Ellis Island was the busiest U.S. immigration inspection station for over 60 years and a gateway to America for more than 12 million immigrants. Officially opened on January 1, 1892, and expanded to six acres by land reclamation projects over the years, Ellis Island has been part of the Statue of Liberty Monument since 1965.
Much of the western shore of New York Bay (where the island is located) was originally just tidal flats and oyster beds (which were a major food source for the Lenape Native Americans who inhabited the area prior to the arrival of the Europeans). A number of the islands in this area never completely submerged during high tide (including what is now Liberty, Ellis, and Black Tom Islands). Since oysters remained a major food source, even after the Dutch arrived, the name “Oyster Islands” was given to the three mentioned above by the settlers from the Netherlands. During the Colonial period, Little Oyster Island became known as Dyre’s island and then Buckling Island. In the 1760’s, after a number of pirates were hung from scrubby trees on the island, it became known as Gibbet Island ( “gibbet” being an instrument of public execution).
Around the time of the American Revolution, merchant Samuel Ellis, acquired the island. Not much documentation was found as to what Ellis did with the property, except that he unsuccessfully tried to sell it in 1785. The state of New York leased the island from Ellis in 1794 in order to build a fort on it for the defense of the harbor. By the turn of the century, with ownership of the island now in question, New York formally took possession of Ellis Island by “An Act of Acquisition by Condemnation” (1802). Six years later, New York ceded it to the U.S. government, which used it as a federal arsenal until 1814. It remained as a military post of one sort or another for another 80 years, before it was turned into a federal immigration station( prior to this, immigrants were processed by the state at a depot in lower Manhattan). On April 18, 1890, the United States assumed control over all immigration efforts and began construction of America’s first immigration inspection station on Ellis Island. Material taken from the construction of the New York subway system was used to double the size of the island to six acres. When the station opened in 1892, the three story immigration station processed 700 applicants arriving from Europe on three large ships. A major fire on June 15, 1897, destroyed the main building, along with most of the immigration records dating back to 1855. Plans were immediately initiated to build a new station, constructed with red bricks ( thought to be more fire proof) and designed in the French Renaissance Revival style. The new building reopened on December 17, 1900. Descriptions indicated the new building was so large that the dining room alone could accommodate 1000 folks. Additional buildings were added to the grounds as the number of immigrants, trying to escape political and economic oppression, persecution, poverty, and/or violence, increased. An estimated 5000 immigrants per day were examined by officials. Passage of the Immigration Act of 1924 strove to restrict these numbers. In spite of this, it is estimated that 40% of today’s U.S. population can trace their ancestry to those immigrants processed on Ellis Island. The average processing time was from two to five hours, with the government expecting each applicant to have enough money to support themselves (at that time, considered to be 18-25 dollars - or $600 in 2015 adjusted for inflation).
Those who were sick were held at the island’s hospital - staffed by military doctors - with more than 3000 dying from their illnesses while on the island. Around 2% of all immigrants were rejected for admission to the U.S. because of serious chronic diseases or criminal backgrounds, and were returned to their homelands. During World War II, the Island was used to hold German Mariner prisoners of war and “enemy aliens”(those from Axis countries thought to be spies).
Among the 12 million immigrants processed on the island were Annie Moore (aged 17) from Cork Ireland, the first immigrant to be admitted in 1892, and Arne Petersen, a Norwegian Merchant seaman, as the last person processed in 1954.
We know that Lorraine’s family did not pass through Ellis Island (her paternal side came by way of Canada, while her maternal side arrived in Boston). Likewise, my ancestors came to America through the port of Boston. Never-the-less, this was an important stop for us during our travels. We learned a lot and had a great time here.
Those who were sick were held at the island’s hospital opposite the main reception building. If they were successfully treated, then they could be admitted to the U.S. if their illnesses were thought to be too serious or chronic, they would be sent back to their homeland (unless they died in the hospital).
While the U.S. received immigrants from all over the world, during the early days of Ellis Island, most came from Europe...