ELLIS ISLAND

Gateway to America, an Asylum for the Oppressed 

A Journey Across an Ocean to Freedom, Tolerance and

New Dreams and Bright Hopes

Both an Isle of Joy & Tears


"Once I thought to write a history of the immigrants in America.

Then I discovered that the immigrants were American history."
--From The Uprooted The Epic Study of the Great Migrations
that Made the American People by Oscar Handlin

"A map of the city, colored to designate nationalities, would show more stripes than on the skin of a zebra and more colors than any rainbow."
--Jacob Riis, 1890

New York City has been called the "most successful immigrant society."  ELLIS ISLAND, founded in 1832, was established by the Federal Immigration Act of 1890 as a screening center for the large number of Europeans who were immigrating to this country.  From the years 1820 to 1920, 70 percent of the country’s immigrants came into the United States through New York port.  Immigration reached record levels of 1,004,756 in 1907.  Until the latter part of the 1820’s, the number of immigrants coming to America was less than 10,000 per year.  From 1820 on the number began to increase especially in the 1840’s and 1850’s when bad harvests in Great Britain and northern Europe forced many to move.  Over 3.5 million came during the years 1845 to 1860.  From 1890 to 1900 Italian, Austro-Hungarian and Russian immigrants made up more than half of all immigrants.  Immigrant records at Ellis Island from 1855 to 1897 were unfortunately lost in a fire on June 14, 1898. 

 In The Uprooted The Epic Story of the Great Immigration that Made the American People, renowned American immigration scholar, Oscar Handlin, notes that many of the immigrants were peasants coming from agricultural societies who faced many chances and many new challenges in the New World. The Pulitzer Prize winning author tells a grim story of the immigrants’ crossings to America – some taking as long as 40 days, and of the harsh conditions and difficulties greeting them here.  

Today, what was once the Great Hall or Registry Room at Ellis Island is the Ellis Island Immigrant Museum.  Outside, the American Wall of Honor lists the name of over 400,000 immigrants who entered here.  Ellis Island has also been a detention center for deportees, a hospital for injured U.S. servicemen and a Coast Guard station.  Here classes in English, child care, and sewing and knitting have been offered. 

The island had been known as Little Oyster Island by the Dutch, then Dyre's Island, later Bucking Island and Gibbet Island.  The name Ellis Island came from Samuel Ellis, a butcher, who owned the island during the Revolutionary War.  American Indians named the island Kioshk or Gull Island after the birds that inhabited it.  The Dutch called it “Little Oyster Island” because of the oysters found there.   (In early New Amsterdam, young Dutch gentlemen would row their young lady friends over to Oyster Island for picnics.) Ellis Island was a place of hope and promise for those who were allowed to enter the country but also a place of rejection and despair for those turned away.  Approximately one out of every hundred were refused admission to the country (some of them actually committed suicide here).  New York City was indeed “The Promised City” as Moses Rischin suggests in his study of the history of the Lower East Side.  Many of these immigrants would settle in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.  A living example of how they lived can be experienced at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum on Orchard Street. 

The first person to enter the country through Ellis Island was Annie Moore from Ireland.  Ms. Moore arrived on the steamship, Nevada, on January 1, 1892.  For years it was thought that Ms. Moore had settled in Texas.  More recently it was discovered that the original Annie Moore actually lived on Cherry Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, was married and had 11 children. 

Immigration for European countries was so great that by 1890, there were more Germans living in New York City than in Hamburg, Germany, more Irish here than in Dublin, more Jews than in Warsaw and more foreign-born persons living here than in any other city in the world.  Today's New York City's immigrant population is composed  largely of Puerto Ricans, Italians, Dominicans, West Indians and Chinese.  The most recent reports show an increase of immigrants who are Russian, Korean, Chinese or Muslim (from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh).

Not all immigrants who came to Ellis Island were allowed to enter America.  Those who could be barred from entrance were epileptics, the mentally ill, people with tuberculosis and other illnesses, prostitutes, anarchists and polygamists.  A room at Ellis Island known as "The Closing Door” has a timeline showing the various barriers to certain immigrants that were established as early as the year 1875.  For those persons turned away, Ellis Island became the Isle of Tears.        

When Oscar Wilde visited New York City in 1882, at customs he announced:  “I have nothing to declare but my genius.” 

In The Color of a Great City, written in 1923, Theodore Dreiser described immigrants to America as "adding rich, dark, colorful threads to the rug or tapestry which is New York."


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