For over 60 years, Ellis Island in New York was the primary point of entry for immigrants to the United States. At least 12 million new US citizens landed on Ellis Island, and it has been estimated that around 40 percent of all current Americans have at least one ancestor who passed through its halls.
The Registration Room at Ellis Island today
In pre-contact North America, the tiny island now known as “Ellis” was called Kioshk (“Gull Island”) by the Mohican natives who lived in the area. When the Dutch took over and settled Manhattan in the 1630’s, it was claimed by a farmer named Michael Paauw, who renamed it Oyster Island. By 1700, the island was the site where convicted pirates were hanged, earning it the name Gibbet Island.
During the Revolutionary War, it was bought by a New York city tavern-owner named Samuel Ellis. When he died in 1794, the US War Department purchased it, and the Army built a munitions storage facility and gun battery there called Fort Gibson, which served during the War of 1812 and the Civil War. After the end of the the Civil War in 1865, Ellis Island was abandoned.
The first major wave of immigration from Europe to the US was in the 1850’s, after the Irish potato famine, and after the Homestead Act of 1862 provided free land to people who were willing to settle in the West. During this time, immigration was administrated by the states, and New York’s primary point of entry was at Castle Garden, near present-day Battery Park.
By 1890, immigrants began arriving from Germany, Italy, and eastern Europe. The Federal Government assumed control over immigration policy, and began construction of a facility at Ellis Island to process the new arrivals, which officially opened on January 1, 1892. The first immigrant to enter the US at Ellis Island, a 15-year-old Irish girl named Annie Moore, was ceremonially presented with a $10 gold piece. Only third class passengers from Europe were required to pass through Ellis Island; first and second class passengers were processed aboard ship on the way over.
The American manufacturing economy needed large numbers of cheap workers, and the steady stream of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island provided them. US law prevented the entry of “lunatics” and “idiots”, and also listed over 60 diseases that were to be denied entry. “Anarchists” were banned; people who already had jobs waiting for them in the US were also sent back. Immigrants from Asia were entirely excluded. New arrivals at Ellis were given a physical inspection, a literacy test, and an interview. Immigrants with diseases were held in the medical ward until they were cured. In all, only about 2% of people entering Ellis Island were denied entry to the US and deported back to Europe.
By 1903, the stream of immigrants was reaching several thousand a day, and more room was needed. So the original island was expanded and two smaller islands were built, using sand that had been excavated during the construction of the New York City subway system. One of these new islands housed the hospital, and the other housed the psychiatric ward. In total, the Ellis Island facility grew from 3 acres to 27 acres.
When World War One broke out in 1914, immigration from Europe dropped sharply. The US Army assumed control of most of the island, converting it into a hospital for wounded troops and a detention center for anarchists, anti-war protesters and other radicals (most of whom were deported). By the end of the 1920’s, the US had passed new laws which restricted immigration, and Ellis Island fell into disuse. By 1950, the Coast Guard had taken over most of the island, and in 1954 the immigration center was officially closed and abandoned.
In 1976, the immigration center was refurbished and opened to the public as part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument, under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. During the 1980s money was raised through private donations to once again reconstruct the buildings, and in 1990 the Ellis Island Immigration Museum was opened to the public. (This provoked a court battle, since much of the new land area on the three islands fell across the border into New Jersey waters; in 1998, the Supreme Court ruled that New York held title to the original three acres, which included the Museum, and New Jersey held title to the artificial islands and the landfill area.)
Today, over a million people a year visit the Ellis Island site.