Ellis Island sits in New York Harbor and was one of the busiest immigration processing centers from 1892 to 1954. During this time, more than 12 million immigrants came through Ellis Island in search of a better life. Not all of them were allowed to enter the country though.
- Before Ellis Island was Ellis Island, it was a small brackish island called Kioshke or Gull Island by the Mohegan people who fished and caught oysters here. In the 1760s, the island was occasionally used to execute captured pirates. In 1774, New York merchant Samuel Ellis purchased it and it was used for picnics and oyster bakes.
- In the late 1800s, immigration to the United States surged. Many immigrants came to Castle Clinton in New York, but the federal government was concerned that the place was mismanaged and abused immigrants. In 1892, a new processing station was built at Ellis Island.
- Ellis Island included the main building where immigrants were inspected, a kitchen, laundry, bakery, carpentry shop, baggage area, dormitory, powerhouse, hospital, and recreation hall.
- First and second class passengers didn’t go to Ellis Island, but arrived in Manhattan and went directly to their destinations. Steerage passengers had to go through Ellis Island and arrived by ferry since most ocean liners couldn’t dock there because the water was so low.
- Immigrants assembled in long lines where they were inspected by three doctors. If they were found to have diseases like smallpox, measles, scarlet fever, or whooping cough, they might be placed in isolation or taken to the hospital.
- Those found with physical, mental, or emotional disabilities were often deported or sent back to wherever they came from. Additionally, they could be sent back for being too short, too tall, homosexual, too feminine, impoverished, or a variety of other reasons. Using chalk, doctors marked immigrants with symbols that meant specific disabilities or concerns.
- A philosophy of eugenics became popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s in Europe and the United States. This philosophy was about creating a superior master race for a country by restricting immigration, marriage, and childbirth of those deemed defective. This philosophy could be seen in how people at Ellis Island were sometimes treated.
- The island was sometimes called “Heartbreak Island” because immigrants, who had often come to escape religious persecution, poverty, famine, warfare, or political strife, were not allowed to enter America. On the other hand, the process took only a few hours (today’s immigration process can take months), cost nothing, and required no passports or visas.
- During the Spanish influenza outbreak of 1918, more than 3,000 people died in the Ellis Island hospital.
- Steerage: a category of passengers with little money, typically stayed in cramped quarters in the bottom of ships
- Ferry: small boat
- Dormitory: sleeping rooms
Questions and Answers
Question: How big is Ellis Island?
Answer: Originally, Ellis Island was just over 4 acres. In the 1800s, workers expanded it through a method called land reclamation.
They used timbers from ships, the first New York subway system, and railways, along with bags of cement, concrete, and granite, to create a framework that they filled with soil to create artificial land.
Today Ellis Island is more than 27 acres. The original island was low-lying and covered with water at high tide—not much use to businessmen. It was also home to birds, fish, oysters, and other wildlife.
Watch a video and see images of Ellis Island.