Not Through New York, Then Where?
Krasner-Khait looks at the other gateways to North America.
York Harbor, with its images of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis
Island, epitomizes immigrant entry. In the 100-year span between
1820 and 1920, nearly 24 million immigrants sailed or steamed
into the US through New York. But the remaining six million
entered elsewhere. When looking for ports of entry for your
immigrant family, the statistics clearly indicate New York as
a logical choice. Consider, though, other possible gateways
to America when you are not able to find your ancestor’s
name in the New York Passenger Arrival indices.
S.S. Carthaginian brought immigrants to Halifax, N.S.,
from Liverpool, England.
Perhaps you’ve had relatives who disembarked after a long,
hard journey across the sea in Boston (2 million immigrants),
Baltimore (1.5 million), Philadelphia (1.2 million), New Orleans,
(710,000), San Francisco (500,000), Key West, Florida (130,000),
Portland-Falmouth, Maine (120,000), Galveston, Texas (110,000),
Passamaquoddy, Maine (more than 80,000) or minor ports like
New Bedford, Massachusetts (40,000), Providence, Rhode Island
(40,000), and Charleston, South Carolina (20,000). Or maybe
they headed to Canada’s two main ports: Halifax, Nova
Scotia and Quebec City in Quebec.
Says Ira Glazier, Director of the Center for Immigration Research
at the Temple-Balch Institute in Philadelphia, “People
went places where they had relatives or townspeople. There wasn’t
a great deal of choice. Destinations were determined by the
network, by the chain.”
The Promise Of Prosperity
Schaje Gaum was drawn to Canada by the owners of the Sydney,
Cape Breton, Nova Scotia steel plant and coal mines, which
placed ads in eastern European newspapers, attracting workers
in steelmaking and coal mining from Poland, Ukraine, Belarus,
Russia, Croatia and more.
Says grandson Larry Gaum, “Cape Breton Island became
very prosperous. There was employment, money and housing.”
His grandmother’s older brother, a tailor, was the first
to see the opportunity of prosperity, and came to Sydney.
“He did very well and contacted my grandfather, encouraging
him and his family to come as well. Eventually, all the brothers
and sisters came over,” says Gaum.
Relative Ease Of Entry
While each port maintained some sort of private or government-run
immigration station, none was so feared or as rigorous as
Ellis Island. Says Glazier, “Often people who were rejected
in New York — either due to lack of funds or the fear
they might become a public charge — could come in through
Philadelphia. This came out of Congressional testimony in
Each Port A Unique Experience
Immigration became a competitive trade among shipping lines
and port cities vied for top ranked spots in immigrant entry.
Ports attracted different immigrant populations based on their
industries and partnerships with railroads and shipping companies.
Boston. Boston owes its popularity as a port of entry
to the Irish potato famine. From 1847-1854 about 20,000 immigrants
arrived here each year, largely from Ireland. Because Boston
was the terminus for Britain’s Cunard steamship line
and rates were subsidized by the British government, even
the poor could afford the ticket.
By 1879, Boston was clearly established as the second major
port of entry after New York. And when larger ships were introduced
in the following decade that could hold 1,500 steerage passengers,
the high volume of Irish immigrants continued. Other immigrant
groups included Italians, Greeks, Portuguese, Polish and Russian
Jews, and Armenians.
Baltimore. Baltimore’s allure was the link
to the American West, strengthened by the 1867 agreement between
the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and the North German Lloyd
Steamship Line. Now the immigrant could buy and use a single
ticket for passage to Baltimore by ship and to the west by
was the third most common point of entry to the US,
after New York and Boston.
Immigrant groups were predominantly German, Irish and English,
though there was a French influx before 1830. After 1877,
the numbers of Czechs, Russian Jews, Ukrainians, Greeks and
Says Pennsylvania family historian Dr. Sheldon Clare, “We
had always assumed that my father had come to Ellis Island
from Lithuania in 1912. In 1991, we discovered that he arrived
in Baltimore and then lived in Norristown, Pennsylvania before
moving to Perth Amboy, New Jersey.”
list indices for Baltimore between 1820-1952 are available
through the National Archives.
Philadelphia. Dutch and German religious groups formed
the first major movement of non-British Europeans to an English-speaking
colony as early as 1683.
As a port city, Philadelphia experienced major fluctuations.
The relatively longer journey and the ice that formed five-foot
thick ridges along the river prohibited easy entry and a continuous
flow of immigrants. Local entrepreneurs spurred some short-term
growth when they established shipping lines with Liverpool
and Londonderry in northern Ireland.
It wasn’t until 1873 when the American Line and the
Red Star Line began operations in Philadelphia that substantial
growth occurred. By the 1880s, the city had risen again in
the ranks of immigration ports. The American Line, through
its weekly sailings from Liverpool, delivered most of Philadelphia’s
20,000 immigrants each year between 1880 and 1910. The Red
Star Line, with its main embarkation point of Antwerp, Belgium,
and a run between Hamburg and Philadelphia, brought massive
numbers of Jews and Poles from Russia and Austria-Hungary.
Says Philadelphia-based researcher Susan Chernin, “People
tend to forget that both Philadelphia and Baltimore were also
ports of entry. Both sides of my family went through immigration
at Gloucester, New Jersey and then proceeded to the port of
New Orleans. Exotic New Orleans enjoyed its brief
heyday as a major port of entry before the Civil War. Cotton
ship captains in search of return cargo for their routes embraced
human cargo — particularly Irish, German and French
immigrants — from the European ports of Liverpool, Le
Havre, Bremen and Hamburg.
Though the route was much longer, the fare was much cheaper
and many immigrants used New Orleans as their gateway to the
New Orleans had a very diverse mix of immigrants both before
and after the Civil War. For instance, throughout the 1800s,
the city was one of the few in America to attract substantial
numbers from Spain and Latin America. It also drew groups
from the Mediterranean, particularly from Sicily. Says Glazier,
“They found opportunities working on the plantations
and farms,” because they were skilled at delicate fruit
Because it offered no protection from major infectious diseases
like cholera and yellow fever, New Orleans quickly fell from
the ranks of the top immigration ports.
San Francisco. With the 1849 gold rush, which coincided
with both the potato famine and major economic and political
upheavals in central Europe, San Francisco became a major
port for immigration. Later, the city received waves of “new”
immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, including Portuguese,
Greeks, Polish and Russian Jews, and Italians. And, of course,
San Francisco was the major entry point for the Chinese.
The Canadian Ports
During the Colonial period, emigration from the British empire
was encouraged and subsidized. Scots and Irish constituted
the major influx of immigrants to Canada’s Atlantic
ports from 1815-1850. Before 1900, the two main immigration
entry points into Canada were Halifax and Quebec City. In
early 1900s Quebec, the largest groups of immigrants were
British, eastern Europeans and Italians.
Canada welcomed nearly three million immigrants between 1896
and 1914, with growing numbers of newcomers from Russia, Italy,
and other southern and eastern European points.
During the mass wave of immigration into US ports in 1891,
exclusionary restrictions were enacted, reflecting the growing
anti-immigrant sentiment. On 26 May 1924, the US adopted and
implemented a quota system, the Johnson Immigration Act, that
favored entry of northern and western Europeans while essentially
slamming the door on the massive waves of southern and eastern
Europeans. It fixed the quota at two percent of each nationality’s
foreign-born as enumerated in the federal census of 1890.
Strenuous restrictions, rigorously enforced, existed until
1937. The laws and quota systems forced immigrants to find
other ports of entry outside the US.
According to the estimate given by the first US immigration
inspector at Montreal, about 40 percent of all passengers
arriving in Canada were actually bound for the US. Given that
immigrants from Canada were not subject to the immigration
act of 1891’s restrictive terms, this figure was not
at all surprising. The Dominion of Canada encouraged immigration
while Canadian steamship and railway lines offered low rates.
Four major shipping lines trafficked passengers between Europe
and the eastern provinces. The Beaver and Dominion Lines sailed
from Liverpool to Quebec and Montreal. The Allen Mail Line
followed the same route with a stop in Glasgow. And the Hansa
Line carried passengers from Antwerp, Hamburg and Liverpool.
The Hansa Line, working with the Canadian Pacific Railway,
offered passage to the US through Canada to many — polygamists,
the poor, and the disease-afflicted — who would have
been denied access from anywhere else under the 1891 immigration
By 1895, the US and Canada established a system of joint inspection
of immigrants crossing by land. US commissioners of immigration
were placed in Quebec, Halifax, Montreal, Victoria and Vancouver.
A popular crossing point was St. Albans, Vermont, through
which immigrants from Montreal and Quebec were processed.
Where To Find Passenger Lists
P. William and Mary T. Meyer. Passenger and Immigration
Lists Index (Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1981).
Miller, Olga K. Migration, Emigration, Immigration
(Utah: Everton Publishers, 1981).
National Archives. Guide to Genealogical Research in
the National Archives.
Stolarik, M. Mark (Editor). Forgotten Doors: The
Other Ports of Entry to the United States (Philadelphia:
The Balch Institute Press, 1988).
Tepper, Michael. American Passenger Arrival Records:
A Guide to the Records of Immigrants Arriving at American
Ports by Sail and Steam (Baltimore: Genealogical
Publishing Co., Inc., 1993).
Beginning in 1820, the US government required ship captains
to submit a passenger list or manifest for passengers brought
aboard at any foreign port and arriving in a US port. The
National Archives holds the lists in microfilm and original
form. To find your immigrant ancestors who made their way
to America through ports other than New York, you can consult
the indices for: Baltimore (1820-1952), Boston (1848-1891,
1902-1920), New Orleans (1853-1952), Philadelphia (1800-1948),
San Francisco (1893-1934) and miscellaneous ports (1820-1924),
which will then lead you to the lists.
In general, Canadian passenger list records did not begin
until 1865. Ports with passenger lists are: St. John (1900-1918),
North Sydney (1906-1919), Vancouver (1905-1919) and Victoria
and Pacific Ports (1905-1919). Microfilms of these lists are
available at the Niagara Falls Public Library in Ontario.
Border crossing records for St. Albans (1895-1954) are available
from the National Archives. Quebec arrivals (1865-1900) and
Halifax, Nova Scotia arrivals (1881-1899) are available from
the Public Archives of
article originally appeared in the May/June 1999 issue of Family