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Overheard on the Message Boards: Immigrants to Ellis Island Before 1892
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

January 23, 2003
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: In 1854 my great-grandfather, George Schnorr, who was born in 1852 in Germany came to the United States with Nicolaus Schnorr to New York City. I cannot find him in Germans to America with the family? Any clue? -- MM

A: When we think of immigrants coming to New York, we naturally think of Ellis Island. To us, it is synonymous with immigrating to the United States. I know many who have ancestors who didn't even come to New York who are convinced that their ancestors arrived at Ellis Island. Perhaps it is the excellent public relations that Ellis Island has long had, even before they really understood what PR was all about.

Of course, Ellis Island has not existed since the first immigrants arrived in the United States through New York City. There are other avenues in researching immigrants through this city and some problems in what records have been indexed and what you must know when there is no index.

There is more to New York City than Ellis Island.

A History of the Port of New York City

To make some sense of the history of New York City's immigration, perhaps the easiest way is to look at it by going backwards in time. Below is a list of milestone dates in New York City passenger lists.

  • 1892: Ellis Island opens and begins to process immigrants
  • 1855, August 1: Castle Garden opens
  • Pre-1855: no centralized processing center

From the dates above, we can see that Ellis Island was not the processing center for immigrants until almost the twentieth century. For almost forty years before that the immigrants were processed through Castle Garden, and before that there was no centralized processing. So let's look at this for a moment.

The first centralized processing center, Castle Garden, was not opened until 1855. Castle Garden was located on the tip of Manhattan. As things progressed, it became clear that they were processing many more immigrants than could be handled and plans were made by the federal government to purchase the land upon which Ellis Island would be built. Upon its opening, the processing of immigrants was transferred to what is now the most famous of immigration stations in the United States.

Before Castle Garden opened, though, immigrants were processed on the ships upon which they had arrived. Inspectors would get the passenger lists from the ship's crew and go through them identifying the individuals. Remember that these earlier passenger lists did not include that much information and often simply recorded a person's name, age, gender, occupation, and ethnicity.

What Records Exist

Passenger lists exist for the port of New York City from 1820. While it is true that immigrants have arrived since the early 1600s, it was not until 1820 that the federal government began to keep track of the immigrants arriving in the recently formed United States of America. Those early passenger lists were actually under the jurisdiction of the customs agents, who were more concerned with the packages and parcels that came aboard the ships than with the people.

There has been some mention of the passenger lists prior to 1892 having been destroyed by fire. Nothing I have read on this subject has alluded to this including the books by John Colletta, Lou Szucs and the many articles and lectures by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, all three of whom I consider experts in this field. So I have no indication that the records I am viewing on microfilm from 1820 to 1891 are not complete. There are, however, gaps in the indexes and this poses a few problems for genealogists.

The indexes for the passenger lists cover the years 1820 to 1846 and then there is a fifty year gap until 1897 in the microfilmed index to passenger lists. The release of the online Ellis Island Records, though, closed this gap a little since they have indexed those records from 1892 since that is when Ellis Island opened.

This gap is a major problem when all that is known is a year of arrival, no doubt the result of information found in census records or an obituary. Knowing just the year often requires the researcher to go through too many rolls of microfilm making the search impossible.

Germans to America

You mentioned that you had not found your ancestor listed in Germans to America. There are some things to keep in mind when working with this series of books. There are some published reviews of this series that point out serious problems with the books and the names indexed in them. Perhaps the most detailed is Germans to America - 50 Volumes That Are Not to Be Trusted, by Prof. Dr. Antonius Holtmann. This is not to say that the series should not be checked, but that you should do so from an educated point of view.

The 50 volume set begins in 1850 and continues in years to 1884. It has been reported that the early volumes did not index any ship upon which there were only a few Germans. Only those ships that had a majority of German passengers were included in the index. It is possible that this is why you have not been able to find your ancestor in the published set or through the online version here at Later years covered many more ships and had a better coverage of those Germans to America.

Of course, that doesn't help you. There are some approaches, though, to your research that might help you to narrow down the search. The first is to investigate the naturalization of George. Census records, if he was alive in 1900 or 1910 should indicate if and when he was naturalized.

It is likely that the records needed, primarily the second papers or application for naturalization, will be found on the county level, if he was naturalized. Prior to 1906, naturalization records were recorded at the county courthouse and are still found there today. Knowing everywhere that George lived will be essential in identifying which counties you need to search for naturalization records. In addition to other information it should indicate the date of arrival, the port of arrival, and the name of the ship on which he came.

In Conclusion

Although many passenger records exist, the fact that some of them have not been indexed makes it harder for genealogists to locate their ancestor at times. Some published resources may hold the clue, but most published resources have a margin of error that results in your having to go beyond those records. A good book about researching in the unindexed years is They Came in Ships by John Colletta.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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