After President Donald Trump issued an executive order restricting immigration from seven Muslim countries and suspending refugees from entering the United States for 120 days, many Americans were outraged. The United States was built by people who sought a better, safer life — a goal many of today’s immigrants still seek to fulfill.
Millions of immigrants passed through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954. On the first day (Jan. 1, 1892) Annie Moore, 17, from Cork, Ireland, was the first person to pass through the station. First and second class passengers were examined on board their ships. Their economic status meant they weren’t considered a burden to the state.
Photo: Immigrants with baggage wait in line at a teller’s window ready to do a money exchange.
Poorer passengers had a more difficult time gaining entry into the United States. They had to undergo strict medical exams and legal inspections.
A Clerk’s Compelling Images
Augustus Sherman was a chief registry clerk at Ellis Island in New York City from 1882 to 1925. One of his jobs was to document thousands of immigrants as they attempted to make new lives for themselves in the United States. Sherman was not a trained photographer, yet he took some incredible photos of the people who traveled from all over the world to a new place they hoped to call home.
Photo: A trio of Dutch women. Notice their unusual head pieces.
At the time, photography consisted of bulky cameras and a lengthy process to develop the images. During his tenure as clerk, Sherman took over 200 photos, mostly of people who were detained for questioning. The curators at The New York Public Library now houses Sherman’s photograph collection.
Only A Small Percent Were Denied Entry
The busiest year at Ellis Island was 1907. On April 11th of that year, 747 people arrived at the station, an all-time high. In general, immigrants spent between three to five hours on the island before being released. They were examined by medical professionals and were required to answer questions about their occupations and how much money they had. Officials wanted immigrants to have a little bit of money in their pockets upon arrival.
Photo: Immigrants on Ellis Island eating a free meal.
Two percent of immigrants were denied entry for three main reasons: they had a contagious disease, suffered from insanity, or a had a criminal background.
A Historical Document Of Unprecedented Worth
It is believed that the people in Sherman’s photographs were detainees who were waiting for a travel ticket, to exchange money, or for someone to pick them up on the island. The incredible images were published by National Geographic in 1907. They were also displayed at the federal Immigration Service’s lower Manhattan headquarters.
Photo: Children from Lapland. Notice their folksy outfits and coordinating hats.
Sherman’s photographs were also made public in the 2005 book, August F. Sherman: Ellis Island Portraits 1905-1920. Dubbed as “a historical document of unprecedented worth,” the book includes 100 portraits that show the stream of immigrants who passed through Ellis Island at the turn of the century and later.
Not Everyone Was Welcome
Sherman originally took the photographs for personal study. The subjects in his images were often wearing their national costumes or folk dress, which is what makes them so fascinating to people today. The immigrants included Romanian shepherds, German stowaways, Russians, Norwegians, Greek priests, and women from Ghana wearing elaborate dresses.
This photograph was captioned: “A group of Hungarian gypsies all of whom were deported.” The people in the picture were also labeled as Servian gypsies.
Changes In Attitude
While most immigrants were able to leave Ellis Island within hours some were stuck there for days or even weeks before they were approved to stay or were deported. Fortunately, the immigrants were given free meals when they arrived. Many tried new food for the first time, such as bananas and ice cream.
Photo: A Greek soldier.
During World War I, attitudes about foreigners turned increasingly negative, effectively ending the mass immigration to the United States. The island was later turned into a detention and deportation station. During World War II, officials detained German, Italian, and Japanese resident aliens on Ellis Island.
The Reasons For Immigrating
More than 12 million people passed through Ellis Island from 1892-1954. According to History.com, about 40 percent of current Americans are able to trace their history to at least one ancestor that came to the United States through Ellis Island. That’s pretty amazing.
Photo: New immigrants to Ellis Island wearing turbans and fezzes.
The immigrants had many reasons for leaving their countries. Many of them wanted to distance themselves from economic and political instability or for religious freedom. Is that so different from today’s immigrants and refugees? Emma Lazarus wrote a poem to raise money for a foundation for Lady Liberty to rest upon. The pedestal now displays the poem in its entirety, including the line “From her beacon-hand glows world-wide welcome” and the famous stanza “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
When Ellis Island officially opened to immigrants on Jan. 1, 1892, 700 people from three large ships arrived. In the first year alone, nearly 450,000 immigrants were processed at the station. Just five years later there was a huge fire at the station, possibly due to faulty wiring. No one died, but the wooden structures were decimated.
Photo: Family from Slovakia.
While the new building was under construction, immigrants were processed at the Barge Office nearby at the Battery. The new facility opened in December 1900 but barely managed to handle the flood of immigrants, even though the dining hall could accommodate 1,000 people.
1 Million Immigrants A Year
From 1905 to 1914, approximately 1 million immigrants arrived in the United States each year. During its peak period, officials processed nearly 5,000 immigrants a day. Of the 12 million immigrants who passed through Ellis Island, the majority (in the beginning) were from Germany, Ireland, Britain, and the Scandinavian countries. As their numbers slowed down, Southern and Eastern Europeans (many of them Jews) started entering the country.
Photo: “Protestant woman from Zuid-Beveland, province of Zeeland, The Netherlands.”
Others who were processed included people from Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Serbia, Slovakia, Syria, Turkey, and Armenia. The Immigration Act of 1924 greatly restricted immigration and allowed people to be processed at overseas embassies.
Immigrants were asked 29 questions upon their arrival at Ellis Island and given a medical inspection. Those with visible health problems or diseases were either deported or sent to one of the island’s hospitals. During that time, more than 3,000 would-be immigrants died from their health problems on the island.
Photo: A German stowaway.
Although 98 percent of immigrants were allowed to stay in the United States, Ellis Island was also known as “The Island Of Tears” and “Heartbreak Island” to those who had to return to their home countries after such long transatlantic trips. Outside the registry room, there was a “kissing post” a wooden column marking the area friends and relatives met with new immigrants.
Six-Second Medical Exams
Uniformed military surgeons would inspect immigrants as they were in line. The inspection took them a mere six seconds. The surgeons were known for inspecting the immigrants in unusual ways, such as using a button hook to determine if an individual had an eye disease such as trachoma.
Photo: Guadeloupe women dressed in their finest clothing.
Those who were sick or who had medical issues were labeled with a chalk mark code on their clothing as they climbed the stairs from the baggage area to the Great Hall. Surgeons would watch to see if they had problems climbing the stairs. Some immigrants reportedly wiped off the chalk marks or turned their clothing inside out in order to enter the country.
Ellis Island Becomes A Detention Center
After 1924 and the passage of the Immigrant Quota Act of 1921, Ellis Island was primarily used as a detention and deportation station. Following World War II, officials used it as a permanent holding facility for foreign nationals. German mariners and “enemy aliens” from Axis countries were held for reasons including spying, sabotage and other activities. Approximately 7,000 Germans, Italians, and Japanese were detained at the island.
Photo: An Algerian man.
Meanwhile, the island continued to process tens of thousands of immigrants a year — but this was far fewer than the hundreds of thousands who arrived before the war began. Following the war, immigration levels once again rose.
New Country, New Name?
It has long been a legend that government officials encouraged immigrants to change their names upon arrival. However, historical records do not indicate that this was the case. Inspectors referenced passenger lists from the steamship companies in order to process the immigrants. The paperwork came from companies such as the Cunard Line, the White Star Line, and the Holland America Line not the U.S. Bureau of Immigration.
Photo: Italian woman.
Most immigrants Americanized their names after the immigration process, sometimes by second or third generations. There were also some discrepancies because of foreign pronunciations of certain letters in the alphabet and due to language disparities.
The First & Last Ellis Island Immigrants
Annie Moore, 17, from Cork, Ireland, was the first person to enter Ellis Island. She arrived on the ship Nevada on Jan. 1, 1892. Moore arrived on the island with her two brothers. They traveled to the United States to reunite with their parents who had moved to New York City in 1890.
Photo: Annie Moore & the sculpture of her at Ellis Island
Upon arrival, Moore and her brothers were greeted by officials, and she was given a $10 gold coin, which was the most money she had ever owned. She died in 1895. Ellis Island saw its last official immigrant in 1954. He was a Norwegian merchant seaman named Arne Peterssen.
Ellis Island’s immigration station closed in 1954 and was abandoned for several years. In 1965, it was proclaimed part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places the following year. Because it is symbolically one of the most important buildings in American history, $150 million was budgeted for its restoration.
Photo: Dutch children
The immigration museum was opened in 1990 and includes exhibits such as the Hearing Room, Peak Immigration Years, the Peopling of America, Restoring a Landmark, Silent Voices, Treasures from Home, and Ellis Island Chronicles. Three theaters host films and live performances.
Ellis Island’s Most Famous Immigrant
The Ellis Island Immigration Museum was officially renamed the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration in 2015. It includes the entire story of people immigrating to the United States both before and after the Ellis Island era. Outside the main building, there is a wall that contains some of the names of immigrants who were processed on the island.
Photo: Bob Hope before and after his rise to fame
One of the island’s most famous immigrants was Bob Hope. Hope was born in England and traveled to New York City in 1908 with his family when he was 4 years old. They traveled in steerage on the S.S. Philadelphia. Hope became a U.S. citizen in 1920 when his father became a naturalized citizen.
On the south side of the island are the remains of the Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital, which is closed to the general public. It operated from 1902 to 1930. Many buildings on the island were abandoned and have not been renovated. This part of the island is sometimes called “sad side” instead of the South side.
Photo: A trio of Georgians.
The Save Ellis Island foundation has a goal of preserving the 28 buildings that have not yet been rehabilitated. The New Ferry Building was renovated in 2008. It is built in the Art Deco style to replace an earlier version but is only partially open to the general public.
Ellis Island Expansion
Of all the buildings on Ellis Island, only three have been restored. Save Ellis Island is continually fundraising in order to renovate and restore the buildings that are primarily located on the south side of the property. The foundation is working with the National Park Service in order to complete its project goals.
Photo: A Hindu boy
The group hopes to raise $250 million to rehabilitate the rest of the structures on the island. They plan to build the Ellis Island Institute and Conference Center in the remaining buildings. It would feature a museum, various exhibits, and an education center focusing on the themes of Ellis Island.
Squabbling Over The Island
Once New York decided to use Ellis Island as an inspection station for immigrants, officials had to double its size to accommodate the new facilities. Barges were used to bring in the dirt that was partially taken from the subway stations that were being built in Manhattan in the 1890s. Today, 90 percent of the island is artificial landfill.
Photo: Ruthenian woman
One of the problems is that New Jersey owned the rights to the water surrounding the island and thereby claimed they owned 90 percent of Ellis Island. In 1998, the Supreme Court ruled that 90 percent should belong to New Jersey, and that’s why the state flag is flown on the property. Both states have jurisdiction over the island even though the island is officially part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument, a federal government facility.
Visiting The Island
The Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration is open to visitors daily except on Christmas. It is located in the New York Harbor and can be accessed by taking a ferry, which also stops at the Statue of Liberty. There is a 45-minute audio tour in nine different languages that allows visitors to relive the immigrant experience as if they were new arrivals to the country.
Photo: Norwegian woman
In addition, visitors can interact with exhibits that include in-depth interviews with historians, architects, and archaeologists. Museum highlights include artifacts, photographs and interactive displays and the award-winning film, Island of Hope, Island of Tears.
Find Your Ancestors
Today, there are many resources available for those who may want to attempt to research their family trees. For those who know or suspect one or more of their relatives came to the United States through Ellis Island, there is an online database with searchable records. The database is sponsored by The Statue of Liberty- Ellis Island Foundation. It allows people to input information they have for their ancestors including first name (or just an initial, since many people Americanized their names when coming to the United States), last name, and passenger ID. Search settings can be changed to include close matches, alternate spellings, and names that sound similar to the entered name.
Learn Your Family’s History
If your ancestor has a difficult to pronounce or difficult to spell last name, this allows you to broaden the search criteria since there is a good chance their name is spelled differently in the Ellis Island records. You can also enter their approximate year of birth, age at arrival, and year of arrival to narrow down the search results. This is an incredible tool for those hoping to learn more about their family history. Since so many Americans are descended from those who came through Ellis Island, there is a good chance you can find your family in the database!
The American Immigrant Wall of Honor
If you would like to honor your ancestors who came through Ellis Island, there are many ways of doing so. Ellis Island has a permanent exhibit on display which allows people to commemorate their family members. It is the only place in the entire country where people can honor their family heritage at a National Monument. The American immigrant Wall Honors displays individual and family names and can be found at the Ellis Island national Museum of Immigration. It currently has more than 700,000 names! The wall honors all immigrants and Americans and anyone can add a name to the wall for $150 which go to maintain Ellis Island.
It’s Actually in New Jersey
If you ask pretty much anyone, they will tell you that Ellis Island is in New York. After all, it’s in New York Harbor and it’s near the Statue of Liberty which everyone associates with the Big Apple. But what most people don’t know is that while Ellis Island has traditionally been considered to be a part of New York state, the United States Supreme Court ruled in 1998 that most of the island is actually located in New Jersey. The two states actually argued for decades over whether the island really belonged to New York or to New Jersey.
Before Ellis Island became a port of entry for so many new Americans, it was just a small island that no one really cared about. A tribe of Mohegan Indians lived nearby and knew the island as “Kioshk” or “Gull Island.” In the 17th century, a Dutchman named Michael Paauw purchased the land and renamed it Oyster Island because of the shellfish found on the beach. In the 1700s it earned the nickname Gibbet Island, in reference to the gibbet (also known as a gallows tree) which was used to hang convicted pirates. Quite a bloodthirsty history for an island that would later become known for its welcoming shores!
It wasn’t until the period of the American Revolution that the land fell into the hands of Samuel Ellis, a New York merchant. The island was named for him. Ellis built a tavern on the island for local fisherman to stop and have a bite to eat. Fourteen years after the death of Samuel Ellis, the state of New York purchased the island from Ellis’ family for a grand total of $10,000. The United States War Department then paid the state of New York for the rights to use the island to store ammunition and to build military fortifications during the War of 1812. During the Civil War it was used a munitions arsenal.
The New York Immigration Station
After the end of the Civil War, Ellis Island remained vacant for a while until the U.S. government made the decision to replace Ellis Island’s predecessor, the New York immigration station at Castle Garden. The immigration station closed in 1890 and the federal government allotted $75,000 for a new immigration station at Ellis Island. Much of the island that is in existence today is actually man made; artesian wells were dug on the island and its total size was doubled making the island over six acres large. All of the renovations made to the island made it an ideal spot for the new immigration center.
Changing Immigration Laws
Confusing immigration laws and policies are nothing new. Immigration laws have been constantly changing dating back almost to the founding of the United States. The first federal immigration law, the Naturalization Act, was passed in 1790. The law allowed white men who had been living in the country for two years to gain American citizenship. For decades, there was little regulation of immigrants and nearly 5 million people entered the country over the next 45 years. Huge immigration waves such as the one from the Irish potato famine from 1846 to 1850 led to people coming to America in droves.
By 1875, the United States was restricting immigration. The country forbade prostitutes and criminals from crossing its borders. The racist Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882. Other restricted groups of people included those classified as lunatics and idiots, though these terms were meant differently than they would be today. Rather than being insults fort those deemed crazy or stupid, these terms were medical classifications for those suffering from mental illness or those with severe developmental delays. The policies after 1875 only continued to become more and more restrictive, although people were still allowed to enter the country more freely than they are today.
World War I
During World War I, immigration to the United States dramatically slowed down, partially due to the fact that travel was restricted in wartime. Anti immigrant sentiments also began to increase when the United States entered the war in 1917. Many German citizens who attempted to enter the country through Ellis Island were deported. A hospital was set up on the island which also served as a detention center for citizens of countries which were at war with the United States. it was a troubling time for the nation as a whole, but especially for immigrants looking to start a n ew life in America.
A Literacy Test
At the same time that Ellis Island was doing double duty as a detention center and a hospital, it was also serving as a way station for Navy personnel. A literacy test was also introduced during this period, putting poor and uneducated immigrants at a discriminatory disadvantage. The literacy test would remain in place until 1952. Anyone over the age of 16 who was found to be unable to read 30 to 40 test words in their native language was barred entry through Ellis Island. This policy had the biggest impact on disadvantaged people who had little access to education in their home countries but who were searching for better opportunities in America.
The Red Scare
By the end of World War I, America was becoming increasingly fearful of radical movements. Anarchists had already been banned from entering the country and the nation continued to be fearful of immigrants who harbored radical political views. The aftermath of the Russian Revolution terrified Americans, plunging the country into a “Red Scare.” Ellis Island then became a sort of prison, used to detain immigrant radicals who were accused of subversive activity as many people feared that they may try to start a revolution of their own in the United States. Many of these so-called radicals were later deported.
While immigration slowed down during World War I, it briefly picked up again after the war. Post-war immigration resulted in 590,971 people came through Ellis Island, causing the government to further restrict immigration. The high numbers of immigrants combined with the fearful mistrust for foreigners that was sweeping the nation lead to the Immigration Quota Act in 1921. President Warren G. Harding signed the act into law, severely limiting the number of people who could enter the country. The new law said that annual immigration from any given country could not exceed 3 percent of the total number of immigrants from the country living in the U.S. in 1910.
The National Origins Act
The Immigration Quota Act meant that Ellis Island saw less traffic than in previous years when anyone could attempt to enter the country and start a new life. Three years after the act was signed into law, the National Origins Act of 1924 further restricted immigration was signed, further limiting immigration. The act put quotas into place which capped how many people from each country could enter the Unites States each year. It also limited total annual immigration to just 165,000 each year, a sharp drop from immigration during the years when unlimited numbers of people were allowed to enter the country.
The End of an Era
After this, the buildings on Ellis Island began to fall into disrepair. Many people who emigrated to the United States were finding other methods of transportation. Flying was becoming a more popular way of travel, and many people who were moving to the United States chose to travel by air rather than by sea. It was much quicker to fly than to take a ship, which could take several weeks and lead to illness as people often lived in cramped quarters. There was also the fact that people on planes would not have to experience seasickness for days on end!
The Great Depression
The Great Depression was another turning point in United States history. While the beginning of the 20th century saw people entering the United States in unprecedented numbers, the 1930s were completely different. Due to the poor economy and lack of jobs, many people decided to leave the country in search of work. Many of them went back home to their families in their home countries or went somewhere they thought they could find a job. For the first time in United States history, ore immigrants were leaving the country than arriving in it. This pretty much sealed the fate of Ellis Island.
The Internal Security Act
In 1950. a new act made it even harder for people to enter the country. The Internal Security Act of 1950 prevented people with links (however tenuous) to communist and fascist organizations from entering the country. Ellis Island was primarily being used as an office and storage space for the U.S. Coast Card by this time. A few years later, in 1954, all of the 33 structures on Ellis Island were officially closed and the island was declared surplus property and placed under the jurisdiction of the General Services Administration.
Fortunately, many of the discriminatory policies which had been put into place by previous administrations were later revoked. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a new bill, the Hart-Cellar Act, which abolished the quota system along with many discriminatory policies which kept people from entering the United States on the basis of national origin. It allowed people from many countries who had previously been barred entry to enter the United States. It also allowed for refugees to seek asylum in the United States, allowing them to enter the country under a separate quota.
A Lasting Legacy
The effect that Ellis Island has had on the United States is immeasurable. The people who passed through there paved the way for future generations. Many of the immigrants who came to the United States through Ellis Island are ancestors of some of the most influential people who are today living in the United States. The fact that Ellis Island is today preserved as a living monument to the people who passed through there is a testament to just how critical immigrants have been to shaping and developing the United States of America.
A Melting Pot
Nearly half of the people who are American citizens today are here because their ancestors left behind their home countries for a new life. These people passed through Ellis Island, often not knowing whether they would be allowed into the United States or instead be forced back across the ocean. Even more Americans are descended from immigrants who came to the country before Ellis Island was an immigration center. Others are children of more recent immigrants or are immigrants themselves. America is a truly diverse country with a fascinating history, a melting pot of many different nationalities, languages, and cultures.