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Angel Island: Definition, History & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Prokes

Chris is an instructional designer and college faculty member. He has a Master's Degree in Education and also umpires baseball.

Angel Island is the largest island in California's San Francisco Bay area. In this lesson, you'll learn about its diverse history that includes military use and an immigration point of entry, then take a quiz to see what you've learned.

Welcome to Angel Island

Think of an island: isolated, tropical, small or large, interesting or plain. Regardless of what you imagined, most islands, though they seem faraway, have a purpose and story. Angel Island, located off the coast of California, is no different and has a unique, vast and important history. It began as a Native American outpost, saw the era of immigration, was used by military, and eventually found itself serving as a state park. Along with Alcatraz Island, Angel is one of the main islands in the San Francisco Bay, and the largest. Let's use the letters of its name (A.N.G.E.L.) to explore its history.

Abundance of Resources: Original Use

Angel Island traces its roots back to Native Americans. The Miwok Tribe flourished for thousands of years in no small part due to the Island. They used it for hunting animals, such as deer and sea lions, and fishing - many types of fish were constantly available, with salmon being a huge staple. The Miwok also used plant life on the island for food and medicinal purposes.

In the late 1700s, the Spanish were the first Europeans to discover the island. Like the Miwoks before them, they used it for their benefit, mainly as an outpost and port. The Spanish gave Angel Island its name. Later, Russia and Britain used the island for ship repair and hunting.

  • FACT: The Miwoks only stopped using the island when the Spanish forced them away to San Francisco. What could have happened to the island moving forward if the Miwoks had stayed is a mystery of history.

Necessary Measures: Quarantine Facility

In the 1800s, many diseases led to outbreaks around the world. These included cholera, yellow fever, and smallpox. To prevent these diseases from further entering the U.S., the government built quarantine stations for ships trying to enter American ports. Both vessel and human passengers alike would be inspected and disinfected before entry. As San Francisco was one of the largest western cities at the time, Angel Island was home to the most notable quarantine center on the West Coast.

As the quarantine facility did its best to keep public health preserved, more and more immigrants were trying to enter the country from both east and west. Therefore, the facility did its best to keep tabs on those attempting to enter to determine what possible diseases they may have brought.

  • FACT: Global events, such as World War I, caused the number of ships coming through the quarantine facility to fluctuate from 20 to 40 per week.

Going to America: Immigration Station

Perhaps the most famous and well-documented use of Angel Island was immigration. Between 1910 and 1940, an immigration station on the island served as the main western point of entry into the U.S. for millions of newcomers, mainly from Asia. Conditions and treatment at this station were not great; many, especially the Chinese, were rejected.

Main administration building of the immigration station
Angel Island Immigration Center

In 1882, the U.S. government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, a law designed to keep Chinese immigrants out. In the 1800s, many Chinese came to California during the Gold Rush seeking riches. They were viewed by Americans as a threat to take away jobs, especially once depression hit the U.S. after the Gold Rush. This perception caused a deliberate bias towards the Chinese and thus the law, which wasn't repealed until 1943.

Bunks in a detention center at Angel Island
detention center

With the exclusion act, immigrants were detained without reason at the station for varying lengths of time. During their incarceration, these newcomers carved poetry and drawings into the walls of the detention center. Many carvings survived to this day and paint a picture of what it was like for those trying to enter the country. Unfortunately, many Chinese housed at the center were deported before entering the U.S.

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