From 1892 to 1954, over twelve million immigrants entered the United States through 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.
Before being designated as the site of one of the first Federal immigration stations 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 1770’s, the island had been called Kioshk, Oyster, Dyre, Bucking and Anderson’s Island. 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.
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. Throughout the 1800’s 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.
The Federal government intervened and constructed a new Federally-operated immigration station on Ellis Island. The new structure on Ellis Island, opened on January 1, 1892. Annie Moore, a 15 year-old Irish girl, accompanied by her two brothers, was the very first immigrant to be processed at Ellis Island. After five years of operation, the Ellis Island Immigration Station burned down.
The Treasury Department 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.
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.
During the early 1900’s, 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; 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 were 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 on board 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.
From the very beginning of the mass migration that spanned the years (roughly) 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. After 1924, Ellis Island was no longer primarily an inspection station but rather a detention facility, whereby many persons were brought and detained for various periods of time 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’s Main Building, Railroad Ticket Office and adjacent buildings underwent a major restoration. The $160 million was reopened to the public on September 10, 1990 as the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. Today, the museum receives almost 2 million annually.
In 1998, the U.S. Supreme Court awarded sovereignty of 22.5 of Ellis Island’s 27.5 acres to the State of New Jersey. Ellis Island’s un-restored buildings, most of which served as the U. S. Public Health Service hospitals built to treat ill and infirm immigrants, sit on these acres. As the result of an advisory committee established by New Jersey, Save Ellis Island, Inc., a non-profit corporation, was formed in 1999 as the National Park Service partner to raise the funds necessary to rehabilitate and re-use these remaining buildings.
Since then, all the buildings have been stabilized, two have been completely restored, and the Ferry Building is now open to the public. Once completed, these buildings will house the Ellis Island Institute, dedicated to the issues of global migration and world health.