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What really was lost in 1897

Given The Legal Genealogist‘s deep German roots (my father was born in Germany and emigrated as a child), it’s always a pleasure to speak to the German Genealogy Group in New York, and last night was no different.

Great group, great questions, and a lot of fun, especially since I was able to talk about the twists and turns of trying to research the German side of my family. I’m always grateful for the opportunity to speak to the German Genealogy Group.

Ellis.fireBut a question came up during the Q&A after last night’s session that suggests a bit of a misunderstanding of what records do and don’t exist — and do and don’t survive — for immigrants to the United States, as the result of a fire at Ellis Island in 1897.

Wasn’t it true, the questioner asked, that all immigration records for all U.S. ports were lost in that Ellis Island fire?

Um… no. Only New York records, and only some New York records.

But weren’t all the records from all ports gathered together at Ellis Island, the questioner persisted.

Um… no. Only New York records, and — again — only some New York records.

Thank heavens.

First, a bit about immigration law and records.

Before 1855, immigrants who arrived in the United States by ship didn’t have any formal processing that might create records at all. The only records that these newcomers were arriving at all were customs lists of passengers, required first by the Steerage Act of 18191 and then by an 1855 act,2 both of which focused on the safety of the ships and their passengers — not on immigration.

When processing of immigrants did begin at the Port of New York in 1855, it wasn’t by the federal government — or even at a federal facility. The immigration station we all know as Castle Garden was a New York state and city facility, established under state law as a receiving station for immigrants.3 So the records created at Castle Garden in this reception process were New York State records.

In 1882, Congress adopted the Immigration Act of 1882 that authorized the Treasury Secretary to contract with the states for enforcement of that law.4 Castle Garden continued to operate under a contract with the federal government, and the records continued to be New York State records.

In 1890, the Treasury Department terminated its contract with New York and took over control of immigration through the Port of New York. New York State wouldn’t give Castle Garden to the feds, so a new federal facility was opened in April 1890 at the Barge Office near the Battery in lower Manhattan.5 A year later, in 1891, a federal law created the office of superintendent of immigration and made it a permanent requirement that immigrants be examined by federal immigration officers.6

So the records up until 1855 were customs lists of passengers, kept by the federal government. From 1855 to the opening of the Barge Office facility in 1890, there were those same customs lists and, in addition, New York State records of immigrants. From 1890 on, there were passenger lists from arriving ships as part of federal immigration records… and there were still those customs lists.

Now the Barge Office wasn’t nearly big enough to handle the volume of immigration to New York. That’s what led to Ellis Island.

Ellis Island — an island in New York Harbor — was originally the site of a military fort named Fort Gibson in honor of a War of 1812 officer. It came into federal ownership in 1808. It didn’t begin its role as the gateway for immigrants to the United States until a newly-constructed federal immigration station — built of Georgia pine — opened there on 1 January 1892.7

You did read that part about Georgia pine, right? Sigh

During the early morning hours of June 15, 1897, a fire on Ellis Island burned the immigration station completely to the ground. Although no lives were lost, many years of Federal and State immigration records dating back to 1855 burned along with the pine buildings that failed to protect them.8

But what records?

Here’s the good news. It wasn’t, as the questioner last night was certain, all of the records of all of the ports of the United States. Only New York records were at Ellis Island, not records from — say — New Orleans or Baltimore or San Francisco.

Now here’s the bad news. It did include those New York State records. The feds had gotten the State of New York to turn over the administrative records from Castle Garden to consolidate all of the immigration records in one location. So the New York State records from 1855-1890, the Barge Office records from 1890-1891, and the records created at Ellis Island from 1892-1897 — they were all at Ellis Island when it burned.

But — thank heavens — it wasn’t all of the New York records.

Because the Customs Service still had its lists of passengers — those customs lists required by the Steerage Act of 1819. And those records, we can all be eternally grateful, were not at Ellis Island in June of 1897.

The customs lists have been microfilmed, they’re on Microfilm Publication M237 of the National Archives (Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, 1820-97)9 and the microfilmed records are now online at and at

So… no, all immigration records for the early United States were not burned in the Ellis Island fire.

Yes, some New York records were lost forever in the flames at Ellis Island.

But, fortunately for us as genealogists, no, not even all New York records were lost in that fire.



  1. “An Act regulating passenger ships and vessels,” 3 Stat. 488 (2 March 1819).
  2. An Act to Regulate the Carriage of Passengers in Steamships and other Vessels, 9 Stat. 715 (3 March 1855).
  3. Carolyn L. Barkley, “Before Ellis Island: Passenger Arrivals at Castle Garden, New York,” In Search of Our Common Heritage, ( : accessed 2 Oct 2015).
  4. An act to regulate Immigration, 22 Stat. 214 (3 Aug. 1882).
  5. See Gene Aksamit, “Closing of Castle Garden,” The Compass: Immigrant Ships Transcribers Guild ( : accessed 2 Oct 2015).
  6. “An act in amendment to the various acts relative to immigration…,” 26 Stat. 1084 (3 March 1891).
  7. Ellis Island History,” Ellis Island Foundation ( accessed 2 Oct 2015).
  8. Ibid., “Ellis Island History: Ellis Island Burns and Years of Records Lost.”
  9. National Archives, Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, 1820-97, Microfilm Publication M237 (Washington, D.C. : National Archives & Records Service, 1962).
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