Immigration Information in Newspapers
Newspapers are especially helpful in tracing migrations from one place to another. Indexes and electronic records have become powerful tools for accessing newspapers and other records from around the world. In the personal and local news columns, we can trace trips to see distant relatives, farewell parties for families about to move, and visits back home from those who had moved away. Sometimes letters back home were published in the newspaper, especially those that reported on the destination. Announcements, letters to the editor, and “Marine Intelligence” include such useful entries as lists, and names of ships docking or cleared for departure.
Historical information about policies and attitudes that regulated immigration can often be best understood by reading newspapers of the time period being studied. For example, the common question of what happened to immigrants who were sent to Ward’s Island was addressed in the 3 June 1858 edition of the New York Times that follows:
- Commissioners of Emigration
- The Commissioners paid a visit of inspection, accompanied by several invited guests, to the Institutions on Ward’s Island yesterday. The number of immigrants now there is about 1,100, of whom about 700 are in the hospitals. The conduct of the Institution appeared to be exceedingly judicious and the result is shown in the greatly improved appearance of the grounds and the still more marked improvement in the finances of the Board. The old system of maintaining the inmates in idleness, and paying servants to do all the work of the Island, farming, gardening, smoothing the grounds, cooking and even washing and ironing for them, has been discarded and all the inmates who are well are required to work. The result has been an immense economy in the administration of the Institution on the island. The grounds are kept in order, an extensive and very fine sea wall has been built, fifty or sixty acres of land are in excellent cultivation, and this work as well as other building services of the other buildings is done almost wholly by the inmates.
Now, did you ever think to look at Ward’s Island in the census if your ancestor is missing in that timeframe?
It may be impossible to learn much about a specific shipping incident or shipwreck, however, a careful search of newspapers in port cities may yield helpful information, or clues for furthering a search. An item published in the Ohio Repository (Canton, Ohio), 27 August 1856, provided some sobering statistics under the headline “Perils of the Deep.” The article stated: “During the six months ending July 1, 1856, 333 vessels have been reported either lost or damaged, among which were 110 ships, 91 schooners, 60 brigs, 54 barks, and 18 steamers.” If family tradition holds that an individual was shipwrecked or involved in any unusual event on the high seas, the best course is to learn everything possible about the incident. Some newspaper accounts will provide whatever details were available from witnesses, if any. Some newspapers even named those who perished in shipwrecks, though these accounts may not be entirely reliable.