Ellis Island in New York Harbor was once the main immigration station for people
entering the United States. About a third of Americans can trace their ancestry to this
entry point. Today Ellis Island is a museum accessible by ferryboat.
The island is named for Samuel Ellis, a wealthy colonial landholder. He once owned the
land and used it as a picnic area. When selling the island, Ellis advertised it along with
several other items he had for sale, including “a few barrels of excellent shad and
herrings” and “a large Pleasure Sleigh, almost new”.
The U.S. War Department purchased the island for $10,000 in 1808. They built defenses
there in the buildup to the War of 1812. Fort Gibson was erected to house prisoners of
that conflict. Fifty years later during the Civil War, the Union army used the fort as a
When the Civil War ended, Ellis Island was abandoned for twenty-five years. Then, in
1890, the government wanted a new immigration processing center. (This would replace
the Castle Garden Immigration Depot, the country’s first immigration station, which was
located on the tip of Manhattan.) Ellis Island opened in 1892 as the main processing point
for newcomers; at the time, about 70% of all immigrants passed through the island
The first immigrant processed was Annie Moore, a teenager from Ireland who was
meeting her parents in New York. (She received a $10 gold coin!) The Ellis Island staff
continued to process immigrant steamship passengers until 1954, when the last immigrant
was the Norwegian merchant seaman Arne Peterssen. In the more than six decades of
operation, the immigration building on Ellis Island saw more than 12 million hopeful
immigrants. After 1954, the building was not attended to for about thirty years. It was
eventually refurbished in the late 1980s and re-opened as a museum in 1990. It is now
under jurisdiction of the US National Park Service.
Immigrants’ experiences on Ellis Island differed with social class. Wealthier immigrants
who traveled first or second class generally entered automatically without delay. Third-
class steerage passengers had medical exams and interviews. In the end, about two
percent were sent back across the ocean after these procedures. With these people in
mind, Ellis is also known as “The Island of Tears” and or “Heartbreak Island”.
Standard interviews included twenty-nine questions, including name, skills, and amount
of money available. Adults who seemed “likely to become a public charge” would be
turned away. The medical exams on Ellis Island were brief; they usually lasted only six
seconds! However, people who appeared ill received much more attention. Chalk
markings were put on their clothes to indicate suspected medical conditions. People who
didn’t discreetly remove these markings were typically sent home or to the island’s
hospital. About three thousand people travelers died in Ellis Island’s hospital.
The United States enacted Quota Laws in 1924. These restricted immigration and
resulted in most processing being performed at embassies and consulates instead of
freestanding immigration stations. After 1924 Ellis Island was only sporadically used to
see war refugees and displaced persons. The island was used for Japanese internment and
to house German Americans accused of being Nazis.
Ellis Island was once the subject of a border dispute between New York and New Jersey.
Today the two states have divided ownership of the historic site: the main building
containing the museum is part of New York, and the old hospital buildings are part of
New Jersey. The monument has been managed and preserved by the National Park
Service since 1966.