Pocket history of Ellis Island

A particular scene comes to mind when we think of immigration, especially immigration to America: the north Atlantic winds carrying the smell of salt air, old steamships rusting in the docks and a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty. Numerous films, books and photographs capture what was a major route into America for almost a hundred years. The immigrants encapsulated the spirit of the pioneers that made the long, ardous and often distressing trip to the States in order to build a new life for themselves and their families in the ‘Land of Opportunity’. However whilst the grandeur and symbolism of the Statue of Liberty entranced new arrivals to America there is a place that meant even more to them just over the water: Ellis Island.

Ellis Island opened in 1892 and is Americas’ most famous landmark associated with immigration – it closed in 1954. Situated in the Upper New York Bay this entry point was where over 12 million immigrants were either welcomed or refused entry into the United States for more than 50 years. Ellis Island is now a part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument which was built on reclaimed land.  Over one third of Americans (that’s approximately 100 million!) can trace their ancestors back to Ellis Island which highlights the importance of this site to many American citizens. This incredible figure of 100 million shows just how vital immigration was to the building of America and the major part Ellis Island played in the shaping of the USA as we know it today.

The first day on Ellis Island saw it process 3 boats with approximately 700 immigrants; it processed 450,000 applications in the first year.  In the three years preceding World War One the facility struggled to keep up with the numbers of immigrants arriving at it’s shores.  An approved immigrant would typically spend 2-5 hours on the Island. Each applicant was asked a list of 29 questions, these included name, occupation and how much money they had, the government had a requirement of 18-25 dollars for each applicant.  Ellis Island, as well as being an immigration centre, also provided a hospital for people arriving that were ill; over 3000 immigrants died at the hospital over the course of it’s lifetime.  Out of all the applications made at Ellis Island around 2% were rejected.  Reasons varied from carrying life-threatening diseases or fear that the person would become a burden to the public. For this reason the island gained nicknames such as “Heartbreak Island” and “The Island of Tears”.

The Island became a prison for enemies and those accused of spying during the Second World War as well as housing unsuccessful migrants awaiting deportation.  Approximately 7,000 Germans, Italians and Japanese were held at the island during the second world war; during this time the facility was still used to process immigration cases, however due to the war there were considerably less immigrants to process.

There are many myths surrounding Ellis Island, one of which being that new arrivals were forced to change their names.  In reality the steamship companies, rather than the US authorities, completed many of the immigration documents.  Changing a family name was usually undertaken by immigrants themselves in order to integrate more easily into the English speaking United States.

The first immigrant to pass through Ellis Island was a 15 year old Irish girl from Cork named Annie Moore,  she passed through Ellis Island on the 1st of January 1892. She made the long trip across the Atlantic to join her parents who had both moved to America a couple of years before.  When Annie arrived at Ellis Island she was given a welcoming gift to her new life in America, a $10 gold piece, this was the most amount of money she had ever held!

The story of immigration is broadly the same now as it was for those immigrants at Ellis Island all those years ago. The buildings and people may have changed but the hopes, dreams, fears and adventure all remain. Those 2% that were rejected at Ellis Island had to face a long return trip with not much to contemplate except their broken dreams. For the remaining 98% that were welcomed an exciting time carving out life in a foreign land was their reward. Immigrants aboard ships coming across the Atlantic had a long time to reflect on their new life in America and what rewards it would bring.  Many had visions of riches and freedom and just like Annie their $10 pieces were to be hard earned, not taken as charity.