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History of Ellis Island

Between the years of 1892 and 1954, Ellis Island served as a portal for immigrants seeking entrance to the United States. This tiny island located in New York Harbor sits adjacent to the Statue of Liberty and the New Jersey coast. Initially, Ellis Island covered 3.3 acres, but over time, it was expanded to encompass 27.5 acres of land, some of which came from soil excavated during the construction of New York City's extensive subway system. Prior to its designation as an immigration station, Ellis Island was known for its oyster beds and shad runs. Samuel Ellis was owner of the island during the 1770s, and it also was a spot where pirates congregated and served as an ordnance depot before it became an immigration station.

The United States government bought Ellis Island in 1808. It was then designated as a site for military fortifications, and the island became part of a harbor defense system designed to prevent invasions of New York City from the sea. This fort was named Fort Gibson.

Immigration Policies

Before 1890, each state was in charge of regulating immigration itself. New York's immigration station was known as Castle Garden in the Battery from 1855 to 1980, and about 8 million immigrants passed through it into America. As economic conditions deteriorated and religious laws intensified in Europe throughout the 19th Century and early 20th Century, immigration increased. Castle Garden was unable to handle the volume of immigrants, and the federal government built a new immigration station on Ellis Island to manage the influx. The new immigration center opened on Jan. 1, 1982. A teenage girl from Ireland named Annie Moore was the first immigrant processed at Ellis Island. During the next 62 years, more than 12 million more immigrants would follow her.

Fire at Ellis Island

On June 15, 1897, a fire broke out in the Ellis Island immigration station. The fire burned the structure to the ground, but no one died in the blaze. Unfortunately, immigration records from 1855 to 1897 were consumed in the fire. The federal government rebuilt the immigration station, this time to be fireproof. The new building opened at the end of 1900.

Entry Into the United States

Entry to America typically happened through New York Harbor. However, immigrants also arrived at ports in Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Savannah, Miami, New Orleans, and San Francisco. Ship passengers who traveled in first and second class did not need to be inspected when they arrived; they would undergo a brief inspection on the ship. The federal government surmised that people who could afford these tickets were less likely to become burdens of the state. Third-class passengers traveled in comparatively unsanitary conditions, often leading to illness. These passengers had to be processed through Ellis Island, where they had medical and legal inspections.

Record-Breaking Immigration

Immigration rates rose during the early years of the 20th Century. In 1907, a record was set for the highest number of immigrants arriving in one year: 1.25 million people. The facilities at Ellis Island were in a constant state of expansion to accommodate all of the immigrants. When World War I began, immigration rates went down. The Navy and Army Medical Department used Ellis Island during the war; any immigrants arriving during this period were processed on their ships. Ellis Island reopened its immigration station in 1920.

Immigration Processing

The inspection process for immigrants at Ellis Island took between three and five hours for healthy individuals. Doctors would look at each person to check for physical ailments. These scans were known as "six-second physicals." Information obtained about immigrants when they boarded the ship was used to question them when they arrived in America, making sure that their answers matched. Records indicate that 2 percent of potential immigrants were barred from entering the country, likely due to having a contagious disease or the potential to become a burden of the state.

Evolution of Immigration Laws

As immigration laws were enacted, restrictions began limiting the number of people from various ethnic groups that could enter the country. The institution of worldwide embassies gave immigrants new methods for entering the country: They could apply for visas from their home country and complete the paperwork before arriving. After 1924, Ellis Island was only used to detain immigrants who had issues with their paperwork. Later, Ellis Island was used to detain enemy merchant seamen during World War II. The U.S. Coast Guard also used the island to train servicemen. Arne Peterssen was the last detainee to be released from Ellis Island in 1954 before it closed for good.

A National Monument

President Lyndon Johnson designated Ellis Island as a part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument in 1965. Between 1976 and 1984, the island was open to the public on a limited basis. Then, in 1984, restoration began on Ellis Island. The Ellis Island Immigration Museum opened in 1990, and it was later renamed the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration.

Finding Ellis Island Ancestors

Between the years of 1892 and 1924, Ellis Island served as the largest immigration station in the world. Passenger lists have been archived that contain the names of more than 51 million people who were processed through Ellis Island and the Port of New York between 1892 and 1957.

As time went on, officials kept more detailed records of immigrants. It's possible to search and view these records online with a free account. Visitors can also order printed records, or they can conduct free searches in an index that contains links to digitized records. Some genealogy websites contain passenger list collections as well.

Passenger lists originated at ports of departure, so immigrants are listed by their original names from their country of origin. Names often changed upon arrival in America. Handwriting was also often difficult to decipher, and sometimes, spelling and transcription errors occurred.

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