The Steerage Act of 1819

In the early 1800s, trans-Atlantic shipping companies seized the opportunity for bigger profits. Ships that had delivered timber from America to Europe could now make money on the return trip, too, packing their holds to capacity with hopeful passengers. As these passengers began to arrive in American ports they were starved and sick, and as deaths at sea increased also.

To help protect the new populations coming to America, the United States government established the ‘Steerage Act of 1819’. It was designed to protect the welfare of these travelers. It imposed strict limits on the number of steerage passengers allowed based on ship tonnage and set minimum requirements of food and water to be carried for each passenger. A fine of $150 – an enormous sum at that time – was charged to the shipping company for every passenger over the limit.

To enforce the new law, ship captains had to present American port officials with a list of every passenger on board (a manifest), including name, age, and occupation, as well as a list of those who had died at sea.

Many of those immigrants came into the Castle Garden port of New York (which was before Ellis Island was established). From August 3, 1855 to April 18, 1890, the Castle was America’s first official immigration center. Prior to 1855 ships did come to New York but with no official immigrant center.

Using the web site for Castle Garden, using, there is a free index of manifests from the port of New York, 1820 to 1892. So if you believe an ancestor arrived at New York from Europe between those dates.

In the search on the Castle Garden site, you do not need to fill in all the information. For example, you may not know the ship the ancestor traveled on. However, if you get the correct manifest on an ancestor, you will learn additional information.

Photos: Castle Garden; Davis family steerage-1871-on ship ‘Wyoming’; from England Kershaw family steerage-1858-on ship ‘Empire’ from Ireland.

Related Blogs:

Castle Garden

Statue of Liberty – 1886


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