Ellis Island

Many Americans have ancestors who arrived in the United States at Ellis Island. The island is located in New York Harbor. Between 1892 and 1943 it was America's main processing station for immigrants. More than 12 million immigrants passed through the station.

Most immigrants who came to Ellis Island traveled from Europe. They came aboard steamships. And most of them were poor. They traveled third class, or "steerage." They huddled in crowded conditions near the bottom of the ships. The trip across the Atlantic Ocean could be rough. Passengers were often seasick.

When a ship arrived in New York City, it would usually dock at a pier along the Hudson River or the East River. Steerage passengers were ferried directly from the pier to Ellis Island.

Inspection at Ellis Island

Two government agencies were responsible for processing the immigrants. They were the United States Public Health Service and the Bureau of Immigration. The inspection took place in the Registry Room (or Great Hall). The ship's passenger list contained each immigrant's name and some personal information. The legal inspectors used this document to question the immigrant.

Doctors would conduct "six-second physicals." They would glance at every immigrant. They looked for obvious signs of illness.

Most immigrants began their new lives in America after a few hours on the island. Only 2 percent of arrivals were excluded from entry. They were detained on the island. Then they were deported (forced to leave the country).

There were two main reasons for deporting immigrants. One was if a doctor diagnosed a contagious disease. The second was if a legal inspector thought the immigrant was likely to become a public burden or an illegal worker.

First- and second-class passengers were sent to Ellis Island only if they were obviously sick or had legal problems. Otherwise, they passed through customs at the piers. Then they were free to go. The inspectors assumed that wealthy passengers were healthy. And they figured they would not become a burden to the government.

History of the Island

Ellis Island was named for Samuel Ellis. He owned the island in the late 1700s. There was a tavern and a picnic area. The island was used mostly by New York fishermen. The government purchased the island in 1808. It was used to house prisoners during the War of 1812. During the Civil War the Union Army kept an arsenal on the island.

Until 1890, the processing of immigrants was the responsibility of the states. After that the federal government took control. The first federal immigration station opened on Ellis Island on January 1, 1892. Three ships were ready to land. The station processed 700 immigrants on opening day. At the height of its activity, the Ellis Island center handled 1 million immigrants a year.

The federal immigration station was moved into New York City in 1943. But Ellis Island continued to serve as a detention area for deportees until 1954. The island was made part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument in 1965. It is part of the National Park System.

In 1986, Ellis Island was renovated for the Statue of Liberty's 100-year celebration. Then in 1990 the main building reopened as the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. There is also the American Immigrant Wall of Honor. People can have the name of an immigrant ancestor inscribed on the wall. It is the largest wall of names in the world. More than 3 million people visit Ellis Island every year.

The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island Foundation opened the American Family Immigration History Center in 2001. It contains records for Ellis Island and the Port of New York for the period 1892 to 1924. People interested in finding out more about their ancestry can access the center's records online.


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SOURCE: The New Book of Knowledge


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