrants entered America from Canada. The Canadian government collected detailed information on its own immigrants but gathered significantly less on those who were booked to travel on to America. Because the transatlantic crossing to Canada cost much less and entry through Ellis Island could be slow, many European passengers traveled to New York via Canada.
In 1894 the United States designated several immigration ports of entry along the northern border; immigration records for those ports date from 1895. Federal immigration inspectors were then stationed at Canadian ports of entry to collect complete United States passenger manifests for United States-bound passengers. Some of our NYG&B Labs summer interns worked on a project tracking and visualizing migration patterns of African North Americans prior to, during and after the American Civil War. A portion of the project that focused on Canadian-born African North Americans found in the U.S. Census highlights how common cross-border movement was in this area. Click here to read more.
Immigration record resources by time period
1609 - 1819: The Dutch & English Colony and Early Statehood Periods
In general, immigration records as most genealogists know them do not exist for many who immigrated to the Dutch and English colonies. Useful resources do exist, including monographs, transcriptions, periodical articles and manuscript collections. See the Revised Edition of New York State Research Guide and Gazetteer for detailed descriptions of available resources, where to find them, and how to use them.
Olive Tree Genealogy has a useful list of ships that sailed to the colony - researchers may be able to match a ship with an approximate date of arrival.
Remember - many English immigrants came to New Amsterdam or New Netherland via other colonies in New England, so don't forget to search there for immigration records if applicable.
1820 - 1891: U.S. Customs Records for Passenger Arrivals
Congress passed the Steerage Act in 1819, requiring all captains of vessels arriving from foreign ports to file passenger lists with the United States Customs Collector. Even though these records aren't always as detailed as other immigration records, due to the fire that destroyed the majority of Castle Garden's records, they are still some of the best resources available for immigration in this time period.
Because the U.S. Customs collector was a federal agent, the original records are now held by the National Archives and Records Administration. Several indexes to these passenger lists have been digitized and are at least partially available online. The Revised Edition of the New York State Family History Research Guide and Gazetteer has detailed tables, collection numbers and tips for finding and using these records.
1892 - 1924: Ellis Island and Other Federal Immigration Records
After Ellis Island was established as a Federal Immigration Station (Castle Garden was run by New York State), the availability of records improves dramatically. Ellis Island produced lists of cabin passengers (first and second class) and steerage passengers (third class), as well as "Lists of Detained Aliens" and "Records of Aliens Held for Special Inquiry." The latter two types of list may contain additional details - make sure to look at all records in which your ancestor's name appears - detained passengers will appear once on the general lists, and again on the special lists.
These records - as well as the post-1895 Canadian border crossings - can be found in the National Archives and Records Administration, and are available in several locations online. The Ellis Island Foundation has indexes and digitized images to many records from 1892 - 1957. It's important to note that not all federal immigration and naturalization records are digitized - see the Revised Edition of the New York State Family History Research Guide and Gazetteer for more information.
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