Along with Plymouth Rock, Ellis Island stands as the best known icon of immigration to America. But on January 1, 1892, the immigrant receiving station for New York was transferred from Castle Garden to Ellis Island.
The island was expanded with landfill and large buildings were erected on it. During the next three decades, Ellis Island was the principal gateway for immigration into America, receiving more than ten million immigrants, more than a million during the year 1907 alone. After 1924, restrictive immigration laws made the process of qualifying immigrants something that was performed before they set sail, and Ellis Island processed only a small number after that date. It ceased operation in 1954.
At the present time, the island is a national monument. A museum devoted to immigration is located at the site.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Visiting Ellis Island
Each year, more than 3 million visitors from around the world walk through the Great Hall at Ellis Island. To reach the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island Immigration Museum, take the Circle Line - Statue of Liberty Ferry from Battery Park in lower Manhattan or Liberty Park in New Jersey.
On Ellis Island, the Ellis Island Museum is located in the main immigration building, with three floors dedicated to the history of immigration and the important role Ellis Island played in American history. Don't miss the famous Wall of Honor or the 30-minute documentary film "Island of Hope, Island of Tears." Guided tours of the Ellis Island Museum are available.
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.
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?
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!
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
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.
They Fought Over Beds And Struggled With Language Barriers
Gabriel Tarriño left Spain and arrived at Ellis Island in August 1920. He likened his stay on Ellis Island to being in prison. He wrote in his diary that he was very lonely after being separated from his wife, daughter and son:
"Why is this? Staying with people that I don’t understand and they don’t understand me? If I get a fever who is going to care for me. I do not know, therefore a deep sadness envelopes me and wonder where it’s going to stop, if I could only speak with these guards but when I try they dispel me and almost use their hands on me."
He also noted that people would fight over the cots:
"In the dormitories there are so many fights for the sleeping cots, that we tremble with fear, because if two persons get to the cot at the same time, one says this is mine and the other one no it’s mine until they start beating each other. In the salons the same thing happens. I was sitting on a bench one day and two of these morons and they took it off of me and two Spaniards when they saw what was happening they came to my assistance. I saw that the others were going to hit them so I told the Spaniards forget it, let them have it, because anyone could lose their life or be maimed by such animals, without a conscience!"
Tarriño added that the dining halls were very loud and people were rude. It was difficult communicating with immigrants from all over the world, including France, Italy, Peru and Japan: "They cause such a ruckus that even God cannot understand."
This is America
Once settlers passed the Ellis Island inspection, they were allowed to enter the country but they weren’t given any documents to denote their new status as Americans. Cannato declared that “It’s a hard thing to wrap your mind around because we live in such a bureaucratic world today. We have passports, birth certificates and all sorts of documents. There was no, ‘Welcome to America, here’s your new photo ID.”
By the year 1924, Ellis Island was still operating in full swing. The haven for immigration also served multiple purposes. When World War II hit, it was used to house rival sailors in its baggage claim and its residence hall. It was also utilized by the U.S. Coast Guard to train approximately 60,000 military men. At the end of 1954, the final refugee was released and the immigration gateway closed its prestigious doors.
President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Ellis Island as a branch of the Statue of Liberty National Monument in 1965. It was actually open to the public for the first time from 1974 to 1984. By that time, it was time for the migrant portal to undergo a major facelift. Its renovation was literally the biggest historic remodeling in American history. It took $160 million to complete the project, which was paid for by donations to The Statue of Liberty – Ellis Island Foundation, Inc. in collaboration with the National Park Service.
On September 10, 1990, its main building was reintroduced to the general public and was renamed the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. By May 20, 2015, the construction of the Peopling of America Center was complete and the museum’s name was changed to Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration. Now, two million visitors make the pilgrimage to the museum every year to learn about America’s rich history.