Thursday, June 05, 2008

Castle Garden - the Little Known Immigration Depot

Castle Garden

Ellis Island

Did your Rhineland ancestors pass through Ellis Island, leaving their homes behind them? Probably not, since the majority of Germans landed in New York during the middle years of the 19th century, a time when there was no "Isle of Tears."

Somehow Ellis Island has usurped all the fame of the immigration story. As many beginning genealogists search for their German roots, they are frustrated to learn that there are no immigration records for their ancestors available in the Ellis Island Immigration Center's database. "Why?" they ask. They have grown up believing every immigrant ship brought its load of passengers into the forbidding fortress where only the lucky ones received permission to continue their journey into the "new country." Ellis Island is as well known as President Abraham Lincoln, but our 19th Century ancestors' immigration center was almost always Castle Garden. And Castle Garden is about as familiar as President Millard Fillmore (our 13th US President).

The scenes I am about to describe are from a very good television series called "Germans in America." You may already have seen it or will find in soon on the schedule of your public television station. The four segments, focusing on the German immigrant experience, were produced in Germany for German television audiences and now has been translated into English. But I found it misleading at one point. See what you think.

Scene 1: Immigrants are shown waiting in long lines at Ellis Island, then being examined and told their fate. Would one family member be rejected and told to return to the home country. Should those family members who had passed the physical test return with their family member or stay in America? Small wonder Ellis Island was often called the "Isle of Tears." Fade to...

Scene 2: The year is 1849. A young man, Karl Steinweg, writes his family in Germany to come and join him. He is already in New York, having fled to the United States after taking part in the revolution of 1848. Fade to...

Scene 3: In the 1860's, another family arrives. The Julius Gumpertz family - father, mother and four children - hope to change their lives for the better in the new world.

The way these scenes are sequenced leaves viewers with the impression that the Steinweg family and the six members of the Gumpertz family sailed into New York harbor, saw the Statue of Liberty, were marched through Ellis Island, and finally declared fit to enter New York City and go on with their lives. It's good drama but nothing like the arrival of either of the two families, because Ellis Island immigration station did not open until 1892 nor was the Statue of Liberty fully assembled until July of 1886.

Before 1855, German immigrants arriving at the Port of New York were hardly noticed in any official kind of way. Once their ship was declared free of disease and the automatic quarantine was lifted, ship passengers and their luggage were loaded on to smaller boats and taken to one of five piers in the city. Here they found themselves on their own. Often the people who spoke the German language were con men who attempted to lure the newcomers to run-down boarding houses or to "help" them purchase tickets for passage to their end destination. These costs were usually two or three times higher than fair prices. Some of the immigrants gave their money to a "helpful countryman" and never saw him or their money again. The 1849 immigrant Steinwegs were completely on their own when they left their ship.

The 1860 Gumpertz family, as well as many of my German ancestors, had a better start. They went to Castle Garden, a receiving station for immigrants. Its purpose was not to limit immigration but to safeguard the new immigrants as well as prevent sickness from being spread to the residents of New York City. There was less drama here than at Ellis Island. Castle Garden, opened on August 3, 1855, was a place of temporary refuge for our immigrant ancestors, concentrating on services to help these new arrivals in a country they hoped to call their new home.

Castle Garden was located at the tip of lower Manhattan in Battery Park, a 23 acre waterfront park at the tip of Manhattan. It was constructed between the years 1807 and 1811 as part of a chain of harbor forts that could defend New York City against a naval attack. It was first known as the West Battery, but was renamed Castle Clinton in 1815 after George Clinton, the first governor of the state of New York. In 1823, the U.S. Army withdrew from the fortress, leaving it to New York City authorities, who in turn permitted private investors to take it over. These investors reopened it several months later as a center for social events and gave it a new name: Castle Garden. Jenny Lind, the famous Swedish soprano, once performed there for an audience of 4,000. But in 1855, the state of New York's Board of Emigration Commissioners decided to use the building for immigration purposes.

There were about 100 people who worked at the Castle Garden Landing Depot. There were inspectors who boarded the incoming ships to see how many passengers were aboard the vessel, and how clean it was. When the ship docked in New York City harbors, other agents transported the immigrants by barge or tugboat to the castle for medical exams. The sick were sent to Ward's Island for medical attention and the rest were brought into the rotunda of Castle Garden. After their names, nationalities, old residences, and destinations were recorded, the immigrants were sent to the baggage delivery. If the immigrant was not staying in the city, he could make arrangements here to forward their trunks or boxes to the final destination.

Back inside Castle Garden, there was a department with personnel who helped write letters in various languages for those immigrants who were illiterate; German, French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Czech, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Polish, Portuguese, Swiss-German, Russian, and Latin interpreters were available. Thus any immigrant could mail a first letter back to the homeland.

The new arrivals also found a place here where they could safely change their foreign money into American currency, as well as a strictly regulated list of the 76 immigrant boardinghouse keepers allowed representation at the Castle. A restaurant, bread stands, washrooms, even a Western Union Telegraph Company branch were also available on the premises.

Barry Moreno, who works in the reference library at the Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island Immigration Museum in New York City, says, "Today, Castle Garden swarms with tourists who come to buy ferry tickets for an excursion to the Statue of Liberty or Ellis Island. Only a few observe the stone walls that surround them; almost none go inside the modest exhibit gallery at the entrance to the castle. But those who pause within that quiet space will learn a startling fact: they are standing in a citadel that in bygone years was the great threshold to America for millions of migrants, a place where such travelers paused before journeying onward to new homes and livelihoods. Castle Garden is the true golden door to which poetess Emma Lazarus refered in her 1883 sonnet, 'Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me...''

I'm very glad my Rhineland Ancestors found a friendly, helpful country when they reached our shores.

Moreno, Barry, "Castle Garden: The Forgotten Gateway," Ancestry Magazine
"Germans in America," Axel Engstfeld Filmproduktion, in collaboration with WDR/Cologne and ARTE, and with the support of North Rhine-Westphalia’s Film Funding Board (Filmstiftung NRW) and the Goethe-Institute

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