If your relative came to America before Jan. 1, 1892, they did not “come through Ellis Island” — a common thought because it is historically the most recognized port of entry. Ellis Island closed in 1954, with 12 million immigrants recorded.
Prior to Ellis Island, immigrants arriving in New York may have entered at Castle Garden on the southern end of Manhattan. There have been many ports in the United States where our ancestors set foot on the new land.
Before I begin searching for passenger arrival lists, I use a map and note the first residence of an ancestor. If I don’t know that, I pick up the first known place and work toward the Atlantic or Pacific or Gulf of Mexico, using rivers and other interior waterways that would have been used in their migration.
The National Archives has passenger records from 1820 to 1982 for at least 106 United States ports in a number of states: New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Maine, Rhode Island, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Connecticut, New Jersey, Georgia, Texas, Mississippi, Florida, Louisiana, Alabama, New Hampshire, Delaware, Washington, California, Georgetown District of Columbia and Ohio. There were many other ports of entry that do not have records at the National Archives.
We don’t often think about Ohio, an interior state, being an arrival port for our ancestors. Ships crossing the Atlantic came down the St. Lawrence Seaway, to some of the interior states, with Sandusky, Ohio being a port. Some went as far as Duluth, Minnesota on Lake Superior.
I find it interesting that there are 21 Florida ports in National Archives passenger records. From Apalachicola to West Palm Beach. We are familiar with some such as Jacksonville, Tampa, Key West, Pensacola, and St. Augustine. But less well-known ports dotted the shores of the state. In the late 19th century, the panhandle port of Apalachicola was the third-busiest port on the Gulf of Mexico, after New Orleans and Mobile.
If you find an immigrant ancestor living in Oklahoma, for example, you can pretty much assume that they came into a southern port instead of New York. Maybe arriving in New Orleans and taking the Mississippi River and the Red River to Oklahoma area. A family in Kansas could have arrived in Duluth, then worked their way down the Mississippi to the Platte or Arkansas River.
Don’t get discouraged if you can’t find a passenger record. A big part of genealogical research is learning to “think outside the box,” and finding passenger lists is a good example. Maybe your ancestor was a stowaway and there is no record. Think of all the “what ifs.” Remember, only about 25 percent of records are online.
Resources: National Archives Passenger Lists: archives.org.
“They Came in Ships,” by John P. Colletta, was published in 1993, but is still a good source for migration on the seas. It is in the Green Valley-Sahuarita Genealogy Library at Posada Java.
“Genealogy is not only names and dates; it is also the history of the time and place of your ancestors.”