What Do You Really Know About Ellis Island?

As ships entered the New York Harbor, immigrants felt a wave of excitement to see streets paved with gold and have the chance to live the “American dream.” However, before they could do all that, they had to go through Ellis Island. After arduous sea voyages, over 12 million people passed through this immigration station, and there is a lot we don’t know about it.

Ellis Island / Ellen Knauff / Ellis Island / Immigrants at Ellis Island.

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From 1892 to 1924, Ellis Island was a gateway to America and has had many other purposes since it stopped processing newcomers. From serving as a detention and deportation center to becoming a hospital for wounded soldiers during World War II, today the tourist site is filled with stories and secrets that you couldn’t imagine.

Ellis Island Was Once Privately Owned

Before it was called Ellis Island, the piece of land in the New York harbor was called Oyster Island. Samuel Ellis purchased it around the time of the Revolutionary War and built a tavern to cater to local fishers. However, in 1785, he tried to sell it and advertised it as a “pleasantly situated island” in Loudon’s New York packet, but there weren’t any offers.

A view of Ellis Island from Manhattan.

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Because Ellis couldn’t get anyone to buy the island, the city leased it for military purposes starting in 1794. When Ellis died in 1808, the city purchased the land from his family for just $10,000. At the time, no one knew how historic this island would become in U.S. history.

What Is Ellis Island?

After the city acquired the island from Samuel Ellis’s family, it became a piece of federally-owned property that was the busiest immigration inspection station in the United States. It saw millions of immigrants pass through, and it is now a historical tourist destination. People came from all over the world to escape politics, economic oppression, and poverty.

An aerial view of Ellis Island.

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The island has been used for many things, like a munition’s arsenal for the Union army and a hospital for wounded soldiers. Today, it is a way for many Americans to get a glimpse into their family’s history. People can trace their ancestors at Ellis Island through the arrival records that became public in 2001.

Pirates Were Hung on the Island

Before anyone owned Ellis Island, the Mohegan Indians who lived on the nearby shores called the island Kioshk or Gull Island. In 1630, the Dutch acquired the island and gifted it to Michael Paauw. He came up with the name Oyster Island for the volume of shellfish on its beaches.

A photo of a sailing ship.

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A century later, in the 1760s, it was known as Gibbet Island for a dark reason. Pirates were executed and left on the gibbets, a post on which the condemned were hung, to warn others. The island was an eerie place that people were almost afraid of because of the dead pirates.

Immigration Officials Didn’t Change People’s Names

Although many people believe their ancestors’ names were changed by immigration officials when they arrived at Ellis Island, this is a myth. No names were written down because the arriving passengers’ information was already written down on manifests required by the government.

Passengers are arriving at Ellis Island onboard a ship.

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Immigrants were asked questions to verify their identity and the reason for entering the country. Many people changed their own names to fit in better with their neighbors or changed the spelling so that people could pronounce the name more accurately. These changes happened after they passed through Ellis Island.

The First Person to Arrive Was a Teenager

The first immigrant to pass through Ellis Island was 15-year-old named Annie Moore from Ireland. She came to America with her two younger brothers to reunite with her parents, who were already in the country. She was given a $10 gold piece for being the first person to pass inspection.

A picture of Annie Moore.

Source: Annie Moore Schayer’s family

Moore is honored by two statues sculpted by Jeanne Rynhart. One statue stands at Cobh Heritage Center in Ireland and the other on Ellis Island, because those were her points of departure and arrival. The image is meant to represent the millions of people who passed through in pursuit of the American dream.

Passing Inspections

One of the most nerve-racking parts for new immigrants was the inspection process. After their long voyages, everyone had to pass a medical test to ensure they weren’t sick or bringing viruses to the U.S. They also had to pass an interview to determine if they could support themselves.

Immigrants wait in line upon arriving at Ellis Island.

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After 1917, those who came through Ellis Island had to prove they could read. The people who passed the tests were usually done in three to five hours. It was a long and exhausting process after spending days on a crowded ship, but not everyone passed inspections.

Some Were Sent Home

Although many people were able to pass the inspections and start their new lives in America, some people were sent home. Sometimes, children were separated from their parents, or one parent was sent home without explanation. This is how the island got the nickname “Island of Tears.”

Immigrants are leaving Ellis Island after inspection.

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While some were sent home right away, others spent months on the island for various reasons. During examinations, doctors had only a few seconds to check each immigrant for about sixty symptoms. With thousands of people coming through every day, that was a considerable challenge.

Some People Spent Months on the Island

Doctors checked for cholera, favus (scalp and nail fungus), tuberculosis, insanity, epilepsy, and mental impairments during the medical examinations. They would ask children to say their names to see if they were deaf and watched to see if anyone was coughing in the waiting areas.

Immigrants sit and stand in the waiting room of Ellis Island.

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If someone was found sick, they spent days, weeks, or months in a ward. Some people were isolated, and their diseases got worse, but many recovered. However, about 120,000 immigrants were sent back to their home countries, and about 3,500 died on Ellis Island.

People Were Detained Without Reason

Many people see Ellis Island as the place that welcomed millions of immigrants, but some new arrivals saw the island as a hurdle rather than an open door. As people approached the island, they could see double barbed wire fences in an area that looked like a prison.

A view through a metal-grilled window.

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About 20 percent of people got detained on Ellis Island for being unescorted women and children. Women couldn’t leave with a man not related to them. Other detainees included stowaways, anarchists, Bolsheviks, criminals, and those judged to be “immoral.”

The Island Is Mostly Man-Made

The original part of Ellis Island is smaller than the size of the Immigration Inspection Building. Ships and excavation from the construction of the subway system increased through the size of the island by 27 acres. In total, 90 percent of it is man-made.

A view of Ellis Island.

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In the beginning, it could barely be seen during high tide, but over the years, it grew to 27.5 acres. The island you can visit today used to be something like a sand bar, and most of the land is made from the dirt that came from the construction of the subway.

There Aren’t Corners in the Hospital Complex

Some significant theories in healthcare were implemented at the south side hospitals of Ellis Island. It was thought at the time that corners harbored diseases. Therefore, instead of buildings with corners, they had rounded hallways. Florence Nightingale designed the hospital building.

Inspectors check immigrants for diseases.

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At the time, the Ellis Island hospital was considered cutting edge, no pun intended. Today it looks more eerie and archaic with paintings of people who came through the island on the abandoned walls. Although you could never be backed into a corner in this hospital, the rounded halls didn’t stop the spread of disease.

Political Witch Hunts

Ellis Island was supposed to be the first step to a new and better life for people coming from other countries. However, in 1919 there was a wave of anti-immigration hysteria. Frederic C. Howe, Commissioner of the Immigration Service, said he had become a jailer.

An officer examines a female immigrant.

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The nation was a frantic mob, and people were reporting their neighbors. The Department of Justice would enter someone’s house, arrest them, and take them to Ellis Island to be sent back to their country of origin because of their political opinions. This became such an issue that lawmakers took action.

Establishing Quotas

Because everyone was so on edge about immigration, President Warren Harding signed into law the first Quota Act (1912). The new law effectively ended America’s open-door policy by setting monthly quotas for the number of people allowed into the country. Further restrictions followed.

A portrait of President Warren Hardin.

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The new policy limited the admission of each nationality to three percent of its representation, according to the 1910 Census. Also, the National Origins Act allowed people to be examined before making the voyage to Ellis Island, so many were refused before leaving their countries. The island became a ghost town.

War Prisoners

By the 1930s, Ellis Island was almost exclusively used as a detention and deportation center. During World War II, as many as 7,000 detainees were held on the island as war prisoners. However, under the Geneva Conventions, war prisoners were permitted to have someone advocate for them.

The FBI is transporting foreigners to Ellis Island.

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The representatives for the detainees gained significant rights for the prisoners. For example, Nazi prisoners were allowed to celebrate Hitler’s birthday each year. The idea of Ellis Island was losing its appeal and would soon shut its doors for good.

Abandoned Island

Around 1954, after 62 years of operation, Ellis Island was officially closed by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. For the following decade, the main buildings were deserted. Vandals took anything they could get their hands on, from doorknobs and filing cabinets to anything that could be carried.

A dog passes by the abandoned Island.

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Snow would swirl through the broken windows, roofs leaked, weeds sprang up in the halls, and the interior became moldy because of the harbor’s moisture. It was unfortunate to see such a historical place rot. But in 1965, Ellis Island became part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument.

A Few Notable Names Came Through Ellis Island

As the gateway to the United States for over 20 million immigrants, some of the people coming through were notable people or went on to do great things. Comedian Bob Hope came through Ellis Island in 1908 to start a career in the states.

Bob Hope performs on stage.

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Some other notable names included Sigmund Freud and Charlie Chaplin. People came from all over Europe, and many people who went through the island did extraordinary things. There were prominent novelists like Ayn Rand and actors such as Claudette Colbert.

Half of the Island Is Abandoned

The hospital complex on the south side of Ellis Island was once the most advance medical center in the world. It was so advanced that some of the city’s wealthiest families wanted to be treated there but were rejected because it was a public health initiative and not for private clients.

A decayed corridor between buildings on Ellis Island.

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However, today the hospital is completely abandoned. People can take hard hat tours of this portion of the island, but it looks like a freaky ghost town. We can only imagine how many spirits roam those hallways at night, and we would not want to be there once the sun goes down.

Ellis Island Is Half in New York and Half in New Jersey

The borders of Ellis Island have been contested since the early 1800s and came to a final decision in the Supreme Court in 1998. They ruled that areas constructed by landfill after 1834 belonged to New Jersey; this includes the entire abandoned side.

An aerial view of Ellis Island.

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The decision means that some buildings are in both New York and New Jersey, so the states share jurisdiction. The island is federal property, however, and the United States government is fiscally responsible for maintenance. The National Park Service also maintains it.

A Fire Partially Destroyed a Building

In 1897, a kitchen fire destroyed the immigration station. The building almost invited a fire because it was constructed entirely of Georgia pine and spruce. Because of the intense heat, the building was twisted out of shape and warped. Some said it looked like the whole island was on fire.

A view of the immigration station from the sea.

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Because of the damage, the flow of immigrants had to be rerouted to a temporary location until the station was rebuilt and reopened in 1900. Although there were hundreds of immigrants on the island at the time of the fire, no one was injured or died due to the fire.

Millions of People Went Through Ellis Island

Approximately 12 million people were processed through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1924. After 1924, the inspections were done before people got on the boat, and inspectors at Ellis Island just checked their papers. Around another 2.3 million people came through the island until it closed in 1954.

Immigrants on Ellis Island reception center.

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The busiest year at the island was 1907, when over one million immigrants passed through inspections. The busiest day was April 17, 1907, when 11,747 people were processed. It was an intense time to get all those people through in a timely fashion.

There Was a Waterway Between the Hospital Complexes

There are two rows of hospital complexes on the island’s south side, surrounded by a large field. However, the area used to be a waterway that was only filled in the 1920s and landscaped in the 1930s as part of the New Deal.

An aerial view of Ellis Island.

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They needed to create more space so it would be easier to get between the hospital buildings and the contagious disease ward. It continued to grow until 1906. It must have been challenging to get to all the facilities before they were connected by land.

Ellis Island Was a Fort During the War of 1812

After the Ellis family sold the island, the U.S. government fortified it, and over time it had a role in various wars. A twenty-gun battery, magazine, and barracks were built after the acquisition in 1808. It was known as Fort Gibson.

A current picture of Ellis Island.

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During the War of 1812, the island served as a garrison and POW camp. By 1861, the fort was decommissioned and replaced with a naval magazine. Later during the Civil War, it served as an ammunition supply depot. It was later used in WWII as a detention center for war prisoners.

Many People in the U.S. Have an Ancestor Who Passed Through Ellis Island

Close to 40 percent of all current U.S. citizens can trace at least one of their ancestors to Ellis Island. Many people came to American to escape their harsh countries in Europe before and after the war. Therefore, many people can find their ancestors’ records, especially in the New York/New Jersey area.

Passengers on board arriving at Ellis Island.

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If you search for your ancestors’ names on the Ellis Island website, you can find information about what ship they came on and what information they gave to inspectors. There was also a sizeable Jewish immigration right before and after World War II.

The Dark Side of Ellis Island

Ellen Knauff was born in Germany and spent part of World War II working for the United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force and later the United States Army. After the war, she married Kurt Knauff, a U.S. citizen and Army veteran stationed in Germany.

A picture of Ellen Knauff at her arrival at Ellis Island.

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After getting married, Ellen traveled to the U.S. for the first time in 1948, planning to benefit from the special immigration law to make it easy for soldiers to return home to their spouses. However, Ellen was greeted by the hard reality of the Ellis Island immigration prison.

“I Saw Barbed Wire Fences”

As Ellen approached Ellis Island, she saw parts of it were enclosed in double wire fences topped with barbed wire with watchtowers. The fenced-off areas were divided by more barriers, and Ellen said Ellis Island looked like a “concentration camp with steam heat and running water.”

Immigrants stand behind a fence at Ellis Island.

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Ellen was part of the ten percent who got stuck there even though her husband was American. Immigration officials refused to tell her why she couldn’t leave. They claimed her presence in the United States threatened national security without evidence to prove that.

Ellen Was Stuck for Almost Two Years

Instead of sitting idly, Ellen mounted a public relations campaign and won temporary confinement relief, only to be returned to the island prison months later. After almost two years of imprisonment, Ellen convinced immigration officials to give her a hearing to learn why she was a threat.

A luggage rack on Ellis Island.

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She found out the witnesses claimed she was a communist spy, which was a powerful accusation during the Cold War. However, the claims were too flimsy to continue confining her. Ellen finally left the island for good in 1951. Just three years later, President Eisenhower made radical immigration changes.

They Couldn’t Hear so They Weren’t Allowed In

Nelly Ratner (Meyers) was both Jewish and deaf, and the rest of her family was deaf as well. They were vulnerable targets of the Nazis who marched into their hometown in Vienna in 1938. She, her mother, and sister were lucky enough to escape on the last ship from Italy to the U.S.

Nelly Ratner and her family are waiting for inspection.

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Upon arrival, Meyers and her family discovered that immigration officials saw a deaf family as a burden. They spent months at Ellis Island, and her mother thought they were going to be deported. Meyer’s uncle, who lived in New York, reached out to the New York Jewish Society for the Deaf to help them.

Released From the Island

The federal district court in New York issued a release for Meyer and her family, but they had to pay a $2,500 bond so they wouldn’t have public charges because of deafness. Once they were released, Meyers’ mother got a job as a seamstress to pay off the debt within five years.

An exterior photograph of the front facade of Ellis Island.

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Meyers said she had fun playing on the island’s extensive grounds and admiring the New York skyline despite being imprisoned. She also regularly went to the library and taught herself English. Although she was deaf, she could still speak.

A Much Different Life

Vera Clark Ifill was born in Barbados and lived there until she was seven, when her mother returned to bring her to the U.S. in 1921. When she arrived at Ellis Island, she remembered feeling like they were herded like cattle into what seemed like cages.

A portrait of Vera Clark Ifill.

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It was a hard adjustment for her because she encountered frostbite when she was exposed to the cold weather for the first time. Ifill’s father was murdered, and the family became homeless, but she didn’t give up hope. Although she encountered racism, she eventually made a life for herself by opening a credit union with her husband.

The Island Wasn’t the First Place Immigrants Landed

Ellis Island was the official entry point for immigrants to the U.S., but it wasn’t the first piece of U.S. soil they encountered. The waters surrounding the island were too shallow for transatlantic ships to navigate, so most docked and unloaded passengers in Manhattan.

A little immigrant family on the dock at Ellis Island.

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During the detour, American citizens and first and second-class passengers were allowed to enter the country after only a brief inspection, but lower-class passengers were herded onto ferries and shuttled to Ellis Island. Some immigration officials took bribes of $1 or $2 to let people get off in Manhattan without inspection.

Fiorello LaGuardia Worked at Ellis Island

While he might be known for winning three consecutive terms as mayor of New York, the reform-minded politician Fiorello LaGuardia spent three years on staff at Ellis Island. Between 1907 and 1910, the son of an Italian immigrant, who was fluent in three languages, served as a translator while attending NYU Law school at night.

A photo of LaGuardia with the United Nations flags in the background.

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LaGuardia represented many Ellis Island immigrants in deportation cases during his early years as an attorney. His work with immigrants helped him gain a positive reputation in New York, which is why so many people loved him as their mayor.

It Was More Famous for Deportations Than Immigrations

Although millions of people immigrated through Ellis Island around the 1920s, its role started to change. The law and policy changes left Ellis Island to operate primarily as a detention center and deportation point for “undesirable” immigrants. During the Red Scare, it was used to evict communists and political radicals.

Deportees are leaving Ellis Island.

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The government’s legally ambiguous detainment policies eventually spawned a series of high-profile lawsuits that tarnished the reputation of Ellis Island with the American public. They closed it in 1954 to save face and money.

Emma Goldman Was Deported for Anarchism

Emma Goldman came to America before Ellis Island was an immigration center. During her time in the U.S., she became a devoted anarchist. She was nicknamed “Red Emma” for inciting riots and illegally distributing information about birth control. She was jailed many times because of her beliefs.

A portrait of Emma Goldman.

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In 1917, she was jailed for two years for conspiring to induce persons not to register for the newly instated draft. After her release, she was deported to Russia. She spent most of her time on Ellis Island in jail, and J. Edgar Hoover called her “one of the most dangerous women in America.”

It Opened to the Public in 1976

When the U.S. Government tried to sell Ellis Island in the ‘50s, developers proposed ideas like making it a drug rehab facility or a resort marina. However, none of the plans for private development took off. Therefore, the “gateway to America” spent 20 years in political limbo.

A view across the Hudson River from Ellis Island.

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In 1976, the island was finally open for tours, but plans for a historical museum or renovation didn’t happen until the ‘80s. Automotive pioneer Lee Iacocca helped spearhead fundraising for Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty to restore them. It opened to the public in September 1990 and now receives about 3 million visitors per year.

Food Was Plentiful at Ellis Island

Although there are various opinions about the quality of the food, there was enough for everyone. A typical meal served in the dining hall consisted of beef stew, potatoes, bread, herring, or baked beans and stewed prunes. Immigrants were introduced to new foods like bananas, sandwiches, and ice cream.

A photo of the dining room for detained immigrants.

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To meet the special dietary requirements of Jewish immigrants, a kosher kitchen was built in 1911. Additionally, independent concession stands sold packaged food that immigrants often bought to eat while they waited to leave the island.

The Godfather Got It Wrong

In the Godfather, Vito Andolini, who moved to the U.S. in 1901, had to go through Ellis Island. However, the movie got some details wrong about the immigration process. They said his name was mistakenly registered as Vito Corleone, but that wouldn’t have happened.

Marlon Brando in a scene from The Godfather.

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When he arrived at Ellis Island, his correct name would have been on the ship’s manifest. Therefore, immigration officers wouldn’t have registered him with the wrong name or changed his name. This is a common misconception people have of what happened at Ellis Island.

People Can Look Through Arrival Records

In 2001, the American Family Immigration History Center opened on Ellis Island. The center allows visitors to search through millions of immigrant arrival records for information on individuals who went through the island to start their lives in America. The records include ship manifests, and history about the ships.

Pictures of Americans are displayed on the wall at the Ellis Island Museum.

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Many people have been able to find their ancestors’ information through the public records that are also online. Many people didn’t know that their relatives went through Ellis Island, and the public records gave them more insight into their ancestry.

Expanding the Museum

In 2008, proposals were announced for an expansion of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum called “The People of America.” The addition opened to the public in May 2015, and it included the entire immigration process of the American people up to the present day.

An exterior view of Ellis Island Immigration Museum.

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However, the expansion made people wonder about how the immigration process has drastically changed. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the Homeland Security Act of 2002 allowed the DHS to take over immigration services and enforcement functions performed by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Immigration Has Changed Greatly

While it was much more streamlined to immigrate through Ellis Island, things have changed drastically since they closed the immigration hub. Conditions at the southern border are much worse than when the island was at its busiest. Today, everything is much more complicated.

Tourists are entering Ellis Island National Park.

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Immigration interviews are more personal and longer than the rapid-fire questions given to those at Ellis Island. It was basically open borders before, and today it seems nearly impossible for some people to become legal citizens. Times have significantly changed since our ancestors came to the U.S.