May 18, 2024
Ellis Island

Ellis Island: Site of Picnics, War, and Immigration

Ellis Island in New York Harbor was once the main immigration station for people entering the United States. About a third of Americans can trace their ancestry to this entry point. Today Ellis Island is a museum accessible by ferryboat.

The island is named for Samuel Ellis, a wealthy colonial landholder. He once owned the land and used it as a picnic area. When selling the island, Ellis advertised it along with several other items he had for sale, including “a few barrels of excellent shad and herrings” and “a large Pleasure Sleigh, almost new”. The U.S. War Department purchased the island for $10,000 in 1808. They built defenses there in the buildup to the War of 1812. Fort Gibson was erected to house prisoners of that conflict. Fifty years later during the Civil War, the Union army used the fort as a munitions arsenal.

When the Civil War ended, Ellis Island was abandoned for twenty-five years. Then, in 1890, the government wanted a new immigration processing center. (This would replace the Castle Garden Immigration Depot, the country’s first immigration station, which was located on the tip of Manhattan.) Ellis Island opened in 1892 as the main processing point for newcomers; at the time, about 70% of all immigrants passed through the island facilities.

The first immigrant processed was Annie Moore, a teenager from Ireland who was meeting her parents in New York. (She received a $10 gold coin!) The Ellis Island staff continued to process immigrant steamship passengers until 1954, when the last immigrant was the Norwegian merchant seaman Arne Petersen. In the more than six decades of operation, the immigration building on Ellis Island saw more than 12 million hopeful immigrants. After 1954, the building was not attended to for about thirty years. It was eventually refurbished in the late 1980s and re-opened as a museum in 1990. It is now under jurisdiction of the US National Park Service.

Immigrants’ experiences on Ellis Island differed with social class. Wealthier immigrants who traveled first or second class generally entered automatically without delay. Third- class steerage passengers had medical exams and interviews. In the end, about two percent were sent back across the ocean after these procedures. With these people in mind, Ellis is also known as “The Island of Tears” and or “Heartbreak Island”. Standard interviews included twenty-nine questions, including name, skills, and amount of money available. Adults who seemed “likely to become a public charge” would be turned away. The medical exams on Ellis Island were brief; they usually lasted only six seconds! However, people who appeared ill received much more attention. Chalk markings were put on their clothes to indicate suspected medical conditions. People who didn’t discreetly remove these markings were typically sent home or to the island’s hospital. About three thousand people travelers died in Ellis Island’s hospital. The United States enacted Quota Laws in 1924. These restricted immigration and resulted in most processing being performed at embassies and consulates instead of freestanding immigration stations. After 1924 Ellis Island was only sporadically used to see war refugees and displaced persons. The island was used for Japanese internment and to house German Americans accused of being Nazis.

Ellis Island was once the subject of a border dispute between New York and New Jersey. Today the two states have divided ownership of the historic site: the main building containing the museum is part of New York, and the old hospital buildings are part of New Jersey. The monument has been managed and preserved by the National Park Service since 1966.