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Spotlight on Ports beyond New York
By Juliana Smith 28 October 2009
The vision of our immigrant ancestors sailing past “Lady Liberty” into the Port of New York is symbolic of the American immigrant experience. And in fact for some 24 million immigrants arriving in the U.S. between 1820 and 1920, the Port of New York was their port of entry (although the Statue of Liberty didn’t come into the picture until October of 1886). But millions of immigrants found their way into this country via other ports and overland routes, and their records can easily be overlooked when we focus all of our efforts on the Port of New York.
Other popular ports of entry to the U.S. for Europeans were New York, Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Galveston, and New Orleans. Baltimore was a good choice for immigrants headed for the Midwest. When the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad reached Wheeling, Virginia in 1853, it shortened the trip that previously took days, to sixteen hours, and created the fastest and easiest route to the Midwestern states.
The port of Galveston was established in 1825, when Texas was still part of Mexico. It was an important commercial port, but for immigrants going to the American West, it was an attractive entryway. Between 1907 and 1914, Jews escaping the Russian pogroms were encouraged to immigrate through Galveston because there were fears that an influx of Jewish immigrants through the popular Atlantic ports would result in a wave of anti-Semitism.
With its proximity to the Mississippi River, New Orleans was an attractive port for those destined for the country’s interior. Immigration through New Orleans peaked in the period before the Civil War, 1820-1860. During that period New Orleans was a distant second to New York, the leading port of entry into the U.S.
Located 110 miles inland, and vulnerable to the freezing Delaware River which cut off its connection to the Atlantic, Philadelphia would seem a dubious candidate for one of the most traveled ports of entry, but between 1815 and 1985 more than 1.3 million immigrants entered the U.S. through that port.
Immigration through Boston jumped during the Irish Potato Famine with more than twenty thousand immigrants coming in annually between 1847 and 1854, the majority from Ireland.
Immigration via Canada and the Great Lakes
Not all immigrants came in to the United States via ocean ports. Immigration to Canada was typically cheaper and until 1895, it was also a way to avoid the hassles of immigration screenings. In 1895 the U.S. government closed this loophole by requiring Canadian steamships and railroads to complete manifest forms and only provide transportation to U.S. destinations to immigrants that would have been allowed to enter the country via other U.S. ports. These records are available on Ancestry.com in the database of Border Crossings: From Canada to U.S., 1895-1956 . There is also a database of Canadian Passenger Lists, 1865-1935, and if your ancestor traveled to the U.S. via Canada, you may find them included in that collection.
> You can search all of the passenger arrival records on Ancestry.com through the search form for the Immigration and Emigration Collection.
> U.S. Federal Censuses for 1900-1930 list the year of immigration to the U.S. for immigrants. Use this information to help you narrow your search. (The immigration search form includes a field for this. ) Bear in mind that the further away the census was taken from the date of immigration, the more likely it is for that date to have been a bit fuzzy for your ancestor. Use the advanced search and add +/- a few years to compensate for this.
> Look for the records of extended family members. In later records, you can often find town of origin, addresses of family in the U.S. (perhaps your direct ancestor), and other details that may be missing from your ancestor’s arrival record.
> Check for multiple arrivals through different ports and don’t rule out any port. By keeping yourself open to the other possibilities, you may be pleasantly surprised by what you find.
For more information on various ports of entry to the U.S., see Joseph B. Everett’s article in the March/April 2006 issue of Ancestry Magazine.
Stolarik, M. Mark. Forgotten Doors: The Other Ports of Entry to the United States, (Philadelphia: Balch Institute Press, 1988).
Other articles in the 02 November 2009 Weekly Discovery:
> A Look at the Decade: 1900-1909, Part 2
> Family History Tip: Reading Local History
> Photo Corner
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