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Millions of Americans have made the United States the most
multicultural nation in the world. From the time Ellis Island opened in upper
New York harbor near the Statue of Liberty in 1892 to the time it closed in
1954, it served as the portal for the vast majority of new immigrants.
- Ellis Island was the principal federal immigration station in the United
States from 1892 to 1954. More than 12 million immigrants were processed
here. Over time, the immigration station spread over 3 connected islands
with numerous structures including a hospital and contagious disease wards.
It is estimated that over 40 percent of all citizens can trace their
ancestry to those who came through Ellis Island. In its early years, when
the greatest number of immigrants entered the country, Ellis Island mirrored
the nation's generous attitude and open door policy. After passage of
immigration laws in the 1920s, it was used more for "assembly,
detainment, and deporting aliens," and symbolized a closing door.
Immigrants were required to pass a series of medical and legal inspections
before they could enter America. The actual experience of going through
inspection or detainment on Ellis Island was often nerve wracking. Those who
did not pass these inspections were returned to their country of origin on
the boats that brought them here. Even
though only 2 percent of those coming to America were turned away at Ellis
Island, that translated to over 250,000 people whose hopes and dreams turned
to tears .
The Registry Room
Nearly every day for over two decades (1900-1924) the Registry Room teemed
with hopeful arrivals waiting to be inspected and registered by Immigration
Service officers. As the tide of immigration swelled, sometimes over 10,000
people would file through this space in a single 24-hour period. For most
immigrants, this great hall epitomized Ellis Island. Here they encountered
the complex demands of the immigration laws and an American bureaucracy that
could either grant or withhold permission to land in the United States.
In 1954, Ellis Island closed and was virtually abandoned until 1965 when
President Lyndon Johnson added it to the Statue of Liberty National Monument
under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. The restoration of
Ellis Island began in 1983 and the immigration museum opened in 1990, with
the building being restored to the period of 1918-1920. Ellis Island exists
today as a testament to the vital importance of immigration in shaping
America and to the millions of people who passed through its doors.
- Immigrants sailed to America in hopes of carving out new destinies for
themselves. Most were fleeing religious persecution, political
oppression and economic hardships. Thousands of people arrived daily in
New York Harbor on steamships from mostly Eastern and Southern Europe.
The first and second class passengers were allowed to pass inspection
aboard ship and go directly ashore. Only steerage passengers had to take
the ferry to Ellis Island for inspection.
- However, for all of them the trip meant days and sometimes months
aboard overcrowded ships often traveling through hazardous weather.
Substandard food an sanitation conditions only compounded the misery for
many who had become sick aboard these ships. Nevertheless, the promise of
freedom and opportunity made even the most arduous trips worth it.
- This section describes step-by-step what most new arrivals experienced
on Ellis Island. The opening of Ellis Island began a new era of
restriction in the history of immigration. Here, the inspectors
determined each newcomer's eligibility to land according to United
States law. For the vast majority of immigrants, Ellis Island meant
three to five hours of waiting for a brief medical and legal
examination. For others, it meant a longer stay with additional testing
or a legal hearing. For an unfortunate 2 percent, it meant exclusion and
a return trip to the homeland.
- "We were put on a barge, jammed in so tight that I
couldn't turn 'round, there were so many of us, you see, and the stench
was terrible. And when we got to Ellis Island, they put the gangplank
down, and there was a man at the foot, and he was shouting, at the top
of his voice, "Put your luggage here, drop your luggage here. Men
this way. Women and children this way." Dad looked at us and said,
", we'll meet you back here at this mound of luggage and hope we
find it again and see you later."
--Eleanor Kenderdine Lenhart, an English immigrant in 1921, interviewed
- Immigrant arrivals reached approximately one million each year
during the peak immigration period, 1900-1914. The ever-growing
numbers that taxed the facility with long lines and overcrowding.
Ships dropped anchor outside the Narrows, where Quarantine officers
would come aboard to check for signs of epidemic diseases. If a ship
was free of disease, doctors would then examine the first and second
class passengers, most of whom were given permission to land as soon
as the ship docked. Steerage-class passengers were ferried to Ellis
Island for inspection.
Sometimes new arrivals had to wait aboard their ships for days before
being transferred to Ellis Island. Once there, they were often confined
to the overcrowded barges for hours without food or water, waiting for
their turn to disembark for inspection. The barges, chartered by the
steamship lines lacked adequate toilets and lifesaving equipment, they
were freezing cold in winter and unbearably hot in the summer. When disembarking
at Ellis Island, some immigrants were so encumbered with
large bundles that they kept their health certificates handy by
clenching them between their teeth. Their assortment of baggage
contained what must have been their most prized but portable belongings:
clothing, feather beds, dinnerware, as well as photographs, family prayer books
and other mementoes of the homeland.
The medical inspection began as soon as the immigrants ascended the
stairs to the Registry Room. U.S. Public Health Service Doctors stationed at
the top of the stairs watched carefully for shortness of breath or signs of
heart trouble as the immigrants climbed up the steps hefting their baggage.
U.S. Public Health Service doctors sometimes had only six seconds to scan
each immigrant during the line inspection. If a doctor found any indication
of disease, he marked the shoulder or lapel of an immigrant's clothing with
chalk: "L" for lameness, "E" for eyes, for example.
Marked immigrants, some of whom had received several of these mystifying
letters, were removed from the inspection line and led to special
examination rooms. There a doctor would check them for the ailment indicated
by the chalk mark and give them a quick overall physical. Many had to be sent
to the hospital for observation and care. Patients who recovered were
usually allowed to land. Others, whose ailments were incurable or disabling,
were sent back to their ports of origin.
Women Patients: Many immigrant women were frightened by the clinical
routine followed on Ellis Island. For a woman who had never been touched by
a man other than her husband, being examined by a male doctor could be a
traumatic experience. In 1914 two women doctors were appointed to the
medical staff, and prior to that, Public Health Service rules, required the
presence of a matron during the examination of an immigrant woman by a male
Trachoma: Trachoma, a highly contagious eye infection that could
cause blindness, was a common disease in southeastern Europe but relatively
unknown in the United States. it appeared as inflammations on the inner
eyelid. Doctors checked for the disease by raising the eyelid with either
their fingers, a hairpin, or a buttonhook--a painful, but quick procedure.
Since trachoma is difficult to cure, sufferers were generally isolated and
sent back to their ports of embarkation at the first opportunity.
- Medical inspection cards, punched daily aboard ship, were presented to
the Ellis Island physicians for final examination. If the immigrant was
in good health the card was stamped "passed."
- According to a 1917 U.S. Public Health Service manual, 9 out of 100
immigrants were marked with an "X" during the line inspection
and were sent to mental examination rooms for further questioning. During
this primary examination, doctors first asked the immigrants to answer a
few questions about themselves, and then to solve simple arithmetic
problems, or count backward from 20 to 1, or complete a puzzle. Out of
the 9 immigrants held for this "weeding out" session, perhaps
1 or 2 would be detained for a secondary session of more extensive
- They asked questions. "How much is two and one?
How much is two and two?" But the next young girl also from our
city, went and they asked her, "How do you wash stairs, from the
top or from the bottom?" She say, "I don't go to America to
wash stairs." --Pauline Notkoff, a Polish immigrant in 1917,
interviewed in 1985.
- Can you draw a diamond? Doctors found that this test, which
required immigrants to copy geometric shape, was useful only in the
examination of immigrants who knew how to write or were used to holding
The whole experience was very frightening...They brought
me up to a room...They put a pegboard before me with little sticks of
different shapes and little holes...I had to put them in place, the
round ones and the square ones...and I did it perfectly. They said
"Oh, we must have made a mistake. This little girl...naturally she
doesn't know English, but she's very bright, intelligent." They
took the cross (chalk mark) off me so we were cleared. --Victoria
Sarfatti Fernandez, a Macedonian Jewish immigrant in 1916,
interviewed in 1985.
In addition to using standard
tests, Ellis Island doctors devised many of their own tests to help
diagnose mental defects. Puzzle and mimicry tests were favored because
they did not have to be explained to an immigrant through an
interpreter; nor did an immigrant have to know how to read or write in
order to solve them.
- After the medical inspection, each immigrant filed up to the
inspector's desk at the far end of the Registry Room for his or her
legal examination, an experience that was often compared to the Day
of Judgment. To determine an immigrant's social, economic, and
moral fitness, inspectors asked rapid-fire series of questions, such
as: Are you married or single? What is your occupation? How much
money do you have? Have you ever been convicted of a crime? The
interrogation was over in a matter of minutes after which an
immigrant was either permitted to enter the United States or
detained for a legal hearing.
Manifest Sheets: In 1893, the United States required
steamship companies to record in manifests the vital statistics of
all passengers. The manifest sheets listed the names of the
passengers and their answers to a series of questions regarding
nationality, marital status, destination, occupation and other
personal information. When a ship arrived in New York, the manifests
were turned over to Ellis Island Inspectors and used as a basis for
cross-examining each immigrant. Immigrants were tagged with the
number of the manifest page on which their name appeared. By
checking the tags, inspectors could group and identify the new
What is Your Name?: Andrjuljawierjus, Grzyszczyszn,
Koutsoghianopoulos, and Zemiszkicivicz are a few of the names that
Ellis Island inspectors had to decipher from handwritten manifests.
The inspector's prime task was to question new arrivals to verify
information already recorded in the ships' manifests; however,
scores of immigrants contend that in the process their names were
changed or simplified. Though these changes have never been
verified, stories of immigrants receiving new names as they stood
behind an inspector's desk on Ellis Island are part of America's
Literacy Test: Anti-immigration forces had been trying to
impose a literacy test since the 1880s as a means of restricting
immigration. They finally succeeded with the Immigration Act of
1917, passed over President Woodrow Wilson's veto. This law required
all immigrants, 16 years or older to read a 40-word passage in their
native language. These dual-language cards were used by inspectors
to test immigrants' literacy.
Liable to Become a Public Charge: Any Immigrant deemed
"liable to become a public charge" was denied entry to the
United states. To Ellis Island inspectors, this clause, which has
been a cornerstone of immigration policy since 1882, meant those who
appeared unable to support themselves and, therefore, likely to
become a burden on society. Ellis Island inspectors carefully
weighed the prospects of new arrivals, especially those of women and
children intending to rejoin husbands and fathers in this country.
Immigrants had to show their money to prove they were not paupers.
The amount was left to the discretion of the inspector until 1909
when Commissioner of Immigration William Williams directed that all
immigrants must have railroad tickets to their destinations and at
least $25--at that time, the approximate equivalent of an
inspector's salary. Within a few months Williams was forced to
withdraw his order because of pressure from immigrant aid societies.
- During the peak years of immigration, detention on Ellis
Island ran as high as 20% for all immigrants inspected. A
detainee's stay could last days or even weeks. Many were women
and children who were waiting for a relative to come for them or
for money to arrive. Others were waiting for a hearing in front
of the board of special inquiry or for a final decision from
Washington, D.C. Perhaps the most poignant of the detainees were
the families waiting for a sick parent or child to be released
from the Ellis Island hospital.
The time I spent on Ellis Island seemed like the
longest waiting period for me because of the regimen. Naturally
there had to be a regimen. it was the only way that they could
handle that many people. I realize that now in retrospect. But
at the time it was a nightmare...They weren't unkind, but you
had no communication with the people who took care of you...And
you had no communication with the other people that were there
because everybody was so full of fright. --Barbara Barondess,
a Russian Jewish immigrant in 1921, interviewed in 1995.
Women and Children
Women and children were detained until their safety after they
left Ellis Island was assured. A telegram, letter, or prepaid
ticket from waiting relatives was usually required before the
detained women and children could be sent on their way. Single
women were not allowed to leave Ellis Island with a man who was
not related to them. When a fiancÚ and his intended were
reunited at Ellis Island, their marriage was often performed
right on the island--then they were free to leave.
Free to Land
Ellis Island Today
- After being inspected and receiving permission to leave the
island, immigrants could make travel arrangements to their
final destinations, get something to eat, and exchange their
money for American dollars. Relatives and friends who came to
Ellis Island for joyous reunions--often after years of
separation--could escort the immigrants to their new homes.
Immigrants boarded ferries to New York and New Jersey and, at
last, were free to land in America.
Only one third of the immigrants who came to the United States
through Ellis Island stayed in New York City. The majority
scattered to all points across the country via a railroad that
crisscrossed the entire continent and offered easy access to
all of America's major cities. After immigrants had arranged
their travel plans they were given tags to pin to their hats
or coats. The tags showed the railroad conductors what lines
the immigrants were traveling and what connections to make to
reach their destinations.
When we were getting off Ellis Island, we had
all sorts of tags on us. Now that I think about it, we must
have looked like marked-down merchandise in Gimbals' basement
store or something. --Ann Vida, a Hungarian immigrant
in 1921, interviewed in 1986.
- In recognition of the significant role Ellis
Island played in American history, the Main Building was
refurbished in time for the immigration depot's centennial in
1992. Centerpiece of the restoration project was the
construction of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. Covering
three floors and 200,000 square feet, the museum tells the
poignant story of the immigrants who entered America through
the golden door of Ellis Island. The museum features exhibits,
restored areas, and educational facilities including an
interactive learning center for children.
The museum also houses an extensive library and photograph
archives in addition to its oral history collection containing
over 1300 hundred taped interviews with immigrants who were
processed at Ellis Island. Use of these collections is by
- Photos and Text from
this page taken from http://old.internationalchannel.com/education/ellis/