When researching an ancestor's entry into the United States, it's important to understand the immigration
laws for that time period. Here is a brief outline (to December 1952) of the most important legislation affecting
immigration (for laws pertaining to naturalization, please see Naturalization):
Alien Enemy Act of July 6, 1798: In case of a declared war or invasion, the President has power to restrain or remove alien enemy males 14 years of age or older.
Chinese Exclusion Act of May 6, 1882: This law suspended the immigration of Chinese laborers to the US for ten years. However, Chinese students, teachers and merchants were
excluded. Chinese immigrants were legally prohibited from naturalizing. This act was repealed in the 1940s.
Immigration Act of August 3, 1882: This was the first true immigration law. It brought immigration under the control of the state, who were under the Secretary of the Treasury.
This law also broadened the list of inadmissables to include criminals and prostitutes, and established a 50 cent tax per passenger of every immigrant brought into the United States.
Act of February 26, 1885: Prohibited importation of alien contract labor.
Immigration Act of March 3, 1891: Immigration was brought under federal control. The Bureau of
Immigration was established and the list of inadmissables was widened to include public charges, anyone with a contagious disease, felons, polygamists and any form of assisted immigration.
Act of March 3, 1893: This stated that documentation on aliens must include their occupation, marital status, literacy, the amount of money in their possession and a detailed report of
their physical and mental health. Boards of special inquiry were set up to oversee this reporting.
Immigration Act of March 3, 1903: Added anarchists to the list of inadmissables.
Act of February 20, 1907: Added the following to the list of inadmissables: imbeciles, feeble-minded, people with tuberculosis, children without parents, women coming to the United
States for immoral purposes.
Immigration Act of February 5, 1917: Denied entry into the US to illiterate aliens and further restricted immigration of Asians from barred zone. (Asia-Pacific Triangle)
Act of May 22, 1918 Enemy and Departure Control Act: Allowed President to control entry and departure of any alien who was deemed a threat to public safety during times of war or
Quota Law May 19, 1921: Limited the number of immigrants of any nationality to 3% of the foreign-born of that nationality as appeared on the 1910 census. This set the quota to approximately
350,000 immigrants each year, most from northern and western Europe.
Immigration Act of May 26, 1924: This act was US law until 1952 and one of the most sweeping reforms in immigration history. It worked in two phases:
Until June 30, 1927 (later extended to
June 30, 1929), the quota for immigrants was changed to 2% of the foreign-born of that nationality as appeared on the 1890 census. This lowered the total number of immigrants to 164,667 per year.
The second part took effect on July 1, 1929, and set the total number of immigrants to 150,000. This law was in effect until December 31, 1952. Quotas were broken down into two classes:
Preferred Quota established for unmarried children under the age of 21; parents and spouses of US citizens aged 21 and over; immigrants aged 21 and over skilled in agriculture along with their wives and children.
Non-Quota Status established for wives and children (under age 18) of US citizens and natives of Western Hemisphere countries and their families.
This act also stated that all immigrants entering the United States must present a valid visa from the US Consular Office in their native land. Lastly, this act clearly stated that no alien who is ineligible to become a citizen shall gain entrance into the United States.
Immigration Act of March 4, 1929: Added to the list of deportable offenses were any alien convicted of carrying a weapon or bomb and sentenced to 6 months or more; any alien convicted of violating the Prohibition Law and sentenced to 1 year or more.
Immigration Act of February 18, 1931: Added to the list of deportable offenses were any alien convicted of importing, exporting, manufacturing or sale of heroin, opium or cocoa leaves.
Alien Registration Act of June 28, 1940: This act required the registration of all aliens and fingerprinting of those 14 years of age and older; smuggling and assisting in illegal entry of other aliens were added to the list of deportable offenses; added present and past membership in subversive organizations to grounds for deportation and exclusion and in certain cases, allowed an immigrant to voluntarily depart the US as opposed to being deported.
War Brides Act of December 28, 1945: Waived visa requirements and some provisions of the immigration law (except physical and mental defectives) for members of US armed forces who married foreign nationals.
GI Fiancees Act of June 29, 1946: Allowed admission of fiancees (who were foreign nationals) of members of US armed forces.
In order to locate a passenger list for your ancestor, you will need
to know which processing facility, if any, that he/she passed through.
The following gives you the facility and the years of operation:
pre-1855: no formal processing center for immigrants in NYC. Passenger lists
were presented to the Collector of Customs. The immigrant would then make
his/her declaration and was free to leave the ship.
August 3, 1855 - April 18, 1890: Castle Garden
April 19, 1890 - December 31, 1891: Barge Office
January 1, 1892 - June 13, 1897: Ellis Island
June 14, 1897 - December 16, 1900: Barge Office
December 17, 1900 - 1924: Ellis Island*
*NOTE: Ellis officially closed in 1954, however most immigrants were
processed at the consulate office after 1924.
Castle Clinton/Castle Garden
This was the processing center for most immigrants entering New York Harbor in the mid to
late 19th century.
Castle Clinton was a fort built in 1808 for defense of New York Harbor.
It was the military headquarters for US forces during the War of 1812.
In 1815, it was named Castle Clinton after New York City mayor DeWitt Clinton.
Castle Clinton, situated on landfill at the tip of the Battery, was ceded to the city
in 1823 and renamed Castle Garden. It was used primarily as an opera house and amusement
center. Swedish opera star Jennie Lind made her US debut there in 1850.
Castle Garden was leased by New York State and designated an immigrant landing depot.
Its doors officially opened August 3, 1855. Eight million people entered the US through
Castle Garden in its 34 years of operation. However, the facility was not only ill-euipped
to handle the large number of immigrants coming to the US, but was also plagued with corruption
and incompetence. It closed its doors on April 18, 1890.
The most famous port in the world is Ellis Island.
Located off the southwestern tip of Manhattan, Ellis Island was
originally called Kioshk by the Mohegan Indians. In the 1630s, a Dutch man
by the name of Michael Paauw acquired the land and named it Oyster Island.
The area was used to shuck and eat oysters.
In 1664 when the British took control of the New Netherlands colony, they renamed it
Gull Island. Soon after, they changed the name to Gibbet Island and used the area
to hang men convicted of piracy.
During the 1770s, Samuel Ellis purchased the island and the locals used it as a picnic area.
The US War Department bought the island from Ellis in 1808 for ten thousand dollars and
proceeded to use it to protect New York City. Fort Gibson was erected there during the
War of 1812 to house prisoners. During the 1860s, Ellis Island was used as an arsenal and
ordinance depot for federal munitions.
The New Gateway to America
Ellis Island stood vacant until 1890 when President Benjamin Harrison designated it one
of the first federal immigration depots. It officially opened its doors on January 1, 1892,
with a construction cost of five hundred thousand dollars.
On June 13, 1897, the original structure burned down. All the Castle Garden records for 1855-1890,
and most records for the Barge Office and Ellis Island were lost. During reconstruction on Ellis Island
(June 14, 1897 to December 16, 1900), immigrants were processed at the Barge Office. A rebuilt Ellis Island
reopened on December 17, 1900. The cost of rebuilding was 1.2 million dollars.
First and second class passengers were not required to set foot on Ellis Island. They were inspected on
board ship and sent to Ellis only if they were ill or had legal problems. The government felt that if
an immigrant could afford a first or second class ticket, they were no threat to become a public charge.
It was different for third class or steerage passengers. They were taken to Ellis Island by ferry for a
medical and legal inspection. If no problems were detected, the entire inspection process would take 3-5 hours
and the immigrant was free to go. Only 2% of immigrants were denied entry, due to either having a contagious
disease and therefore posing a health threat, or because it was feared they would become a public charge.
Approximately 3500 people died at Ellis Island. Their death certificates will be on file with the Municipal Archives.
Most of these individuals are interred at either of the following cemeteries:
4902 Laurel Hill Blvd.
Woodside NY 11377
Bushwich & Conway Sts.
Brooklyn NY 11201
You can now perform a surname search of deaths in
quarantine at Ellis Island 1909-1911. The database contains
418 people, 85% of whom are under age 13.
During World War I, the US army and navy took over Ellis Island. Immigrant processing
was done on board ship. In 1920, processing was again done on Ellis Island.
After July 1924, only immigrants requiring a physical were processed at Ellis Island.
Since the United States had taken a foothold as a world power, immigrants would apply
for their visas and undergo inspections at the consulates in their native country.
Ellis Island officially closed its doors in 1954.
Ellis Island was declared part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument in 1965.
It now houses a museum and the National Park Service estimates that 2 million people visit annually.
In its fifty years of operation, 12 million immigrants used Ellis Island as their entry into the United States.
It is estimated that 40% of all Americans had an ancestor arrive through Ellis Island.
If you would like to honor your immigrant ancestors, you can have their names placed on the
American Immigrant Wall of Honor. Dedication of a name is a
minimum hundred dollar tax-deductible donation. Even if you chose not to donate money, you can search their online
database for free by surname!
The Barge Office was located at the end of Whitehall Street, near the Battery. It officially
opened April 19, 1890 when Castle Garden closed and Ellis Island was being constructed.
Once Ellis Island officially opened, the Barge Office closed. It would reopen to process
immigrants following the fire on Ellis Island in 1897. It closed again in 1900 when Ellis
Island was again fully operational.
You may be under the impression that overseas travel was uncommon for the regular American.
That only the rich went abroad. This is untrue. Many ordinary Americans voyaged to Europe, usually
to visit their homelands. Passports were, as they are now, issued to those travelling outside the United States.
Even though passports were not a legal requirement until 1941, they were issued as early as 1795! Passports were
issued free of charge until July 1, 1862, when a three dollar fee was enacted. The Immigration and Naturalization
Service produced the following
figures showing years and number of passports issued:
1810-1873: 130,360 issued
1877-1909: 369,844 issued
1912-1925: 1,184,085 issued
Even though there was no law until 1941 requiring travel with a passport,there were certain periods in US
history when one was required. The two most notable are:
August 19, 1861 through March 17, 1862
May 22, 1918 through 1921 - following the formal end to World War I
There are different types of passports, but the one most useful to the researcher is the regular passport.
This gives the most information, including date and place of birth, physical description, occupation and destination.
If the individual was a naturalized citizen, the passport may state the court and date of naturalization and even the
name of the ship he/she arrived on. Please keep in mind that aliens were not issued passports unless they had made
their declaration of intent in a court of law. This law was enacted and repealed several times throughout history.
Passport applications from October 1795 through March 1925 can be found at the National Archives.
To request a search, you can email NARA and provide them with the individual's
name and approximate year of travel. To search these NARA microfilms yourself, you will need to use the following microfilm:
Registers and Indexes for Passport Applications 1810-1906
Record Group: M1371.
NOTE: This film covers the following dates:
December 21, 1810-October 7, 1817
February 22, 1830-November 15, 1831
November 14, 1834-February 28, 1906
Index to Passport Applications Record Group: M1848.
NOTE: This film covers the following years:
1850-1852; 1860-1880; 1881; 1906-1923.
For passport applications after 1925, you will need to contact the
The New York Public Library has the following microfilm available in the Milstein Division
Microform Room (Room 119):
Registers and Indexes for Passport Applications 1810-1906.
Index to Passenger Applications 1850-1852; 1860-1880; 1881;
Where To Find Records
Passenger lists for most of the colonial immigrants simply no longer exist.
The NY State Archives does have some Customs House records from 1730 on,
but they do not name the passengers.
The following microfilms can be found at the National Archives:
The Chineses Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943. Records pertaining to individuals this act covered are:
New York Chinese Exclusion Index; New York District Office of the Immigration
and Naturalization Service 1882-1960.
NOTE: This collection includes information on the entry into the US of Chinese aliens and re-entry of US citizens of
Chinese ancestry. This is also available at Ancestry.com.
If the record is over 75 years old, it is open to the public.
If the record is less than 75 years old, it is closed to the public. NARA will only release information if the
individual is deceased. The researcher must be prepared to provide necessary documentation to this effect.
Other records at NARA:
Index to Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, NY 1820-1846.
Record Group: M261; comprises 103 microfilm rolls. (Also at the New York Public
Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, NY 1820-1897.
Record Group: M237; comprises 675 microfilm rolls.
Index to Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, NY;
June 16, 1897-June 30, 1902.
Record Group: T519; comprises 115 microfilm rolls. (Also at the New York Public
Index (Soundex) to Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, NY;
July 1, 1902-December 31, 1943.
Record Group: T621; comprises 755 microfilm rolls. (Also at the New York Public
Book Indexes to New York Passenger Lists 1906-1942.
Record Group: T612; comprises 807 microfilm rolls.
Passenger and Crew Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, NY
Record Group: T715; comprises 8,892 microfilm rolls.
Index (Soundex) to Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at the
Port of New York 1944-1948.
Record Group: M1417; comprises 94 microfilm rolls.
In addition to the above-mentioned microfilm titles, the New York Public
Library has the following microfilm available in the Milstein Division
Microform Room (Room 119):
Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at the Port of New York 1820-1910.
The Queens Public Library has the following immigration holdings:
Index to Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at the Port of New York 1820-1846
Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at the Port of New York 1820-1897
The LDS in Salt Lake City has microfilmed passenger lists from 1820-1942. They also have the following indexes to passenger lists:
1820-1846; 1897-1902; 1902-1943; 1943-1948
The only surviving documents pertaining to Castle Garden are ship's passenger lists. These lists are not surnamed indexed and to search without a date of entry is a huge undertaking. Microfilmed copies of the passenger lists can be found at the National Archives.
Since the passenger lists for Castle Garden are not indexed, you would need to know the date your ancestor arrived and/or the name of the ship. The LDS has the following microfilm to help locate the date a particular ship landed in New York Harbor:
Register of Vessels Arriving at the Port of New York from Foreign Ports 1781-1919 starting microfilm # 1415143.
Where to Purchase Passenger Lists
Passenger and Immigration Lists Index (PILI)
Castle Garden - If your ancestors entered the US
through Castle Garden
Ellis Island - If your ancestors entered the US
through Ellis Island
The Ships List - Topics include passenger list,
ship information, shipwrecks and immigration. Be sure to visit the list
Post-1800 US Immigrants - Immigration topics for
those who emigrated after 1800
Pre-1800 US Immigrants - Immigration topics for
those who emigrated prior to 1800
US Ships List Post 1820 - All aspects of ships and
immigration after 1820
US Ships List Pre 1820 - All aspects of ships and
immigration prior to 1820
The Ellis Island Database should be your first and only stop to
locate an ancestor arriving through Ellis Island. Not all passenger lists have been added and some manifest images
are missing. Enormously helpful, though the search engine can be difficult to manuever.
Rootsweb's Immigrant Ship Transcriber's Guild has an impressive
online database of transcribed passenger lists, separated into volumes. Searchable by surname, port of
departure, port of arrival or year. Most lists for New York are pre-Ellis Island. Database is constantly
The Belfast Newsletter is an online database
of transcriptions from the original Belfast newspaper. Searchable by topic, including emigration/immigration and ships.
Be sure to read all of the instructions before attempting a search.
The Norway Heritage Project offers a free
database search of ships and emigrants from Norway. Website also provides a forum.
JewishGen has a surname searchable database of the
Index of New York Immigrants from Austria, Poland and Galicia.
Search Immigration Records @ Ancestry.com
Passenger and Immigration List Index (PILI)
Unofficial.net is the unofficial website
for the Holland-America lines. On this website you will find the history of Holland-America, as well
as passenger lists, an index to all Holland-America ships and even background on the ship builders.
Stephen Morse's One Step
Ellis Island Database is an invaluable aid to the Ellis Island Database.
This search engine allows you to search on as many or few search criteria as
you choose, including ethnicity, town of origin, gender, etc. You can also search
for the 'missing manifests'.
Transcribed Passenger Lists
Olive Tree Genealogy has an impressive collection of links to passenger lists
and ship lists. Be sure to allow the entire page to download.
Harold Ralston has a handful of links to transcribed passenger lists.
Most of the ships listed are bound for New York.
Genealogy Quest has a few passenger
lists transcribed. Only two are for New York.
GenWeb has an impressive collection of links to transcribed passenger lists
for New York. Lists run from the 1600s to 1914.
Distant Cousin has
a few links to transcribed passenger lists. Broken down by time period.
They Came By Ship is an impressive alphabetical index to ships and passengers who left
from Calitrani Italy.
Passenger lists of people travelling from New York to California, via Central
America as noted in the New York Daily Times, is
online. The lists run from 1851-1856 and 1865-1873, and are indexed by name of ship or
date of departure.
Marian Smith, an historian for the Immigration and Naturalization
Service (INS) has written,
Manifest Markings - A Guide to Interpreting Passenger List Annotations. This online
guide, courtesy of JewishGen, is an enormous aid to determining what those numbers and letters
next to your ancestor's name really means.
The Center for
Migration Studies on Staten Island is the premiere repository for anyone
researching migration. This specialized library has holdings on migration,
refugees and ethnic groups. Especially of note is the Italian-American collection.
There are also photo archives, available only on-site.