Ellis Island: Its History in Shaping the Face of America

Ellis Island: Its History in Shaping the Face of America

Learn how this small 3-acre land mass became one of the most important pieces of American History and what it's doing today.

The 27.5-acre body of land that we know today as Ellis Island has a sordid past and has been known by many names. Most famous as a mass immigration station, 40% of the population of the United States can traces at least one ancestor back to Ellis Island, according to some estimations. How did this Island come to be the open floodgates to the New World and the humble origin point for so much of the United States' population and culture? What about this historical site still attracts so many visitors today?

Changing Hands and Changing Names

The island was first known as “Kioshk,” or Gull Island, a name given to it by the local native peoples. At this point, the island was little more than a three-acre sandbank full of oysters. Because of the abundance of shellfish, when Michael Paauw, a Dutchmen, acquired the island in 1630, he renamed it Oyster Island. The name changed again in the 1700s to Gibbet Island when its purpose changed. It began to be used as a hanging ground for convicted pirates and so was given the name after its gibbet or gallows tree. Other names that the island went by are Dyre, Bucking, Anderson's Island, and Fort Gibson.

It became know as Ellis Island when it was acquired in 1775 by Samuel Ellis. He established a tavern there for the local fishermen. About 14 years after his death, the state of New York purchased the island from Mr. Ellis's family for the then-whopping sum of $10,000. In 1808, right before the War of 1812, the War Department paid the state of New York for rights to use the island. Under their direction, it was used for ammunition storage and military fortification. This was deemed necessary because during a recently past war (Revolutionary War) the British naval force had been able to sail right into New York harbor virtually without any resistance and occupy the area. The island was part of a series of six military forts set up in that vicinity to ensure that this never happened again. It was during this war period that the island was given the title Fort Gibson, an honorary nomenclature given in remembrance of a soldier by that name, who had died in the War of 1812. It was again used for military purposes five years later during the Civil War, this time as a munitions arsenal.

During this tumultuous war era, laws were enacted that began the mass influx of immigrants that turned Ellis Island from a military stronghold, designed to keep people out, to the population source-waters of America, letting everyone in.

Populating a Nation

A Virtual Voyage to Ellis Island

In 1790, the Naturalization Act was passed. This law allowed all white males who had been living in the United States to become citizens. The end of the War of 1812, combined with this law sparked a rising interest at the prospect of being a citizen in the New World and making a better life. As a result, throngs of people, from all over Europe and Scandinavia flocked to the United States, abetted by the fact that during this period (1814-1859) there was very little regulation on entry, since the states, and not the federal government, controlled immigration; over 5 million people made their way to new opportunity in a comparatively short time.

Seeing the need for greater regulation and monitoring, Castle Garden in the Battery, in lower Manhattan, was opened as New York State's immigration station. It was one of the first immigration stations opened in the United States. It operated from 1855-1890. Another 8 million immigrants would make their way into the New World by means of this station. In its first five years, about 1 million immigrants arrived from Ireland, fleeing the gripping famine that struck the land due to a potato blight (1846-1850). At about the same time, tightening political and religious laws and difficult economic times in Europe sent people fleeing for what they felt was a better opportunity. That idea came from the Homestead Act of 1862. This law gave 160 acres of land to any applicant at little or no cost, as long as they had never borne arms against the United States. All could apply, including women and blacks. Driven by the prospect of religious and financial freedom that owning land might provide, the largest mass migration of people in the history of the world ensued.

In short order, however, and partly due to the strain of the sheer masses of people, it became apparent that Castle Garden in the Battery was ill-equipped and too small to handle the immigration needs of the New World. Corruption, greed, and incompetence ran rampant, and the federal government finally saw the need to step in. Immigration control then moved under federal jurisdiction, and not that of the state.

The Battery was closed in 1890 and the federal government took $75,000 and constructed a new, well-equipped facility on Ellis Island. It opened January 1, 1892. The island itself was doubled in size to over 6 acres to accommodate the large crowds. The original structure was built with Georgia Pines and the Island was expanded using landfill and excavated earth from newly dug subway tunnels in New York. On its first day, 700 immigrants passed through the station and another 450,000 that first year. The station would go on to give "New World birth" to over 12 million immigrants in the course of 62 years.

Ellis Island after the Ashes

Many people living in the United States today can trace their origins back to an ancestor who came through Ellis Island. The immigration workers keep excellent records and many original documents and manifests can still be found when visiting the island today, but none before 1897.

On June 15 of that year, just five years after Ellis Island was open for the public, a fire broke out in the wee hours of the morning. Although no one was killed or seriously injured, the station burned completely, and all the records up until that time were lost in the fire. This included records dating back to the 1850s from state and federal immigration proceedings.

New buildings were erected and commissioned, this time, however, not out of pine, but with fireproof materials. They opened December 17, 1900, and received 2,251 people that very day. A law was passed that all future structures on the island had to be fireproof to prevent this kind of disaster from recurring. The Island was also expanded to what eventually became 27.5 acres, again using landfill.

1907 again saw a peak in immigration. That year alone, a massive 1.25 million people became residents of the United States by means of Ellis Island. But a few years later, The Great War, as World War I was then called, caused a slowdown in immigration. Suspicions were high and heavy restrictions were levied on foreigners seeking refuge. Inspections began to be conducted onboard the ships, even before hopeful immigrants were allowed to step foot into the United States. Any suspected enemies were not allowed to pass. Even after the war, a "Red Scare" swept the nation and thousands of "radicals" were detained at Ellis Island. Many were later deported if they were suspected to be affiliated with organizations thought to be revolutionary.

Modern History and What it is Today

After the war ended, the Island returned to being an Immigration station, and passed 225,206 people the very next year, 1920. It continued to serve in this capacity until it was shut down in 1954. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson declared Ellis Island part of the Statue of Liberty national monument. Then, in 1974, the island was opened for public visitation. This lasted for only eight years, and the island was again sequestered in 1984 for major restoration. This is still the largest historical restoration on record in the United States. It cost $160 million and was funded largely by donations made to the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island foundation, Inc. The main building was reopened in 1990 for public visitation, and the rest of the structures were gradually restored and reopened to the public as well. In 2015, it was renamed the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration. The museum tells the complete story of human immigration into the United States through the Peopling of America® Center, opened May 20 of that same year. Ellis Island receives about 2 million visitors every year, all looking back on a piece of American History, and some, a piece of their own.

Ellis Island Artifacts Image by ShayReavel P. on foursquare.com

Interesting Facts

The Statue of Liberty

The Statue of Liberty is not actually located on Ellis Island, but, due to ship-bound immigrants associating its sight with arrival into the New World, it was linked indelibly with Ellis Island.

An illustration of immigrants on the steerage deck of an ocean steamer passing the Statue of Liberty from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, July 2, 1887.
National Park Service, Statue of Liberty NM

The Island's First Immigrant

Annie Moore, a teenager from Ireland, and her two little brothers were the first people to enter the United States through Ellis Island. The three were reunited with their waiting parents, already living in the New World.

Famous people who can trace their entry to Ellis Island

1893- Irvin Berlin, famous composer, Isreal Beilin at time of arrival
1903- Charles Atlas, famous body builder, Angelo Siciliano at time of arrival
1911- Claudette Colbert, famous actress, Lily Chaucoin at time of arrival
1912- Charles Chaplin
Others, like Carl Jung and Sigmond Freud, were already famous when they entered.

Ellis Island, with its varied names and changing history, went on to become one of the most famous islands in the history of the United States. In a very real way, it truly shaped the face of America. It remains a beacon for many of where they came from, and the sacrifices that were made for the lives they lead today.

Opening image from the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation website.

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