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Immigration: Ellis Island 1892-1955

So, you think your ancestors spent days at Ellis Island enduring the immigration process. The reality may have been quite different.


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For more than 12 million immigrants who arrived in the New York harbor between 1892 and 1955, their first footsteps on American soil were on an island. And, most of that soil had been moved to the island from somewhere else. The island was originally a small 3.3 acre patch known as Gull Island, by the Indians who were the first to harvest oysters there. When the Dutch arrived, it became known as Oyster Island, changing hands several times before being purchased by Samuel Ellis.

Landfill from ship ballast was used, first to create a causeway connecting Ellis Island to Manhattan Island, and later to expand the island's size. Some researchers say that later, the excess dirt from construction of the New York City subway system was also used to expand the island. Documentation on this seems to be missing or has been destroyed.

Ellis Island was named the first federal immigration center in 1890 by United States President Benjamin Harrison; although the doors didn't officially open until 1892. If your ancestors arrived via New York earlier than that, check Castle Garden records. You'll find an article on Castle Gardens in a previous edition of GenWeekly.

If you visit Ellis Island today, you will not be walking through the building that immigrants visited between 1892 and early summer of 1897. That building, made of pine, was destroyed in a fire on June 14, 1897, along with immigration records dating back to 1855. The cause of the fire was never discovered. Today's building is made of stone, brick and cement.

Almost everyone who thinks of Ellis Island has an idea of the process of immigration their ancestors went through when arriving in the United States: tons of questions and a lengthy physical examination. The reality may have been quite different. There was a set of 29 questions and these were originally asked of the immigrant, not when they arrived in New York; but when they boarded the ship at their port of embarkation. The questionnaires were used by examiners to cross-examine the immigrants upon arrival. They were looking for discrepancies. One of the most important reasons immigrants were questioned was to be sure the immigrants would not become a burden to the state for medical or legal reasons. The U.S. wanted healthy workers and professionals without political or legal problems. The physical examinations were so cursory that they became known as six-second physicals. According to Ellis Island history information, by 1916 a doctor could diagnose an immigrant with anemia to varicose veins with not much more than a glance.

Not all immigrants wound up standing in line for hours and days. If your ancestors traveled to the U.S. as first-  or second-class passengers, they weren't even required to undergo the inspection process unless they were obviously ill. There was a very short inspection aboard ship, and they were allowed to disembark and go directly to the mainland. If they traveled third class, or steerage, it was a far different story. The third-class and steerage passengers went from the ship to the pier to either a ferry or barge that carried them to Ellis Island for health inspections. Having endured a crowded crossing crammed together below decks, many an immigrant who was healthy when embarking, arrived ill. A hospital and infirmary at Ellis Island held many for days and some for weeks.

According to Ellis Island records, if the steerage and third-class passengers were in good health, the inspection process took approximately three to five hoursand this included the six-second physical. Records show that less than two-percent of immigrants were denied entry to the country. Be sure to check ship manifests to see how your ancestor traveled: first-, second-or third-class, or steerage. When possible, compare ship arrival dates with later naturalized citizenship papers. Sometimes it is possible to detect how long they were at Ellis Island. A prolonged stay may mean a health problem on arrival.

If your ancestor arrived between 1918 and 1919, the world was at war and many people were detained or deported as suspected enemy aliens. Fewer inspections were done on the island itself and most were conducted on board ship or at the docks. As the war ended, inspectors were watching for immigrants they called "alien radicals" and thousands of suspected people were interred at Ellis Island. In most cases these people belonged to, or were relatives of people who belonged to organizations advocating the overthrow of federal government. This period ended about 1920 and Ellis Island reopened as an immigration center. The doors officially closed in 1955.

See also, Immigration: Castle Garden 1855-1890

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2005.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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