Before Ellis Island
June 5, 2013

When most people think about immigration to New York City, they immediately conjure up images of the vaulted halls and huddled masses of Ellis Island. For good reason! Ellis Island was the entry point for millions of immigrants during the busiest years of American immigration, the 1890’s and early 20th century. Many immigrants left Ellis Island and came straight to the Lower East Side to reconnect with their scattered communities and make new lives. However, in the 35 years before Ellis Island was used, Castle Garden, now known as Castle Clinton, was the center for United States immigration.

Castle Garden c.1850; Image courtesy NYPL

Located in the battery of Lower Manhattan, just across the bay from Ellis Island, Castle Garden was the nation’s first immigrant processing facility. Unfortunately most of Castle Gardens’ records were lost in a fire at Ellis Island in 1897, but it is estimated that between eight and twelve million immigrants came through its walls between 1855 and 1890. Some notable immigrants who came through Castle Garden include Harry Houdini, Joseph Pulitzer, Emma Goldman, and 97 Orchard’s very own Nathalie Gumpertz.

Nathalie Gumpertz

Nathalie Gumpertz resided at 97 Orchard Street in the late 19th century

The difference between the United States’ immigration polices during the times of Castle Garden and Ellis Island was great. During the time of Castle Garden immigration, there was essentially an “open door” policy where if an immigrant could pay to make their way to the United States, they could live here. There were no Visas and no passports. Nathalie Gumpertz essentially walked off a boat and into her future. There was little to no government assistance during the mid-19th century, which made life, especially life in a tenement, very difficult indeed.

The story of Ellis Island immigration is marked by quotas and deportations, while Castle Garden represents a time when immigrating to the United States was a bit of a free-for-all. Of course, nothing was free once an immigrant arrived in Manhattan.

Castle Garden c.1880

Immigrants at Castle Garden c.1880; Image courtesy NYPL

When we think of immigration today, we tend to think of a system run by the government that can be tricky and lengthy, and one that is not supposed to discriminate on the basis of country of origin. How far we have come from the days of simply walking to a new life! Or have we?

Posted by Lib Tietjen