Learning About The US: America’s Front Door: Ellis Island

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America’s Front Door: Ellis Island

With some 40 percent of all Americans tracing at least one of their ancestors to Ellis Island, anyone looking deeper into the soul of the United States will need to understand the place Ellis Island occupies in the American mind.

Ellis Island itself is a small clump of mostly landfill in New York harbor, only a few minutes’ boat ride from Manhattan. Prior to the opening of Ellis, immigrants, included the great influx of New York’s first large groups, the Irish and the Germans, were processed at a facility on Manhattan island itself, near the Battery.

Open in 1892, Ellis took over as the primary federal immigration station, processing the 12 million people who made up the great waves of European immigrants of the 19th and 20th centuries. They were the ones who fueled America’s industrial growth via their cheap labor, and America’s prized cultural diversity with the languages, religions and customs they brought with them.

Ellis Island Basics

Men arrive to Ellis Island-Image Source: Latin American Studies

The basic outlines of Ellis Island that are taught to most Americans are indeed more fact than myth, though every country gets its own history wrong to some degree.

Of the millions of immigrants who poured through Ellis Island’s gate into the New World, most were poor, many from eastern Europe, quite a few escaping pogroms, persecution and poverty. They traveled by ship, usually packed into steerage (remember the scenes from the movie Titanic?) and faced difficult screening from immigration and health officials.

Many were rejected due to poor health, others were forced or willingly changed their “ethnic” names to more a Anglicized one — Hymie Slivowitz became Henry Silver. Movies, including The Godfather Part II, Don Corleone, and TV miniseries named simply Ellis Island, keep these stories alive.

What You Don’t Know About Ellis Island

Image Source: Flickr

That is all mostly true, but there is a bit more. In addition to the masses of poor — what the famous poem etched onto the base of the Statue of Liberty called “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” — moderate numbers of Europeans of some means also arrived at Ellis by ship.

For First and Second class passengers, immigration and health inspections were performed on board, and the passengers continued on the same ship to disembark shortly thereafter at New York ports. Only Third class passengers landed on Ellis Island.

Health inspections were indeed part of Ellis’ regime, though almost completely focused on the scourge of the era, tuberculosis. Some (but not all) health inspectors would station themselves at the top of one of the inspection hall’s steep staircases, watching for those out of breath and pulling them aside for closer examination.

However, few were ever sent back to Europe, though many were held on some off-shore facility until it was determined they were not a threat to an already over-crowded New York City. Ellis Island in fact had its own hospital just for such purposes.

Those deemed “lunatics and idiots” by the standards of the day were typically deported home. The blacklist was later expanded to include anarchists, prostitutes and criminals, although how they could be identified on sight was unclear.

Most immigrants spent only a few hours at Ellis Island. They somehow tried to answer 29 questions including name, occupation, and the amount of money carried. The average the government wanted the immigrants to have was around 20 dollars.

While much is made out of a titular requirement that immigrants be fit to work, almost everyone who managed to survive the sea journey likely passed. Jobs were plentiful, and those who could not lift heavy things could sew and those who could not sew could deliver goods, and so forth. Immigrant associations came into existence, acting as job brokers. It wasn’t until the darkest days of the Great Depression that limits and quotas came to be applied.

Image Source: Girls Meet Paper

While there were almost certainly racist or prejudiced inspectors who forced name changes on immigrants, many such “changes” were related to the harried inspectors mishearing unfamiliar names and jotting down into the records their own transliterations. Some immigrants may have also chosen new names for a new world. Most people were identified only from ships’ manifests and not from passports or other official documents they did not have. The inspectors knew America needed the immigrants as labor, and acted with expediency accordingly.

Not all Ellis Island immigrants were absorbed into the sweatshops and factories. One named Madeline Albright attended university and went on to become Secretary of State, The comedian Bob Hope was another, along with sci-fi giant Issac Asimov.

The History Channel produced a great video about some of the inspiring people that came through Ellis Island

Ellis Island’s New Era

As immigration shifted, with most new arrivals coming from Asia (Asian immigrants had their own entry point, called Angel Island, off the coast of California near San Francisco), and especially as almost all immigrants began arriving by plane, Ellis Island fell into disuse, closing its doors in 1954.

However, the place Ellis occupies in American thinking was so important that the island reopened as a museum in 1976, as part of America’s bicentennial celebrations that year. A fundraising drive in the 1980s paid for the restoration of the Great Hall, where most processing took place, and today tours to Ellis Island, often combined with a visit to the adjacent Statue of Liberty, leave constantly from Battery Park.

Visitors are welcome to explore the main buildings on their own, or research relatives in the easy-to-use database. Ellis Island is administered now by the National Park Service.

My Ellis Island: A Profound Experience

Most Americans are proud of their ethnic heritage, and will often refer to themselves as Irish-Americans, or Italian-Americans, for example. Americans generally love to talk about how “their people came over,” and it is a safe topic of conversation as you get to know new friends in the U.S.

My own relatives passed through Ellis Island. On my mother’s side, her father (my maternal grandfather) entered the United States as a child in 1905, from Italy. My own father came to America from Germany as a boy, passing through Ellis Island in the 1930s.

On a visit myself to the Island, a hundred years after my grandfather and 70-some years after my father, I was humbled and moved to some private tears. I stood in the Great Hall, walked up to the processing desks now-restored, and climbed the famous staircase.

The Hall was full of ghosts and shadows, and I waited for some time until I was more or less alone. I knew I was standing where my father, and my grandfather before him, had stood. I was seeing what they saw, the high ceiling, the doorway out of the Hall that brought them into the sunshine and changed their lives — and mine — with that first magnificent glimpse of the New York skyline.

That’s what Ellis Island means to Americans.

Now let’s watch a video of a virtual trip to Ellis Island!

Video Thumbnail
TeacherTube - A Virtual Voyage to Ellis Island

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XpatNation is a Social News and Lifestyle magazine, focusing on the insights and experiences on ex-patriots living in The United States.

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