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Ask a Genealogist: Immigrants to New York from England.

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Question:

George and his wife Lucy Susan Barber were born in England in 1808 and 1809. They had two daughters born in England, Charlotte J born 1829 and Elizabeth born 1832. In 1834 Mary is born in NYC. They had 3 more children born in Newburyport Mass. That gives me a tight window of immigration. I have found out that the ships records and immigration records were lost in a fire at Ellis Island. The state of NY does not allow on line access to their records and few counties go back to 1834 so I'm at a dead end. All searches via Ancestry, American Ancestors or FamilySearch draw a blank. I've spent hours looking at my UK subscription to Ancestry and still get no hits. In all my searches I got two hits for Lucy Susan Barber but both don't match the person that George Married. Unfortunately there are a lot of George Armstrongs but still no match up hits. All birth, marriage and death certificates list husband and wife as born in England.

Answer:

First, a little historical overview of the port of arrival for New York City to better understand where records were kept and what may have been destroyed during the 1897 fire that destroyed the original immigration station on Ellis Island.

In his book, American Passage, The History of Ellis Island, Vincent J. Cannato says, “Between 1820 and 1860, 3.7 million immigrants entered through the portal of New York Harbor—some 70 percent of all immigrants to the United States during this time. Those ships streaming up the Narrows into New York Harbor,…”

Ellis Island as an immigrant processing station did not open until 1892, and then after the fire which broke out just after midnight on June 15, 1897 was rebuilt and reopened in mid-December 1900. Prior to 1892, immigrants from 1855 to 1891 were processed at Castle Garden, the first immigrant station in New York City, located at the Battery. And before 1855, they were simply shipped up the Narrows to New York Harbor as described by Professor Cannato.

This time line is important for your immigrant, because the Armstrongs appear to be arriving at such an early year—1833. Also, while there was record destruction as a result of the Ellis Island fire, it did nothing to the passenger lists which were located at the Customs Office. Administrative records dated 1855-1890 were at Ellis Island and those are what were destroyed. At the time of the fire, the processing of immigrants was still under the Customs Office, which explains why the records were there. And even if passenger lists had been involved, the years in question did not include the arrival time of your ancestors.

It is a little unclear what you are hoping for, in your quest. If you are hoping for the place in England, the passenger lists will not supply this. Likewise, it is possible that no passenger list exists for your ancestors. George Barber and his family may have traveled from England to Canada and then come down from Canada. If this is the case, then there will be no paper trail for their arrival. First, going from England to Canada was like traveling from Massachusetts to Connecticut, there was just a lot of water between the two. They were both under British rule, and as such no passenger lists exist for such a trip. Likewise, coming from Canada to the United States prior to 1895 has no paper trail. Border crossings, as they are known, were not recorded until 1895 for crossing from Canada to the United States (even later for those crossing from Mexico to the United States).

However, when searching for individuals online via Ancestry and other such database sites, it is important to remember that a negative search does not necessarily mean they are not in the records. What it means is that your search did not match the index created by Ancestry to those records.

When searching for Lucy Susan Barber, it would be best to search for a Lucy Barber. When working online it is best to start out with as little information as possible, narrowing down once you get to a specific dataset.

In addition, if you have not already done so, you may wish to see if you can find a naturalization record for George Barber. This is likely to be located either in New York City or in the county where he was living in Massachusetts. Naturalization is a three step process. The immigrant was required to reside in the United States at least three years before he could declare his intent to become a citizen (step 1). Some states also required a minimum residency of one year in that state before the immigrant could declare his intent. A minimum of two years later the immigrant could then apply for citizenship (step 2). This did not have to be in the same place where he declared his intent. And then the final step is the naturalization certificate that the immigrant receives when his application has been accepted (step 3).

While these early naturalization records are not as detailed as those of the 20th century, it is possible that the declaration of intent may mention the year and method of arrival into the United States. Also keep in mind that just because he had a daughter in New York City in 1834, does not mean that the family arrived through the port of New York.
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