Tuesday, December 18, 2012

After the Voyage

      When most of my famine era ancestors arrived in America there was no immigrant processing center. They stepped off their ships and directly onto the South Street wharves in Manhattan.  I can only imagine their confusion at arriving alone in a new country, how did they know where to go and what to do first?  Many didn’t and fell prey to all sorts of con men and worse.  Since I never tire of reading even the smallest details about my ancestors and their experiences, naturally I was curious about what happened after they strolled down that gangplank, and I would imagine others are too.  This is what I found--

     Seeing the need for some sort of assistance for the new arrivals, the Irish Emigrant Society was founded in 1841 by Irishmen who had emigrated early on.  Their aim was, “to advise immigrants about routes to the interior, as well as employment on public works projects, to warn them about improper lodging houses, to save them from toilsome journeys inspired by elusive advertisements, and to preserve them from crooked contractors, dishonest prospectuses and remittance-sharpers”.  I’m not sure what a “remittance sharper” is and apparently neither is anyone else as a Google search came up empty however, I believe it was probably a person who assisted immigrants in sending funds back to Ireland and decided to help himself to some or all the funds in question.

    The city of New York also realized the flood of immigrants arriving in their port needed some sort of aid and in May of 1847 it authorized The Commissioners of Emigration.  They employed their own doctors, and accepted applications for relief from the immigrants, but still more was needed.   In May of 1855 the Commissioners leased an old fort, then being used as a public aquarium, at the tip of Manhattan to serve as an immigrant processing center.  On August 1, 1855 the doors of Castle Garden swung open.  When they closed in April of 1890, approximately 9 million immigrants had passed through.  

     Barges brought the immigrants from their ships to Castle Garden’s landing depot where they were examined for disease or defects.  Those who were thought to be a risk of becoming a burden upon the state were then and there marked for deportation.  The others were brought into the rotunda to be processed.  Clerks recorded their names, destinations and whether they were joining friends or relatives already here.  After that, they met with representatives of transportation companies who explained to them how best to get to their destinations.  They could even purchase their tickets at Castle Garden and catch a ferry to their starting point, usually across the river in New Jersey as no trains ran from the island of Manhattan.  If a wait was required they had their choice of licensed boarding houses in which to pass their stay in the city.  One immigrant account of the experience—“from Castle Garden we were bustled aboard a ferry boat and taken to the Erie station at Jersey City, and crowded into an immigrant train bound for the west. The next day we had a joyous reunion with father at Corning [NY]…”

     Clearly this was a tremendous improvement.  Immigrants no longer had to navigate streets filled with shady characters eager to take advantage of them.  In early 1890 the Federal Government took over immigrant processing and on April 19th operations moved to the Barge Office at the southeast tip of Manhattan.  It would remain the processing center until Ellis Island opened on the first day of 1892.  In June of 1897 fire destroyed the buildings on Ellis Island and processing returned to the Barge Office where it would remain until Ellis Island reopened in December of 1900.  
      I have to say, I have tremendous admiration for these ancestor immigrants of mine, they were down but not out. They persevered and carved their own unique place in America and made my life here possible.  I am so very proud of them.

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