Ellis Island: 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.

Ellis Island was the main entry point during the height of European immigration (1890s-1920s). Discover the rich and amazing history of this classic American icon in this lesson. Then, take a short quiz to test what you learned.

Welcome to America!

Do you know how your family came to the United States? Millions of Americans can trace their ancestry to the height of European immigration, which took place mostly from 1890-1920. Most new European arrivals entered the U.S. through Ellis Island, an entry point located in New York Harbor. The island served as the main hub of immigration on the East Coast until the 1950s. An inspection point, welcoming center, medical facility, and deportation location for millions of hopefuls from other nations, Ellis is an American icon. Put yourself in the shoes of an immigrant as you explore the history of Ellis Island.

The Island's Origins

Prior to serving as an immigration hub, Ellis Island was used by Native Americans for oyster harvesting and other food sources. Generations of Dutch and English colonists followed in their footsteps. Samuel Ellis purchased the island in the 1770s, and though ownership then transferred to New York State and then to the federal government in 1808, the name Ellis Island stuck. Ellis was then used as a military base during the War of 1812. After the war, condition in Europe deteriorated, and immigration rose at an alarming rate. Soon, the states could not deal with immigration alone, and the federal government designated Ellis Island as a new main point of entry for the East Coast. Ellis opened in 1892 and would serve more than 12 million people over the next 62 years. The face of the nation changed because of immigration, and we became a mix of many cultures. One way to look at it is America as a big salad and every ingredient is another culture. Without a doubt, this influx of new arrivals helped shape the nation.

Dreaming of a Better Life

Why did so many people want to immigrate to the United States? People came from many different countries for many different reasons, but religious persecution, political oppression, and extreme economic hardships were the main reasons. Imagine living in a country where the government would punish you for your faith, and, no matter how hard you worked, you would never be able to have more money or a better life. Even worse, imagine a famine that meant you could not properly feed yourself or your family. Pretty bleak outlook, wouldn't you say?

That feeling was shared by millions who wanted a better life, and all signs pointed to America. Gathering the resources to pay for the trip was not easy though; some families saved for years to earn the money and others were only able to send one or two people to the United States at a time. Additionally, the journey took weeks, and the sea was rough. Those who could pay for first and second class tickets fared slightly better, but most passengers were in the steerage class. This meant that they were crowded into cargo areas of ships below deck for the entire trip. Many people became sick and even died as a result.

Arrival was Just the Beginning

Seeing the Statue of Liberty and arriving on Ellis Island must have been an exhilarating experience for many immigrants! However, arrival was just a small step in what would turn out to be an arduous journey towards creating a life as an American citizen. Upon arrival, health officers boarded the ship and looked for signs of sickness and disease. If the ship passed inspection, the inspectors dealt with individual first and second class passengers quickly. Inspectors were looking for signs of physical or mental sickness or indications of past legal trouble. It was believed that anyone who could pay for an upper class ticket was less likely to become a burden on the United States. Therefore, inspectors took more time, sometimes days, with passengers from steerage. Only after inspection had been passed were passengers allowed to disembark and set foot on Ellis Island for processing.

Ellis Island, 1905, as seen by immigrants.
Ellis Island 1905

Imagine enduring weeks in a crowded cargo hold and days of a tedious inspection process only to find yourself in a crowded room full of people who spoke languages you didn't understand. Imagine you were yelled at, poked and prodded, and forced to surrendered your belongings for further inspection. Imagine seeing other people, who looked very sick, being held back while you tried your best to understand and answer the questions being asked of you. Doesn't sound all that American or appealing does it?

Even after enduring all of that, there was no guaranteed admission to the U.S.. In fact there was a hall with three staircases on Ellis Island. Two sets of stairs were reserved for people heading to different parts of the country, while the third staircase was for people who were headed back to the boats.

Processing new arrivals

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