Immigration Ports Other Than New York



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.

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 the 1890s.”

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 train.

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 Italians increased.

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.

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 West.

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 handling.

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.

Immigration Legislation
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 law.

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
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 Canada.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 1999 issue of Family Chronicle.