I was presenting at the St. Louis Genealogical Society last week to a large group of genealogists. One of them came up to me during a break to discuss her ancestors who lived in Holyoke, Massachusetts. She was certain that the family came in through the port of Boston.
While that was certainly a distinct possibility, I pointed out to her that not all immigrants came in through the closest major port. There are many ways for people to enter the country. Take this Massachusetts family for example.
Holyoke is located in western Massachusetts, on the Connecticut River, near Springfield. Access to Holyoke from Boston is and was relatively easy. There is a major road that travels from east to west through the state, today called the Massachusetts Turnpike/Interstate Route 90. Immigrants entering the port of Boston could easily travel to Holyoke.
New York, however, was one of the biggest and busiest ports. Immigrants could easily arrive in the city, then make their way north up the Hudson River to Albany. From there, it is a short eastward journey to Holyoke.
In addition to major ports, many immigrants entered the country through smaller, secondary ports. Mid-size ports such as Bridgeport, New London, and New Haven in Connecticut provide easy to the mouth of the Connecticut River. It is a short, fast journey up to Holyoke from any of them. Less accessible to Holyoke, but still possible ports of entry are Newport and Providence in Rhode Island, Portsmouth in New Hampshire, and Portland in Maine.
Another major entry point for immigrants to the United States is Canada. European immigrants would depart for Canada. Once there, it was easy to enter the United States. This was a particularly common route for immigrants from the U.K. Canada was part of Great Britain and did not achieve sovereignty until the 20th century (although even today it remains part of the Commonwealth of Nations, and Queen Elizabeth appears on Canadian currency). It would not be difficult to get to the U.S. from Montreal, and an easy journey down the Connecticut River (or by rail) to Holyoke.
When dealing with immigrant ancestors, it is important to remember that many routes were open. While the closest port is the best place to start, remember to keep your mind open and cast a wide net. You may be surprised at how your ancestors actually arrived.