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Ellis Island

Ellis Island


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Ellis Island is a historical site that opened in 1892 as an immigration station, a purpose it served for more than 60 years until it closed in 1954. Located at the mouth of Hudson River between New York and New Jersey, Ellis Island saw millions of newly arrived immigrants pass through its doors. In fact, it has been estimated that close to 40 percent of all current U.S. citizens can trace at least one of their ancestors to Ellis Island.

U.S. Immigration History













When Ellis Island opened, a great change was taking place in U.S. immigration. Fewer arrivals were coming from northern and western Europe—Germany, Ireland, Britain and the Scandinavian countries—as more and more immigrants poured in from southern and eastern Europe.

Among this new generation were Jews escaping from political and economic oppression in czarist Russia and eastern Europe and Italians escaping poverty in their country. There were also Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, Serbs, Slovaks and Greeks, along with non-Europeans from Syria, Turkey and Armenia.

The reasons they left their homes in the Old World included war, drought, famine and religious persecution, and all had hopes for greater opportunity in the New World.

After an arduous sea voyage, immigrants arriving at Ellis Island were tagged with information from their ship’s registry; they then waited on long lines for medical and legal inspections to determine if they were fit for entry into the United States.

From 1900 to 1914—the peak years of Ellis Island’s operation—an average of 1,900 people passed through the immigration station every day. Most successfully passed through in a matter of hours, but others could be detained for days or weeks.

Many immigrants remained in New York, while others traveled by barge to railroad stations in Hoboken or Jersey City, New Jersey, on their way to destinations across the country.

WATCH: America: Promised Land on HISTORY Vault

Ellis Island Museum of Immigration

Passage of the Immigrant Quota Act of 1921 and the National Origins Act of 1924, which limited the number and nationality of immigrants allowed into the United States, effectively ended the era of mass immigration into New York. At this point, the smaller number of immigrants began to be processed on their arriving ships, with Ellis Island serving primarily as a temporary detainment center.

From 1925 to the closing of Ellis Island in 1954, only 2.3 million immigrants passed through the New York City port–which was still more than half of all those entering the United States.

Ellis Island opened to the public in 1976. Today, visitors can tour the Ellis Island Museum of Immigration in the restored Main Arrivals Hall and trace their ancestors through millions of immigrant arrival records made available to the public in 2001.

In this way, Ellis Island remains a central destination for millions of Americans seeking a glimpse into the history of their country, and in many cases, into their own family’s story.

Ellis Island Timeline

1630-1770
Ellis Island is little more than a spit of sand in the Hudson River, located just south of Manhattan. The Mohegan Indians who lived on the nearby shores call the island Kioshk, or Gull Island. In 1630, the Dutch acquired the island and gifted it to a certain Michael Paauw, who called it Oyster Island for the plentiful amounts of shellfish on its beaches. During the 1760s, it is known as Gibbet Island, for its gibbet, or gallows tree, used to hang men convicted of piracy.

1775-1865
Around the time of the Revolutionary War, the New York merchant Samuel Ellis purchases the island, and builds a tavern on it that caters to local fishermen.

Ellis dies in 1794, and in 1808 New York State buys the island for $10,000. The U.S. War Department pays the state for the right to use Ellis Island to build military fortifications and store ammunition, beginning during the War of 1812. Half a century later, Ellis Island is used as a munitions arsenal for the Union army during the Civil War.

Meanwhile, the first federal immigration law, the Naturalization Act, is passed in 1790; it allows all white males living in the U.S. for two years to become citizens. There is little regulation of immigration when the first great wave begins in 1814.

Nearly 5 million people will arrive from northern and western Europe over the next 45 years. Castle Garden, one of the first state-run immigration depots, opens at the Battery in lower Manhattan in 1855. The Potato Famine that strikes Ireland (1845-52) leads to the immigration of over 1 million Irish alone in the next decade.

Concurrently, large numbers of Germans flee political and economic unrest. Rapid settlement of the West begins with the passing of the Homestead Act in 1862. Attracted by the opportunity to own land, more Europeans begin to immigrate.

1865-1892
After the Civil War, Ellis Island stands vacant, until the government decides to replace the New York immigration station at Castle Garden, which closes in 1890. Control of immigration is turned over to the federal government, and $75,000 is appropriated for construction of the first federal immigration station on Ellis Island.

Artesian wells are dug and the island’s size is doubled to over six acres, with landfill created from incoming ships’ ballast and the excavation of subway tunnels in New York.

Beginning in 1875, the United States forbids prostitutes and criminals from entering the country. The Chinese Exclusion Act is passed in 1882. Also restricted are “lunatics” and “idiots.”

1892
The first Ellis Island Immigration Station officially opens on January 1, 1892, as three large ships wait to land. Seven hundred immigrants passed through Ellis Island that day, and nearly 450,000 followed over the course of that first year.

Over the next five decades, more than 12 million people will pass through the island on their way into the United States.

1893-1902
On June 15, 1897, with 200 immigrants on the island, a fire breaks out in one of the towers in the main building and the roof collapses. Though no one is killed, all Ellis Island records dating back to 1840 and the Castle Garden era are destroyed. The immigration station is relocated to the barge office in Manhattan’s Battery Park.

The new fireproof facility is officially opened in December 1900, and 2,251 people pass through on opening day. To prevent a similar situation from occurring again, President Theodore Roosevelt appoints a new commissioner of immigration, William Williams, who cleans house on Ellis Island beginning in 1902 by overhauling operations and facilities.

To eliminate corruption and abuse, Williams awards contracts based on merit and announces contracts will be revoked if any dishonesty is suspected. He imposes penalties for any violation of this rule and posts “Kindness and Consideration” signs as reminders to workers.

1903-1910
To create additional space at Ellis Island, two new islands are created using landfill. Island Two houses the hospital administration and psychiatric ward, while Island Three holds the contagious diseases ward.

By 1906, Ellis Island has grown to more than 27 acres, from an original size of only three acres.

Anarchists are denied admittance into the United States as of 1903. On April 17, 1907, an all-time daily high of 11,747 immigrants received is reached; that year, Ellis Island experiences its highest number of immigrants received in a single year, with 1,004,756 arrivals.

A federal law is passed excluding persons with physical and mental disabilities, as well as children arriving without adults.

1911-1919
World War I begins in 1914, and Ellis Island experiences a sharp decline in receiving immigrants: From 178,416 in 1915, the total drops to 28,867 in 1918.

Anti-immigrant sentiment increases after the U.S. enters the war in 1917; German citizens seized on ships in East Coast ports are interned at Ellis Island before being deported.

Starting in 1917, Ellis Island operates as a hospital for the U.S. Army, a way station for Navy personnel and a detention center for enemy aliens. By 1918, the Army takes over most of Ellis Island and creates a makeshift way station to treat sick and wounded American servicemen.

The literacy test is introduced at this time, and stays on the books until 1952. Those over the age of 16 who cannot read 30 to 40 test words in their native language are no longer admitted through Ellis Island. Nearly all Asian immigrants are banned.

At war’s end, a “Red Scare” grips America in reaction to the Russian Revolution. Ellis Island is used to intern immigrant radicals accused of subversive activity; many of them are deported.

1920-1935
President Warren G. Harding signs the Emergency Quota Act into law in 1921. According to the new law, annual immigration from any country cannot exceed 3 percent of the total number of U.S. immigrants from that same country, as recorded in the U.S. Census of 1910.

The Immigration Act of 1924 goes even further, setting strict quotas for immigrants based on country of origin, including an annual limit of 165,000 immigrants from outside the Western Hemisphere.

The buildings on Ellis Island begin to fall into neglect and abandonment. America is experiencing the end of mass immigration. By 1932, the Great Depression has taken hold in the U.S., and for the first time more people leave the country than arrive.

1949–1955
By 1949, the U.S. Coast Guard has taken over most of Ellis Island, using it for office and storage space. The passage of the Internal Security Act of 1950 excludes arriving immigrants with previous links to communist and fascist organizations. With this, Ellis Island experiences a brief resurgence in activity. Renovations and repairs are made in an effort to accommodate detainees, who sometimes number 1,500 at a time.

The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1952 (also known as the McCarran–Walter Act), combined with a liberalized detention policy, causes the number of detainees on the island to plummet to fewer than 30 people.

All 33 structures on Ellis Island are officially closed in November 1954.

In March 1955, the federal government declares the island surplus property; it is subsequently placed under the jurisdiction of the General Services Administration.

1965-1976
In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson issues Proclamation 3656, according to which Ellis Island falls under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service as part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument.

Also in 1965, President Johnson signs the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, also known as the Hart-Celler Act, which abolishes the earlier quota system based on national origin and establishes the foundations for modern U.S. immigration law.

The act allows more individuals from third-world countries to enter the U.S. (including Asians, who have in the past been barred from entry) and establishes a separate quota for refugees.

Ellis Island opens to the public in 1976, featuring hour-long guided tours of the Main Arrivals Building. During this year, more than 50,000 people visit the island.

1982-1990
In 1982, at the request of President Ronald Reagan, Lee Iacocca of the Chrysler Corporation heads the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation to raise funds from private investors for the restoration and preservation of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.

By 1984, when the restoration begins, the annual number of visitors to Ellis Island has reached 70,000. The $156 million dollar restoration of Ellis Island’s Main Arrivals Building is completed and re-opened to the public in 1990, two years ahead of schedule.

The Main Building houses the new Ellis Island Immigration Museum, in which many of the rooms have been restored to the way they appeared during the island’s peak years. Since 1990, some 30 million visitors have visited Ellis Island to trace the steps of their ancestors.

Meanwhile, immigration into the United States continues, mostly by land routes through Canada and Mexico. Illegal immigration becomes a constant source of political debate throughout the 1980s and 1990s. More than 3 million aliens receive amnesty through the Immigration Reform Act in 1986, but an economic recession in the early 1990s is accompanied by a resurgence of anti-immigrant feeling.

1998
In 1998, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that New Jersey has authority over the south side of Ellis Island, or the section composed of the landfill added since the 1850s. New York retains authority over the island’s original 3.5 acres, which includes the bulk of the Main Arrivals Building.

The policies put into effect by the Immigration Act of 1965 have greatly changed the face of the American population by the end of the 20th century. Whereas in the 1950s, more than half of all immigrants were Europeans and just 6 percent were Asians, by the 1990s only 16 percent are Europeans and 31 percent are Asians, and the percentages of Latino and African immigrants also jump significantly.

Between 1965 and 2000, the highest number of immigrants (4.3 million) to the U.S. comes from Mexico; 1.4 million are from the Philippines. Korea, the Dominican Republic, India, Cuba and Vietnam are also leading sources of immigrants, each sending between 700,000 and 800,000 over this period.

2001
The American Family Immigration History Center (AFIHC) opens on Ellis Island in 2001. The center allows visitors to search through millions of immigrant arrival records for information on individual people who passed through Ellis Island on their way into the United States.

The records include the original manifests, given to passengers onboard ships and showing names and other information, as well as information about the history and background of the ships that arrived in New York Harbor bearing hopeful immigrants to the New World.

Debates continue over how America should confront the effects of soaring immigration rates throughout the 1990s. In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Homeland Security Act of 2002 creates the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which takes over many immigration service and enforcement functions formerly performed by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).

2008-Present
In 2008, plans are announced for an expansion of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum called “The Peopling of America,” which opened to the public on May 20, 2015. The museum’s exploration of the Ellis Island era (1892-1954) was expanded to include the entire American immigration experience up to the present day.

Trivia

The First Arrival
On January 1, 1892, teenager Annie Moore from County Cork, Ireland, became the first person admitted to the new immigration station on Ellis Island. On that opening day, she received a greeting from officials and a $10.00 gold piece. Annie traveled to New York with her two younger brothers on steerage aboard the S.S. Nevada, which left Queenstown (now Cobh), Ireland, on December 20, 1891 and arrived in New York on the evening of December 31. After being processed, the children were reunited with their parents, who were already living in New York.

Beware the Buttonhook Men
Doctors checked those passing through Ellis Island for more than 60 diseases and disabilities that might disqualify them from entry into the United States. Those suspected of being afflicted with a having a disease or disability were marked with chalk and detained for closer examination. All immigrants were checked closely for trachoma, a contagious eye condition that caused more detainments and deportations than any other ailment. To check for trachoma, the examiner used a buttonhook to turn each immigrant’s eyelids inside out, a procedure remembered by many Ellis Island arrivals as particularly painful and terrifying.

Dining at Ellis Island
Food was plentiful at Ellis Island, despite various opinions as to its quality. A typical meal served in the dining hall might include beef stew, potatoes, bread and herring (a very cheap fish); or baked beans and stewed prunes. Immigrants were introduced to new foods, such as bananas, sandwiches and ice cream, as well as unfamiliar preparations. To meet the special dietary requirements of Jewish immigrants, a kosher kitchen was built in 1911. In addition to the free meals served, independent concessions sold packaged food that immigrants often bought to eat while they waited or take with them when they left the island.

Famous Names
Many famous figures passed through Ellis Island, some leaving their original names behind on their entry into the U.S. Israel Beilin–better known as composer Irving Berlin–arrived in 1893; Angelo Siciliano, who arrived in 1903, later achieved fame as the bodybuilder Charles Atlas. Lily Chaucoin arrived from France to New York in 1911 and found Hollywood stardom as Claudette Colbert. Some were already famous when they arrived, such as Carl Jung or Sigmund Freud (both 1909), while some, like Charles Chaplin (1912) would make their name in the New World.

A Future Mayor
Fiorello La Guardia, the future mayor of New York City, worked as an interpreter for the Immigration Service at Ellis Island from 1907 to 1910, while he was completing law school at New York University. Born in New York in 1882 to immigrants of Italian and Jewish ancestry, La Guardia lived for a time in Hungary and worked at the American consulates in Budapest and other cities. From his experience at Ellis Island, La Guardia came to believe that many of the deportations for so-called mental illness were unjustified, often due to communication problems or to the ignorance of doctors doing the inspections.

“I’m Coming to New Jersey”
After the Supreme Court ruled in 1998 that the state of New Jersey, not New York, had authority over the majority of the 27.5 acres that make up Ellis Island, one of the most vocal New York boosters, then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, famously remarked of the court’s decision: “They’re still not going to convince me that my grandfather, when he was sitting in Italy, thinking of coming to the United States, and on the shores getting ready to get on that ship in Genoa, was saying to himself, ‘I’m coming to New Jersey.’ He knew where he was coming to. He was coming to the streets of New York.”


In the early 17th century, Ellis Island was no more than a two- to three-acre lump of land in the Hudson River, just south of Manhattan. The Mohegan Indigenous group who inhabited the nearby shores called the island Kioshk, or Gull Island. In 1628, Dutchman Michael Paauw acquired the island and renamed it Oyster Island for its rich oyster beds.

In 1664, the British took possession of the area from the Dutch and the island was once again known as Gull Island for a few years, before being renamed Gibbet Island, following the hanging there of several pirates (gibbet refers to a gallows structure). This name stuck for over 100 years, until Samuel Ellis purchased the little island on January 20, 1785, and gave it his name.


Oral Histories

Anchor Steamship passengers, circa 1912.

Gjenvick-Gjonvik Archives. Used by permission.

12 million immigrants, 12 million stories

Every immigration experience is unique. Since 1973, the National Park Service has interviewed more than 1,700 Ellis Island immigrants so that they could tell their own stories. Why did you come here? What was it like after you arrived?

The Ellis Island Oral History Project saved these individual stories for historians to study and for all of us to learn from and enjoy. National Park Service staff and volunteers recorded, then painstakingly transcribed, these interviews.

These are but a few of the most compelling stories within the park's extensive collection. If you wish to listen to the original conversation, audio files are in .MP3 format. They will take longer to download.

Oral histories are conversations. Like most conversations, they do not follow a strict chronological narrative. Both complete and edited versions of these interviews are offered here. The edited versions were created for classroom use. They are not only shorter, but have been rearranged to follow chronological order. Edited versions also include questions and graphic organizers.

Looking for something shorter? Teachers may prefer to use these excerpts from several oral histories, organized by select subjects.

Nelly Ratner (Myers) on the left, next to her mother and sister, on board the Rex.

Austria
Nelly Ratner (Myers) was both Jewish and deaf, making her and her deaf family especially vulnerable targets when Nazi Germany marched into her hometown of Vienna in 1938. She, her mother and sister were lucky enough to take the last ship allowed to travel from Italy to the U.S, spending Yom Kippur on board. Upon their arrival, they discovered that immigration officials saw a deaf family as a burden. They spent months at Ellis Island. Despite her deafness, Myers could speak a full audio version of her oral history is available.

Vera Clarke (Ifill) at age 17, after being in the U.S. for about a decade.

Photo courtesy of Vera Clarke Ifill and her family. Used by permission.

Barbados
Vera Clarke (Ifill) shares her experiences, both good and bad, about immigrant life: getting frostbite in her first encounter with a winter climate her father's murder and the family's resulting homelessness encountering racism in both her old and new countries and, founding a credit union with her husband. (full audio recording)

Croatia (Yugoslavia)
In 1946, Paul Frkovich escaped communist Yugoslavia by crawling under a barbed wire fence at night. He entered the U.S. in secret as well, crossing the Rio Grande River at night after a journey that started in Argentina on a bicycle. When he was discovered to be an illegal immigrant he was sent to Ellis Island, largely a detention and deportation station by that time. Read how he managed to elude authorities yet again and finally gain U.S. citizenship. (audio version)

Gem Hoy "Harry" Lew studying after his atrrival in the U.S.

Photo courtesy of Harry Lew and his daughter Karen Lew. Used by permission.

China/Hong Kong
Unlike most immigrants in our story, Gem Hoy "Harry" Lew flew to the U.S., arriving at Idlewild (now Kennedy) Airport. Immigration officials were waiting for him. He spent the next two months in confinement at Ellis Island trying to prove that he was the son of the family he claimed as his own, at a time when iImmigration by people of Chinese ancestry was limited to a few hundred per year--unless you were the child of a citizen. Immigration officials drilled him to find out: was he who he said he was? (audio version)

Mary Mullins Gordon at about the age of 25.

Photo courtesy of the family of Mary Mullins Gordon. Used by permission.

Ireland
Mary Margaret Mullins (Gordon) was sent by her family to the U.S. A gifted and candid storyteller, her memories of the Irish struggle for independence are poignant, while her experiences in the U.S. are told with humor. Listening to her tell her story is a treat.

Manny (Emanuel) Steen was also sent by his family to the U.S. shortly after his father's sudden death. His story is a basic American success story, told with heart and humor. (It's also very long.) Like Gordon, listening to Steen tell his story is half the fun.

Josephine Garzieri (later Calloway), from her certificate of citizenship

U.S. Office of Citizenship and Immigrant Services

Italy
Why was Josephine Garzieri (Calloway) even allowed to board a ship from Italy to Ellis Island? She clearly suffered from trachoma, a contagious eye disease that was easy to spot but hard to cure. When she was about to be deported, her father obtained the money for her medical treatment from the talented doctors in the contagious diseases hospital on Ellis Island's south side. For 11 months she endured painful treatments but, at the end, she was cured and free to come to America. (audio version)

Doukenie, third from left, in 1918 with friends in her home country.

Photo from Hope Bacos Bazaco, daughter of Doukenie Bacos. Used by permisison.


History of Ellis Island from 1892 to 1954

A roof cap from the pavilion of the corridor in between the Kitchen and Laundry Building and the Powerhouse/Ferry Building

National Park Service, Statue of Liberty NM

The history and use of Ellis Island as an immigration station and hospital from 1892 to 1954
The architectural history of the construction of the Ellis Island immigration station is extensively represented in the museum archives and library collections which house numerous reports, monographs and documents containing the original design and construction of the buildings, hospitals and support structures, and all the subsequent modifications and restorations on the buildings to the present. Documentation on the rehabilitation of all the buildings and fund raising efforts by the two NPS partners, Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation and Save Ellis Island are included in the museum archives and library.

During rehabilitation of the architectural structures on Ellis Island, actual building components, such as the decorative copper flashing and drainage downspout, that are unique to the site or a time period are collected when the features have both interpretive, exhibit value and use as the template for future restoration or reconstruction of buildings.

Downspout c. 1930-1939

National Park Service, Statue of Liberty NM

A pill bottle for the Public Health Service hospital, c. 1950

National Park Service, Statue of Liberty NM

Attention is also given to the administrative history and official daily activities of Ellis Island when it was in operation as an immigration station focusing on the public health, medical and legal inspection policy for immigrants conducted by the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the United States Public Health Service. Public Health Service work on the Ellis Island is represented in the museum collection by items such as plates and medicine bottles found on site in the hospital buildings.

A plate used by Food Services on Ellis Island

National Park Service, Statue of Liberty NM

Some of the medical personnel employed on the island gave oral histories, diaries and photographs to the museum and this material is available for research in the museum archives and museum collection.

A nurse, outside of the contagious disease ward, with some patients

National Park Service, Statue of Liberty NM

A United States Immigration Service inspector's hat

National Park Service, Statue of Liberty NM

Immigration processing on Ellis Island left an indelible mark on all immigrants, from their arrival to, hopefully, their departure from the island to new lives in the United States. An attempt is made for the museum to acquire artifacts that were associated with this process. Immigration Service uniforms, Inspection Cards and literacy test cards developed in response to the 1917 Immigration (Literacy) Act tell the story of the history of the immigrant experience on Ellis Island.

An inspection card from the S.S. Antonia, February 5, 1925

National park Service, Statue of Liberty NM

A literacy test card from the United States Government Printing Office, c. 1920s

National Park Service, Statue of Liberty NM

Immigration processing on Ellis Island went into decline after the passage of the 1924 Quota Act which imposed strict laws on immigration. The work done on Ellis Island after this Act focused more on detaining and the deportation of people from the United States.

A sign displayed on Ellis Island

National Park Service, Statue of Liberty NM

Graffiti drawn on the plaster walls of Ellis Island

National Park Service, Statue of Liberty NM

People held in detention throughout the history of Ellis Island often expressed their feelings by writing on the walls of their rooms. Some of this graffiti is preserved and documented in the museum collection.


Our Records

Microfilm Research

Our office has microfilm of indexes to passenger lists of vessels arriving at the Port of New York for the years 1820-1846 and 1897-1943. The passenger list records were created by the U.S. Customs Service (Record Group 36), and the Immigration and Naturalization Service [INS] (Record Group 85). The passenger lists themselves are available at our office via the online databases listed below.

You can read more about these microfilm publications, and the locations where you can view them, in the National Archives online Microfilm Catalog. Search for the exact publication number ("T715", for example) as the keyword.

Visiting Our Facility

For information on visiting our facility, please call us at 212.401.1620 or 866.840.1752 (toll-free) or view details online.

Researchers coming to the Regional Archives should review the researcher guidelines and facility information. Researchers may be required to present photo identification to obtain a NARA researcher identification card.

Original Record Note:
Due to the fragile nature of the original records, researchers will only have access to the microfilm and digital copies.

Obtaining Copies

Self-service microfilm copies at our facility are $.40 per page. Certified copies are an additional $15 per record. Staff are available to help with research and copies. If you require a certified copy from microfilm, you must ask for staff assistance.

We are unable to search our microfilm for specific entries or provide reproductions in response to letters or telephone calls. The microfilm is available for free public use at our facility.

If you are not planning to visit our facility and conduct your research, you can submit an online request for copies of ship passenger arrival records. If you can provide sufficient information, they will conduct a search of the indexes and provide you with pertinent copies of ship manifest pages.


Ellis Island Welcomed Thousands to America—But It Was Also a Detention Center

E very year, roughly 4 million people visit the Ellis Island immigration station, wandering the manicured museum grounds and gazing at the nearby Statue of Liberty. But today&rsquos experience visiting the tiny speck of land off the southern tip of Manhattan is a far cry from what Ellen Knauff saw there in 1948. &ldquoThe whole place [had] the look of a group of kennels,&rdquo she wrote in her memoir years later.

Born in Germany, Knauff spent part of World War II working for the United Kingdom&rsquos Royal Air Force and later the United States Army. After the war, she married Kurt Knauff, a U.S. citizen and Army veteran stationed in Germany. Newly married, she traveled to the United States for the first time in 1948, planning to benefit from a special immigration law enacted by Congress to make it easy for soldiers to return home with their new loves.

Instead, Ellen was greeted by the hard reality of the Ellis Island immigration prison. These days, most people think of Ellis Island as the place that welcomed generations of newcomers. That is certainly true. As many as 12 million people are thought to have first stepped foot in the United States through the island&rsquos immigration offices, which opened on Jan. 1, 1892. But in 1907, its busiest year, one out of ten arriving passengers experienced Ellis Island as a hurdle rather than an open door, spending days or months stuck inside the detention center.

&ldquoAs we approached Ellis Island, I could see that parts of it were enclosed by double wire fences topped by barbed wire and marked by what appeared to be watchtowers. These fenced-off areas were subdivided by more fences,&rdquo Knauff recalled. &ldquoI called Ellis Island a concentration camp with steam heat and running water,&rdquo she added, borrowing language that the New York Times had used several years earlier when the facility held people of Italian, German and Japanese descent during the war.

Knauff was part of the 10% who got stuck there. After she arrived at Ellis Island, despite her American husband, she was not permitted to continue into the United States.

Immigration officials refused to tell Knauff why she couldn&rsquot leave. They claimed that her presence in the United States threatened national security, but refused to disclose their evidence. Insistent, Knauff fought all the way to the Supreme Court. There she received little sympathy. The justices granted the federal government broad powers to keep people out. &ldquoWhatever the procedure authorized by Congress is, it is due process as far as an alien denied entry is concerned,&rdquo the court announced in January 1950.

With judicial approval, immigration officials kept Knauff on Ellis Island while she mounted a public-relations campaign. A few times, she won temporary relief from confinement, only to be returned to the island prison months later. In total, Knauff spent almost two years stuck there. Eventually she convinced immigration officials to give her a hearing where she learned why she was so threatening to the United States. Witnesses claimed she was a Communist spy, a powerful accusation in the early years of the Cold War. Under the antiseptic light of transparency, the government&rsquos claims were revealed to be too flimsy to continue confining her. Immigration officials had acted on nothing more than &ldquohearsay, uncorroborated by direct evidence,&rdquo the board of immigration appeals concluded. Ellen Knauff finally made her way off the island for good in 1951.

By 1954, just three years later, President Dwight Eisenhower was ready to push immigration law enforcement in a radical new direction. That year, the Eisenhower Administration decided to shut down six immigration detention facilities, including the one on Ellis Island. &ldquoToday the little island between the Statue of Liberty and the skyline and piers of New York seems to have served its purpose,&rdquo Eisenhower&rsquos attorney general Herbert Brownell announced on Nov. 11, 1954. Instead of operating large immigration prisons, the federal government would make confinement the exception not the rule. As officials decided whether migrants were deportable, they would let people live wherever they wanted, blending into communities. This &ldquois one more step toward humane administration of the Immigration laws,&rdquo Brownell continued.

A few days later, the final person held on Ellis Island, Arne Peterssen, left on a ferry heading toward Manhattan. A newspaper report at the time described him as &ldquoa Norwegian seaman who had overstayed his shore leave.&rdquo The United States government knew that he had entered the country with permission to stay temporarily and it knew that he had not left. Peterssen was as deportable as if he had come to the United States without the government&rsquos permission. Yet immigration officials released him into the bustle of New York City. It remains unclear what happened to him after that. We don&rsquot know if he left the United States, stayed in New York, or headed somewhere else in the country. All we know is that the United States decided that a migrant&rsquos violation of immigration law was no reason to lock him up.

Difficult as it is to believe today, the United States government got remarkably close to abolishing immigration prisons, even with the memories of war still fresh and the Cold War beginning. For the next 25 years, federal policy would not change. If the threat of Soviet military strength and the fevered pitch of Cold War ideological fights wasn&rsquot enough to keep Eisenhower from shutting down immigration prisons, what is stopping us now?


They Had To Answer 29 Questions On Topics Like Polygamy, Anarchy, And The US Constitution

Photo : Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

When immigrants arrived at Ellis Island, they were funneled through a line in the Great Hall. In addition to medical examinations, they spent several hours answering questions. They were asked 29 questions with the help of an interpreter, including these:

Are you meeting a relative here in America? Who?

Have you been in a prison, almshouse, or institution for care of the insane?

Are you a polygamist? Are you an anarchist?

Are you coming to America for a job? Where will you work?

Are you deformed or crippled?

Who was the first President of America?

Which President freed the slaves?

Can you name the 13 original Colonies?

Who is the current President of the United States?


A Brief History of Ellis Island

1620s: The Dutch arrive in New York harbor and begin building their colony of New Amsterdam. The Dutch would refer to this island as one of the three “Oyster Islands” in New York harbor. Native Americans were the first to utilize the land. They often visited the island because of its’ large oyster beds, which was an integral source of food. This was the inspiration for the Dutch naming of the islands.

Credit: National Parks Service

1674-1679: After the British took hold of New Netherland, the island was bestowed to Captain William Dyer by Sir Edmund Andros, the Colonial Governor of New York. It was then renamed Dyer’s Island.

1774: Samuel Ellis purchases the island. This New York merchant builds a tavern on the island where men would come to dig for oysters and enjoy the views of the harbor.

1785: Ellis attempts to sell the island, but fails. He eventually passes away in 1794 and the island is given to his descendants.

1808: The United States Federal Government acquires the island from New York State for harbor defense.

1811: Fort Gibson is constructed by the United States War Department, built to protect the harbor during the war of 1812. The fort consisted of barracks, gunpowder magazine, and a battery of canons.

Credit: National Parks Service

1812: The British never directly attacked the harbor during the war and thus Fort Gibson never saw any action.

1890: The Federal Government takes control of immigration from the states.

1890-1891: Before the immigration depot began construction, the island was doubled in size with landfill. A ferry slip and dock were built, and some of the older military post buildings were adapted for reuse.

1892: New immigration station opens up at Ellis Island on January 1.

1897: Immigration station destroyed by a fire on June 15. No one was killed.

1900: Current Main Building opens, made completely fireproof by the architectural firm of Boring and Tilton. Opening day was December 17.

Credit: National Parks Service

1901: Kitchen, Laundry and Powerhouse buildings were built and the island was further enlarged by landfill to allow for a hospital complex.

1902: In March, the Main Hospital Building officially opened, with space and equipment for up to 125 patients.

1903-1909: A number of other buildings were added to the hospital complex such as an administration building, a new hospital extension, and the psychopathic ward. Enlarged again with landfill, the island then allowed room for the building of the Contagious Disease Hospital and Isolation Wards.

Credit: National Parks Service

1920s: Last swell of construction involving a New Immigration Building, New Ferry House, and the new Recreation Building and Shelters.

1939-1946: United States Coast Guard occupies Ellis Island to establish a training station, utilizing many of the buildings already on the island. By 1946, the training station was decommissioned.

1951-1954: The Coast Guard returns to the island to establish a Port Security Unit.

1954: Ellis Island Immigration Station is closed permanently and the island is abandoned.

Credit: National Parks Service

1955: The island is declared surplus Federal property.

1965: Ellis Island becomes part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument. Put into effect by President Lyndon B. Johnson in a signed proclamation.

1986: The work begins to repair and refurbish the main immigration building on Ellis Island.

1990: Restored Main Building reopens as an immigration museum.

Want to experience this history up close and personal?? Join us for a tour!


Ellis Island’s History

From 1892 to 1954, over twelve million immigrants entered the United States through the portal of Ellis Island, a small island in New York Harbor. Ellis Island is located in the upper bay just off the New Jersey coast, within the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. Through the years, this gateway to the new world was enlarged from its original 3.3 acres to 27.5 acres mostly by landfill obtained from ship ballast and possibly excess earth from the construction of the New York City subway system.

Before being designated as the site of the first Federal immigration station by President Benjamin Harrison in 1890, Ellis Island had a varied history. The local Indian tribes had called it "Kioshk" or Gull Island. Due to its rich and abundant oyster beds and plentiful and profitable shad runs, it was known as Oyster Island for many generations during the Dutch and English colonial periods. By the time Samuel Ellis became the island's private owner in the 1770s, the island had been called Kioshk, Oyster, Dyre, Bucking and Anderson's Island. In this way, Ellis Island developed from a sandy island that barely rose above the high tide mark, into a hanging site for pirates, a harbor fort, ammunition and ordinance depot named Fort Gibson, and finally into an immigration station.

From Military Fort to National Gateway

From 1794 to 1890 (pre-immigration station period), Ellis Island played a mostly uneventful but still important military role in United States history. When the British occupied New York City during the duration of the Revolutionary War, its large and powerful naval fleet was able to sail unimpeded directly into New York Harbor. Therefore, it was deemed critical by the United States Government that a series of coastal fortifications in New York Harbor be constructed just prior to the War of 1812. After much legal haggling over ownership of the island, the Federal government purchased Ellis Island from New York State in 1808. Ellis Island was approved as a site for fortifications and on it was constructed a parapet for three tiers of circular guns, making the island part of the new harbor defense system that included Castle Clinton at the Battery, Castle Williams on Governor's Island, Fort Wood on Bedloe's Island and two earthworks forts at the entrance to New York Harbor at the Verrazano Narrows. The fort at Ellis Island was named Fort Gibson in honor of a brave officer killed during the War of 1812.

Immigration Policy Embraces the Masses

Prior to 1890, the individual states (rather than the Federal government) regulated immigration into the United States. Castle Garden in the Battery (originally known as Castle Clinton) served as the New York State immigration station from 1855 to 1890 and approximately eight million immigrants, mostly from Northern and Western Europe, passed through its doors. These early immigrants came from nations such as England, Ireland, Germany and the Scandinavian countries and constituted the first large wave of immigrants that settled and populated the United States. Throughout the 1800s and intensifying in the latter half of the 19th century, ensuing political instability, restrictive religious laws and deteriorating economic conditions in Europe began to fuel the largest mass human migration in the history of the world. It soon became apparent that Castle Garden was ill-equipped and unprepared to handle the growing numbers of immigrants arriving yearly. Unfortunately, compounding the problems of the small facility were the corruption and incompetence found to be commonplace at Castle Garden. The Federal government intervened and constructed a new Federally-operated immigration station on Ellis Island. While the new immigration station on Ellis Island was under construction, the Barge Office at the Battery was used for the processing of immigrants. The new structure on Ellis Island, built of "Georgia pine" opened on January 1, 1892. Annie Moore, a teenaged Irish girl, accompanied by her two brothers, entered history and a new country as she was the very first immigrant to be processed at Ellis Island. Over the next 62 years, more than 12 million were to follow through this port of entry.

Ellis Island Burns and Years of Records Lost

While there were many reasons to immigrate to America, no reason could be found for what would occur only five years after the Ellis Island Immigration Station opened. During the early morning hours of June 15, 1897, a fire on Ellis Island burned the immigration station completely to the ground. Although no lives were lost, many years of Federal and State immigration records dating back to 1855 burned along with the pine buildings that failed to protect them. The United States Treasury quickly ordered the immigration facility be replaced under one very important condition: all future structures built on Ellis Island had to be fireproof. On December 17, 1900, the new Main Building was opened and 2,251 immigrants were received that day.

Journeying by Ship to the Land of Liberty

While most immigrants entered the United States through New York Harbor (the most popular destination of steamship companies), others sailed into many ports such as Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, San Francisco, Savannah, Miami, and New Orleans. The great steamship companies like White Star, Red Star, Cunard and Hamburg-America played a significant role in the history of Ellis Island and immigration in general.
First and second class passengers who arrived in New York Harbor were not required to undergo the inspection process at Ellis Island. Instead, these passengers underwent a cursory inspection aboard ship, the theory being that if a person could afford to purchase a first or second class ticket, they were less likely to become a public charge in America due to medical or legal reasons. The Federal government felt that these more affluent passengers would not end up in institutions, hospitals or become a burden to the state. However, first and second class passengers were sent to Ellis Island for further inspection if they were sick or had legal problems. This scenario was far different for "steerage" or third class passengers. These immigrants traveled in crowded and often unsanitary conditions near the bottom of steamships with few amenities, often spending up to two weeks seasick in their bunks during rough Atlantic Ocean crossings. Upon arrival in New York City, ships would dock at the Hudson or East River piers. First and second class passengers would disembark, pass through Customs at the piers and were free to enter the United States. The steerage and third class passengers were transported from the pier by ferry or barge to Ellis Island where everyone would undergo a medical and legal inspection.

A Record Year for New Americans

During the early 1900s, immigration officials mistakenly thought that the peak wave of immigration had already passed. Actually, immigration was on the rise, and in 1907 more people immigrated to the United States than any other year, a record that would hold for the next 80 years. Approximately 1.25 million immigrants were processed at Ellis Island in that one year. Consequently, masons and carpenters were constantly struggling to enlarge and build new facilities to accommodate this greater than anticipated influx of new immigrants. Hospital buildings, dormitories, contagious disease wards and kitchens all were feverishly constructed between 1900 and 1915. As the United States entered World War I, immigration to the United States decreased. Numerous suspected enemy aliens throughout the United States were brought to Ellis Island under custody. Between 1918 and 1919, detained suspected enemy aliens were transferred from Ellis Island to other locations in order for the United States Navy with the Army Medical Department to take over the island complex for the duration of the war. During this time, regular inspection of arriving immigrants was conducted onboard ship or at the docks. At the end of World War I, a big "Red Scare" spread across America and thousands of suspected alien radicals were interned at Ellis Island. Hundreds were later deported based upon the principal of guilt by association with any organizations advocating revolution against the Federal government. In 1920, Ellis Island reopened as an immigration receiving station and 225,206 immigrants were processed that year.

Arrival at the Island and Initial Inspection

If the immigrant's papers were in order and they were in reasonably good health, the Ellis Island inspection process would last approximately three to five hours. The inspections took place in the Registry Room (or Great Hall), where doctors would briefly scan every immigrant for obvious physical ailments. Doctors at Ellis Island soon became very adept at conducting these "six second physicals." By 1916, it was said that a doctor could identify numerous medical conditions (ranging from anemia to goiters to varicose veins) just by glancing at an immigrant. The ship's manifest log, that had been filled out back at the port of embarkation, contained the immigrant's name and his/her answers to twenty-nine questions. This document was used by the legal inspectors at Ellis Island to cross-examine the immigrant during the legal (or primary) inspection. The two agencies responsible for processing immigrants at Ellis Island were the United States Public Health Service and the Bureau of Immigration (later known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service - INS). On March 1, 2003, the Immigration and Naturalization Service was restructured and included into three separate bureaus as part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Despite the island's reputation as an "Island of Tears", the vast majority of immigrants were treated courteously and respectfully, and were free to begin their new lives in America after only a few short hours on Ellis Island. Only two percent of the arriving immigrants were excluded from entry. The two main reasons why an immigrant would be excluded were if a doctor diagnosed that the immigrant had a contagious disease that would endanger the public health or if a legal inspector thought the immigrant was likely to become a public charge or an illegal contract laborer.

Immigration Laws and Regulations Evolve

From the very beginning of the mass migration that spanned the years 1880 to 1924, an increasingly vociferous group of politicians and nativists demanded increased restrictions on immigration. Laws and regulations such as the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Alien Contract Labor Law and the institution of a literacy test barely stemmed this flood tide of new immigrants. Actually, the death knell for Ellis Island, as a major entry point for new immigrants, began to toll in 1921. It reached a crescendo between 1921 with the passage of the Quota Laws and 1924 with the passage of the National Origins Act. These restrictions were based upon a percentage system according to the number of ethnic groups already living in the United States as per the 1890 and 1910 Census. It was an attempt to preserve the ethnic flavor of the "old immigrants", those earlier settlers primarily from Northern and Western Europe. The perception existed that the newly arriving immigrants mostly from Southern and Eastern Europe were somehow inferior to those who arrived earlier.

After World War I, the United States began to emerge as a potential world power. United States embassies were established in countries all over the world, and prospective immigrants now applied for their visas at American consulates in their countries of origin. The necessary paperwork was completed at the consulate and a medical inspection was also conducted there. After 1924, the only people who were detained at Ellis Island were those who had problems with their paperwork, as well as war refugees and displaced persons. Ellis Island still remained open for many years and served a multitude of purposes. During World War II, enemy merchant seamen were detained in the baggage and dormitory building. The United States Coast Guard also trained about 60,000 servicemen there. In November of 1954, the last detainee, a Norwegian merchant seaman named Arne Peterssen, was released, and Ellis Island officially closed. The federal government declared Ellis Island surplus government property and the site was abandoned for nearly 60 years. During this time Ellis Island, exposed to the elements and decades of neglect, started to deteriorate. Windows broke apart, roofs caved in, brick and limestone cracked and fell to the ground. Trees and other vegetation began to dominate the complex. The south side was dangerously close to a state of ruin.

Ellis Island Dedicated as a National Monument

In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson declared Ellis Island part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument. Ellis Island was opened to the public on a limited basis between 1976 and 1984. Starting in 1984, Ellis Island&rsquos North Side underwent a major restoration, the largest historic restoration in U.S. history. The project was funded by donations made to The Statue of Liberty - Ellis Island Foundation, Inc. in partnership with the National Park Service. The Main Building was reopened to the public on September 10, 1990, as the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. Today, the museum receives almost 2 million visitors annually.

Rehabilitation of the South Side and Hard Hat Tours

Due to a renewed intereset in the impotance of Ellis Island&rsquos history and the roll it played in shaping the United States, a partnership between Save Ellis Island and the National Park Service was formed to rehabilitate and preserve the 29 unrestored buildings on Ellis Island&rsquos south side. The historic hospital buildings are invaluable, preserving them is no easy task. Strict standards exist to regulate the alterations of these buildings down to the very paint color. These standards exist to ensure that the integrity of the buildings is maintained.

The buildings that have been stabilized on Ellis Island&rsquos South Side are accessable by Save Ellis Island&rsquos Hard Hat Tours. Experience the full history of Ellis Island by exploring the south side. To learn more about the history of Ellis Island visit our Youtube Channel.


Ellis Island - HISTORY

The Department of Homeland Security does not have official records from this time period.

The beautiful land of the New World amazed the European explorers who arrived on North American shores around 1500. They realized the economic possibilities of the fertile soil and many natural resources. In the 17th century, Europeans established successful permanent settlements in what is now the United States. The European settlers soon dominated the Native American civilizations, which had existed for thousands of years. The major European powers (including England, Spain, and France) established colonies,

which are lands controlled by a faraway government. The people who lived in the colonies were called colonists. Enduring great hardship, the colonists built new communities in the New World

In 1492, Christopher Columbus, an Italian explorer and excellent sailor, crossed the Atlantic Ocean in search of a shorter trade route to Asia. After more than two months at sea, he landed in the Bahamas in the Caribbean islands. Although Columbus never reached the mainland of North America, he had discovered the gateway to a vast continent unexplored by Europeans. Columbus returned to Europe believing he had reached previously unknown islands in Asia. Word of the new route spread in Europe. Over the next few decades, other explorers followed in Columbus's wake, hoping to take advantage of the shortcut to Asia. It would be another Italian explorer, named Amerigo Vespucci, who realized that what had actually been discovered was a continent unknown to Europeans. He called it the New World.

European nations&mdashincluding Spain, France, the Netherlands, Portugal, Sweden, and England&mdashvied to claim pieces of the new land. In the 1600s, England founded colonies along the Atlantic seaboard, from what is now New Hampshire to Georgia. These original 13 colonies would eventually become the United States of America. Spain founded a colony at Saint Augustine, Florida, as early as 1565 and would go on to claim parts of what are now the states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. France established colonies along the Saint Lawrence River, in what is now Canada and also in the southern part of North America, in the region that is now Louisiana. The Dutch began the settlement of New Amersterdam on the southern tip of what is now Manhattan Island, home to part of New York City. The European countries often fought each over ownership of the new land more land meant more power and economic opportunity.

In 1607, England sent 100 men to America to found a new colony. The colony was named Jamestown after King James I and was located on the coast of what is now Virginia. It would become the first English colony to succeed in America, but its beginning was exceptionally difficult. The colonists were hoping to find gold easily, but didn't. And tragically, they hadn't anticipated how hard it would be to survive in the New World. More than half of the settlers died in the first year because of the harsh winters, poor planning, and disease. But under the leadership of the colonist John Smith, the colony began to succeed. They grew tobacco, which was sent back to England and sold for profit. With the profit, the colonists had the money to plant other crops, such as wheat, grapes, and corn, which is a food native to North America. By 1620, Jamestown plus other settlements that sprang up nearby had a population of about 4,000. The colony was thriving. This economic success gave England a powerful interest in protecting its foothold in the New World.

Africans first arrived in North America in 1619. In that year, 20 African people were brought to the Jamestown colony aboard a Dutch warship. They were slaves. They had been taken from their homes in Africa by force. They were beaten and enchained by men carrying weapons. Over the next almost 200 years, hundreds of thousands of Africans would be brought to America as slaves to work on plantations, especially to grow tobacco. By the end of the colonial period, Africans numbered about 500,000 and formed about 20 percent of the population of the United States.

Some colonies were formed because people wanted to escape religious persecution in Europe. In 17th century England, two groups of Christians, the Catholics and the Anglicans, were arguing over what religion and church should be the true church of England. Some of the Anglicans, called Puritans, thought that there should be more distinction between their Church of England and the Catholic Church. Some Puritans, called the Separatists, didn't want to belong to the Church of England at all anymore. King James, who was the head of the Church of England, would not allow the Separatists to practice religion on their own. To escape the situation in England, a small group of Separatists left Europe on the Mayflower ship. In 1620, the ship landed at what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts, carrying 102 passengers. Many were Separatists, who became known as the Pilgrims. They established Plymouth Colony.
After the Pilgrims, many more people flocked to the new colonies for religious reasons: About 200,000 Puritans emigrated from England during the years 1620 to 1641.

After the Pilgrims, many other immigrants came to America for the religious freedom it offered. The colony of Maryland was founded in 1634 as a refuge for Catholics, who were persecuted in England in the 17th century. In 1681, William Penn began a Quaker colony in the land that was later named after him: Pennsylvania. The main settlement was Philadelphia, which prospered through farming and commerce. In 1685, 14,000 Huguenots who were persecuted in France also joined the growing English colonies.

Early immigrants to America settled up and down the East Coast. Farming was difficult in the rocky soil of New England, so people grew only enough food for their families to live on. This is called subsistence farming. They also became fishermen, fishing cod in the Atlantic Ocean and selling it to the European markets. As they needed good ships for fishing, they started making them, becoming successful shipbuilders.
In the South, where farming was easier, colonists started large plantations to grow crops, such as tobacco, rice, and indigo. Indigo was a rich blue dye, mainly used for dyeing textiles. Plantations depended on the free labor of the slaves. Many more slaves were forced to come to America to meet the demand for labor.
By the time of the Revolutionary War, about 2.5 million people lived in the colonies, including approximately 450,000 Africans 200,000 Irish 500,000 Scottish and Scotch-Irish 140,000 Germans and 12,000 French.

As the colonies grew, people began to look past the natural barrier of the Appalachian Mountains. They moved west into the frontier lands, in what is now Ohio, and beyond.

The colonies grew prosperous and the population increased. Between the time of the first settlements and the Revolutionary War, about seven generations of people were born in America. Many of them no longer wanted to be ruled by the English throne. And they didn't want to pay taxes to the English government when they had no colonial representation in the Parliament. They became known as Patriots, or Whigs, and they included Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.
The Loyalists were colonists who wanted to remain part of England. The Patriots and Loyalists were bitterly divided on the issue. In 1776, the Continental Congress, a group of leaders from each of the 13 colonies, issued the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration stated that the United States of America was its own country.
The Patriots fought England in the Revolutionary War to gain independence for the colonies.

In 1783, with the help of the French, who had joined their side, the colonists won the war. The United States of America was a new nation.
The new government conducted a census, or count, of everyone living in the United States. At the time of the first census in 1790, nearly 700,00 Africans and 3 million Europeans lived in the new United States.

Expanding America 1790-1880

In the decades after the Revolutionary War, the 13 original colonies grew to include states stretching from Maine in the north to Louisiana in the south from the Atlantic Ocean in the east to Illinois in the west. As a new nation, the United States of America thrived. By 1820, the population had grown to nearly 10 million people. The quality of life for ordinary people was improving. People were moving west, creating towns along the route of the Transcontinental Railroad, which connected the entire country by rail, east to west, for the first time.

The prosperous young country lured Europeans who were struggling with population growth, land redistribution, and industrialization, which had changed the traditional way of life for peasants. These people wanted to escape poverty and hardship in their home countries. More than 8 million would come to the United States from 1820 to 1880.

At the turn of the 19th century, more than 1 million African Americans lived in the United States. As slaves, they were not considered citizens. Large farms and plantations depended on the free labor they provided in fields and homes. It was difficult, backbreaking work.
In 1808, the United States government banned the importation of enslaved people into the country, although the practice did continue illegally. Slavery, however, was not abolished for nearly 60 more years.

In the early and mid-19th century, nearly all of the immigrants coming to the United States arrived from northern and western Europe. In 1860, seven out of 10 foreign-born people in the United States were Irish or German. Most of the Irish were coming from poor circumstances. With little money to travel any further, they stayed in the cities where they arrived, such as Boston and New York City. More than 2,335,000 Irish arrived between 1820 and 1870.
The Germans who came during the time period were often better off than the Irish were. They had enough money to journey to the Midwestern cities, such as Chicago, Cincinnati, and St. Louis, or to claim farmland. More than 2,200,000 Germans arrived between 1820 and 1870.

In 1845, a famine began in Ireland. A potato fungus, also called blight, ruined the potato crop for several years in a row. Potatoes were a central part of the Irish diet, so hundreds of thousands of people now didn't have enough to eat. At the same time of the famine, diseases, such as cholera, were spreading. Starvation and disease killed more than a million people.
These extreme conditions caused mass immigration of Irish people to the United States. Between 1846 and 1852, more than a million Irish are estimated to have arrived in America. The men found jobs building railroads, digging canals, and working in factories they also became policemen and firemen. Irish women often worked as domestic servants. Even after the famine ended, Irish people continued to come to America in search of a better life. More than 3.5 million Irish in total had arrived by 1880.

Civil War and the End of Slavery

In the early 1860s, the United States was in crisis. The Northern states and Southern states could not agree on the issue of slavery. Most people in the Northern states thought slavery was wrong. People in South, where the plantations depended on slavery, wanted to continue the practice. In 1861, the Civil War began between the North and South. It would be an extremely bloody war over 600,000 people would die in the fighting.
Many immigrants fought in the war. Since immigrants had settled mostly in the North, where factories provided jobs and small farms were available, hundreds of thousands of foreign-born men fought for the Union.
In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared that all the slaves in the rebelling Southern states were free. It was the beginning of the end of slavery.

To ensure that the abolishment of slavery was permanent, Congress passed the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which outlawed slavery throughout the United States. The 14th Amendment, adopted in 1868, declared that African Americans were citizens of the United States. In 1870, African Americans numbered almost 5 million and made up 12.7 percent of the U.S. population.

In the late 19th century, America was looking west. People began moving away from the now crowded Eastern cities. Some were motivated by the Homestead Act of 1862, which offered free land from the government. The government offered to give 160 acres of land&mdashconsidered a good size for a single family to farm&mdashin areas including Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska. Homesteaders were required to stay on the land, build a home, and farm the land for five years. The offer attracted migrants from inside the country&mdashand waves of more immigrants from Europe. For example, many people from Sweden, where land was extremely scarce, were drawn to come to the United States. These brave settlers worked hard to start a new life on the frontier. Though life was difficult, many succeeded.

The Transcontinental Railroad

The Transcontinental Railroad was a massive construction project that linked the country by rail from east to west. The railway was built entirely by hand during a six-year period, with construction often continuing around the clock. Chinese and Irish immigrants were vital to the project. In 1868, Chinese immigrants made up about 80 percent of the workforce of the Central Pacific Railroad, one of the companies building the railway. The workers of the Union Pacific Railroad, another company that built the railroad, were mostly Irish immigrants. These railroad workers labored under dangerous conditions, often risking their lives. After the Transatlantic Railroad was completed, cities and towns sprung up all along its path, and immigrants moved to these new communities. The Transcontinental Railroad was a radical improvement in travel in the United States after its completion, the trip from East Coast to West Coast, which once took months, could be made in five days.

The American Dream 1880-1930

By 1880, America was booming. The image of America as a land of promise attracted people from all over the world. On the East Coast, Ellis Island welcomed new immigrants, largely from Europe. America was "the golden door," a metaphor for a prosperous society that welcomed immigrants. Asian immigrants, however, didn't have the same experience as European immigrants. They were the focus of one of the first major pieces of legislation on immigration. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 severely restricted immigration from China.

And the 1907 "Gentlemen's Agreement" between Japan and the United States was an informal agreement that limited immigration from Japan. Despite those limitations, nearly 30 million immigrants arrived from around the world during this great wave of immigration, more than at any time before.

In 1892, President Benjamin Harrison designated Ellis Island in New York Harbor as the nation's first immigration station. At the time, people traveled across the Atlantic Ocean by steamship to the bustling port of New York City. The trip took one to two weeks, much faster than in the past (when sailing ships were the mode of transportation), a fact that helped fuel the major wave of immigration.
For many immigrants, one of their first sights in America was the welcoming beacon of the Statue of Liberty, which was dedicated in 1886. Immigrants were taken from their ships to be processed at Ellis Island before they could enter the country.
About 12 million immigrants would pass through Ellis Island during the time of its operation, from 1892 to 1954. Many of them were from Southern and Eastern Europe. They included Russians, Italians, Slavs, Jews, Greeks, Poles, Serbs, and Turks.
Explore the Ellis Island Interactive Tour

New immigrants flooded into cities. In places like New York and Chicago, groups of immigrants chose to live and work near others from their home countries. Whole neighborhoods or blocks could be populated with people from the same country. Small pockets of America would be nicknamed "Little Italy" or "Chinatown." Immigrants often lived in poor areas of the city. In New York, for example, whole families crowded into tiny apartments in tenement buildings on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Many organizations were formed to try to help the new immigrants adjust to life in America. Settlement houses, such as Hull House in Chicago, and religious-based organizations worked to help the immigrants learn English and life skills, such as cooking and sewing.

On the West Coast, Asian immigrants were processed at Angel Island, often called the "Ellis Island of the West." Angel Island, which lies off the coast of San Francisco, opened in 1910. Although the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 restricted immigration, 175,000 Chinese came through Angel Island over a period of three decades. They were overwhelmingly the main group processed here: In fact, 97 percent of the immigrants who passed through Angel Island were from China.
Explore the Angel Island Activity

Many of the immigrants who arrived in the early 20th century were poor and hardworking. They took jobs paving streets, laying gas lines, digging subway tunnels, and building bridges and skyscrapers. They also got jobs in America's new factories, where conditions could be dangerous, making shoes, clothing, and glass products. Immigrants fueled the lumber industry in the Pacific Northwest, the mining industry in the West, and steel manufacturing in the Midwest. They went to the territory of Hawaii to work on sugar cane plantations. Eventually, they bargained for better wages and improved worker safety. They were on the road to becoming America's middle class.

By the 1920s, America had absorbed millions of new immigrants. The country had just fought in the "Great War", as World War I was known then. People became suspicious of foreigners' motivations. Some native-born Americans started to express their dislike of foreign-born people. They were fearful that immigrants would take the available jobs. Some Americans weren't used to interacting with people who spoke different languages, practiced a different religion, or were a different race. Racism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia (fear and hatred of foreigners) were the unfortunate result.
In 1924, Congress passed the National Origins Act. It placed restrictions and quotas on who could enter the country.
The annual quotas limited immigration from any country to 3 percent of the number of people from that country who were living in the United States in 1890. The effect was to exclude Asians, Jews, blacks, and non-English speakers.

A Place of Refuge 1930-1965

The Great Depression and War in Europe

In the 1930s, the country was going through the Great Depression, a terrible period of economic hardship. People were out of work, hungry, and extremely poor. Few immigrants came during this period in fact, many people returned to their home countries. Half a million Mexicans left, for example, in what was known as the Mexican Repatriation. Unfortunately, many of those Mexicans were forced to leave by the U.S. government.
In 1933, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) was formed. It still exists today.
In 1938, World War II started in Europe. America was again concerned about protecting itself. Fears about foreign-born people continued to grow.
As a result of the turmoil in the 1930s, immigration figures dropped dramatically from where they had been in previous decades. In the 1920s, approximately 4,300,000 immigrants came to the United States in the 1930s, fewer than 700,000 arrived.

World War II and the Postwar Period

The United States entered World War II in 1942. During the war, immigration decreased. There was fighting in Europe, transportation was interrupted, and the American consulates weren't open. Fewer than 10 percent of the immigration quotas from Europe were used from 1942 to 1945.
In many ways, the country was still fearful of the influence of foreign-born people. The United States was fighting Germany, Italy, and Japan (also known as the Axis Powers), and the U.S. government decided it would detain certain resident aliens of those countries. (Resident aliens are people who are living permanently in the United States but are not citizens.) Oftentimes, there was no reason for these people to be detained, other than fear and racism.
Beginning in 1942, the government even detained American citizens who were ethnically Japanese. The government did this despite the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, which says "nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty or property without the due process of law."

Also because of the war, the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943. China had quickly become an important ally of the United States against Japan therefore, the U.S. government did away with the offensive law. Chinese immigrants could once again legally enter the country, although they did so only in small numbers for the next couple of decades.
After World War II, the economy began to improve in the United States. Many people wanted to leave war-torn Europe and come to America. President Harry S. Truman urged the government to help the "appalling dislocation" of hundreds of thousands of Europeans. In 1945, Truman said, "everything possible should be done at once to facilitate the entrance of some of these displaced persons and refugees into the United States. "
On January 7, 1948, Truman urged Congress to "pass suitable legislation at once so that this Nation may do its share in caring for homeless and suffering refugees of all faiths.

I believe that the admission of these persons will add to the strength and energy of the Nation."
Congress passed the Displaced Persons Act of 1948. It allowed for refugees to come to the United States who otherwise wouldn't have been allowed to enter under existing immigration law. The Act marked the beginning of a period of refugee immigration.

In 1953, the Refugee Relief Act was passed to replace the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, which had expired. It also allowed non-Europeans to come to the United States as refugees.
The Refugee Relief Act also reflected the U.S. government's concern with Communism, a political ideology that was gaining popularity in the world, particularly in the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was also controlling the governments of other countries. The Act allowed people fleeing from those countries to enter the United States.
When he signed the Act, President Dwight D. Eisenhower said, "This action demonstrates again America's traditional concern for the homeless, the persecuted, and the less fortunate of other lands. It is a dramatic contrast to the tragic events taking place in East Germany and in other captive nations."
By "captive nations," Eisenhower meant countries being dominated by the Soviet Union.

In 1956, there was a revolution in Hungary in which the people protested the Soviet-controlled government. Many people fled the country during the short revolution. They were known as "fifty-sixers". About 36,000 Hungarians came to the United States during this time. Some of their countrymen also moved to Canada.
In 1959, Cuba experienced a revolution, and Fidel Castro took over the government. His dictatorship aligned itself with the Soviet Union. More than 200,000 Cubans left their country in the years after the revolution many of them settled in Florida.

Building a Modern America 1965-Today

A major change to immigration legislation in 1965 paved the way for new waves of immigration from all over of the world. Asians and Latin Americans arrived in large numbers, while European immigration declined.

Today, immigration to the United States is at its highest level since the early 20th century. In fact, as a result of the variety of these recent immigrants, the United States has become a truly multicultural society. The story of America &mdash who we are and where we come from &mdash is still being written.

Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965

In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, also known as the Hart-Celler Act. This act repealed the quota system based on national origins that had been in place since 1921. This was the most significant change to immigration policy in decades. Instead of quotas, immigration policy was now based on a preference for reuniting families and bringing highly skilled workers to the United States. This was a change because in the past, many immigrants were less skilled and less educated than the average American worker. In the modern period, many immigrants would be doctors, scientists, and high-tech workers.
Because Europe was recovering from the war, fewer Europeans were deciding to move to America.
But people from the rest of world were eager to move here. Asians and Latin Americans, in particular, were significant groups in the new wave of immigration. Within five years after the act was signed, for example, Asian immigration had doubled.

Vietnamese Immigration and the Refugee Act

During the 1960s and 1970s, America was involved in a war in Vietnam. Vietnam is located in Southeast Asia, on the Indochina peninsula. From the 1950s into the 1970s there was a great deal of conflict in the area. After the war, Vietnamese refugees started coming to the United States. During the 1970s, about 120,000 Vietnamese came, and hundreds of thousands more continued to arrive during the next two decades.
In 1980, the government passed the Refugee Act, a law that was meant specifically to help refugees who needed to come to the country.
Refugees come because they fear persecution due to their race, religion, political beliefs, or other reasons. The United States and other countries signed treaties, or legal agreements, that said they should help refugees. The Refugee Act protected this type of immigrant's right to come to America.

Latin American Immigration

During the 1980s, waves of immigrants arrived from Central America, the Caribbean, and South America. Hundreds of thousands of people came just from Cuba, fleeing the oppressive dictatorship of Fidel Castro. This was a significant new wave of immigrants: During the 1980s, 8 million immigrants came from Latin America, a number nearly equal to the total figure of European immigrants who came to the United States from 1900 to 1910, when European immigration was at a high point. The new immigrants changed the makeup of America: By 1990, Latinos in the United States were about 11.2 percent of the total population.

Since 1990, immigration has been increasing. It is at its highest point in America's history. In both the 1990s and 2000s, around 10 million new immigrants came to the United States. The previous record was from 1900 to 1910, when around 8 million immigrants arrived.

In 2000, the foreign-born population of the United States was 28.4 million people. Also in that year, California became the first state in which no one ethnic group made up a majority.

Today, more than 80 percent of immigrants in the United States are Latin American or Asian. By comparison, as recently as the 1950s, two-thirds of all immigrants to the United States came from Europe or Canada.

The main countries of origin for immigrants today are Mexico, the Philippines, China, Cuba, and India. About 1 in 10 residents of the United States is foreign-born. Today, the United States is a truly multicultural society.


Facts From the Stacks

Ellis Island is an immigration station that opened in 1892, and located between New York and New Jersey, served as the location for millions of newly arriving immigrants for more than 60 years. Today, April 17 th is “Ellis Island Family History Day” designated by an official proclamation of the nation’s governors under the auspices of The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, Inc., and the National Geological Society. This day recognizes the achievements and contributions made to America by the people, their families, and their family’s family who began their life through Ellis Island. On this day in 1907, 11,747 immigrants were processed–more than on any other day hence, the reason April 17 th was chosen in 2001 to be observed annually.

Ellis Island closed all 33 structures and was declared excess Federal property on November 12, 1954, and then reopened to the public in 1976 providing hour-long guided tours of the “main arrivals building” only. In 1984, the largest restoration in American history began when the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation Inc., raised funds for the $160 million project. In September 1990, the Ellis Island Immigration Museum opened to the public and has seen over 40 million visitors to date. It is estimated that over 2 million people each year visit the Island and the American Immigrant Wall of Honor—one of the largest wall of names in the world.

Many famous people came through Ellis Island, some which are:

  • Israel Beilin (Irving Berlin) – arrived in 1893
  • Angelo Siciliano (Charles Atlas) – arrived 1903
  • Carl Jung – arrived 1909
  • Charles Chaplin – arrived 1912
  • Lily Chaucoin (Claudette Colbert) – arrived 1911

Some lesser known facts about Ellis Island:

  • It was used for pirate hangings in the early 1800’s
  • The first immigrants to arrive at Ellis Island were three unaccompanied minors
  • The island was not the first place immigrants landed when they arrived in New York.
  • Immigrants did not have their names changed at the island.
  • Famed New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia worked at Ellis Island.
  • It was used as a detention facility during WWI and WWII.
  • It eventually became more famous for deportations than immigration.

To learn more about Ellis Island and the fascinating history of those that entered check out the following resources:

*Photo credit: Peter Bennett / Ambient Images / Universal Images Group


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