The Short Story of Ellis Island

View of Ellis Island from a distance in 1905.
Ellis Island, 1905

12 million people. That’s approximately how many immigrants would go through Ellis Island in New York, their entry point into the United States. While each person came with a different story and goals, they had one similar desire: to be an American.

Background

Ellis Island opened on January 1, 1892. The first person to be processed was a teenage girl from Ireland, Annie Moore. She arrived with her two brothers. About 700 people were processed that day, marking the first group of immigrants going through a U.S. federal facility. Before Ellis Island, individual states managed immigration.

The federal government decided to take control of the immigration process for several reasons, including security, uniformity, complexity, new laws, and legal cases. This decision led to the opening of Ellis Island, named after Samuel Ellis, a colonial New Yorker and merchant who once owned the land.

Not all, however, favored opening Ellis Island, as witnessed by the cover of Judge Magazine from 1890.

Judge Magazine Cover from 1890 depicting an illustration of the Statue of Liberty with ships dumping garbage onto it.

But open, it did. The original structure was an impressive three-story building made of Georgia pine with a slate roof. It was designed not just for processing immigrants but also to send a message of grandeur and welcome.

Processing

As ships pulled into the harbor, they were met by U.S. Public Health Service doctors who boarded to examine first and second-class passengers. The rest of the immigrants would disembark and enter the Ellis Island facility, stepping into the Great Hall for processing.

The Great Hall, a massive structure with vaulted ceilings, was often filled with many languages and the palpable emotions of hopeful newcomers. The first hurdle here was the medical examination, where doctors observed immigrants climbing the stairs, looking for signs of illness or difficulty walking, indicative of physical ailments.

In the medical examination, doctors looked for everything from contagious diseases like trachoma, which could cause blindness, to mental impairments and physical deformities that could make an individual unable to work. Various medical staff, including specialists, were on hand to diagnose conditions that might disqualify an individual from entering the United States. Most of the immigrants, however, went through the medical inspection in under an hour.

Next, the immigrants faced legal inspectors. The inspectors questioned the immigrants, cross-referencing their answers with the information provided on the ship’s manifest. They had to demonstrate that they had never been convicted of a crime, were capable of work, and had enough money to prevent them from becoming a public charge. The amount required varied over time, but by the early 1900s, it was typically around $18 to $25.

Those who failed either the medical or legal inspection were held in detention rooms for days or even weeks. Some immigrants were sent back to their countries of origin, a crushing blow after a long and expensive voyage. However, they had the right to appeal, and many were represented by immigrant aid societies, which provided legal assistance for detainees. About 2% would fail the inspection.

Later Years

World War I reduced immigration significantly, and following the war, a series of restrictive immigration laws were passed, culminating in the Immigration Act of 1924, which imposed quotas based on nationality that drastically reduced the number of immigrants allowed to enter.

Finally, after 62 years in operation, Ellis Island closed in November 1954, and the buildings fell into disrepair until its restoration in the 1980s. It was reopened as part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument in 1990 and today houses a museum dedicated to its history and the immigrants who passed through its doors.

Notes

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