Ellis Island Immigration Depot Opens

The Ellis Island immigration center opened as the nation’s major point of entry for immigrants coming into the United States from Europe. More than twelve million such immigrants would be processed in the facility before it finally closed sixty-two years later.

Summary of Event

Ellis Island, which now covers a land area of about 27.5 acres, has been known by a variety of names during its history. Early Dutch settlers called it Oyster Island, because they used the site for shucking oysters. When the British took possession of New Amsterdam New Amsterdam , changing its name to New York, they called the island Gibbet Island, indicating that it was a place for executing pirates. Purchased by a businessman named Samuel Ellis late in the eighteenth century, the island took the name of its new owner. In 1808, Ellis’s heirs sold the island to the federal government for $10,000. For a few years, it again served as a major execution post, but just before the U.S. Civil War it become a military arsenal. After the war, the future use of the island became the subject of heated political debate when New Yorkers learned that it contained enough munitions, if exploded, to destroy all of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Jersey City. Ellis Island
Immigration;to United States[United States]
New York City;Ellis Island
[kw]Ellis Island Immigration Depot Opens (Jan. 1, 1892)
[kw]Island Immigration Depot Opens, Ellis (Jan. 1, 1892)
[kw]Immigration Depot Opens, Ellis Island (Jan. 1, 1892)
[kw]Depot Opens, Ellis Island Immigration (Jan. 1, 1892)
[kw]Opens, Ellis Island Immigration Depot (Jan. 1, 1892)
Ellis Island
Immigration;to United States[United States]
New York City;Ellis Island
[g]United States;Jan. 1, 1892: Ellis Island Immigration Depot Opens[5790]
[c]Immigration;Jan. 1, 1892: Ellis Island Immigration Depot Opens[5790]
McPherson, John R.
Moore, Annie
Ellis, Samuel

By 1880, a gigantic wave of immigrants from a variety of European countries was beginning to enter the United States. In contrast to earlier waves, a large percentage of these immigrants came from southern and eastern Europe, particularly Italy, Poland, Bohemia, and Russia. As a result of this so-called New Immigration, the United States would be increasingly marked by an unprecedented diversity in religion and other cultural traits. Nor surprisingly, Americans accustomed to perceiving their countrymen as being white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs) were often concerned about this new diversity. Fears were exacerbated by the tendency of new immigrants to be poor, uneducated, and victims of religious or political oppression. Recurring stories in newspapers and magazines told about alleged incidents of European nations dumping criminals and insane persons into boats headed to America.

At that time, the states were still largely in control of regulating immigration policy. Because so many new immigrants entered the United States at New York, the New York State New York State;immigration policy Immigration Commission was particularly important in shaping this policy. Since 1855, New York City’s center for processing immigrants had been located at Castle Garden, on the southern tip of Manhattan. Between 1855 and 1890, almost eight million immigrants, or two out of three persons coming to America, passed through this facility.

During the 1880’s, Congress began to pass new federal regulations for potential immigrants. A congressional statute of 1882 prohibited entrance into the country by “any convict, lunatic, idiot, or any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge.” However, with the sheer number of immigrants growing daily, the overcrowded conditions and resulting confusion at Castle Garden made it almost impossible for New York bureaucrats to investigate aliens sufficiently to enforce this law and prevent undesirables from escaping into the city. In addition, a congressional investigation confirmed long-standing reports that New York’s immigration officials were guilty of taking bribes and profiting from the sale of railroad tickets. In 1890, Congress responded by closing Castle Garden and creating the federal Bureau of Immigration as part of the U.S. Treasury Department.

Congressional leaders also concluded that the federal government should construct a new immigration center. A joint committee was appointed to suggest a desirable location. The committee soon decided that the most secure location would be one of the government-owned islands in New York harbor. Their first choice was Bedloe’s Island, where the Statue of Liberty had been built four years earlier, but the suggestion aroused a storm of protests. Led by Senator McPherson McPherson, John R. of New Jersey, the committee then proposed Ellis Island, even though it would have to be greatly enlarged to accommodate the expected number of immigrants. New Yorkers, eager to eliminate the dangerous munitions dump still housed on the island, strongly supported the recommendation.

In May, 1890, Congress voted to accept the joint committee’s choice and appropriated funds to establish the nation’s first federal immigration center. The next year, work began on a large, three-story reception center 400 feet long and 150 feet wide. The project also included a hospital, a generating plant, and a boiler house. All of the buildings were made of Georgia pine. The construction of a sea wall and a landfill doubled the size of the island, from 3.5 acres to more than 7 acres. The ambitious project was designed to accept up to ten thousand immigrants per day. Within two years, enough buildings had been set up to begin processing immigrants, but the entire installation would not be completed until June 14, 1897.

Meanwhile, federal investigators discovered that New York officials were misusing the state’s immigration commission for political purposes. In 1891, Congress and President Bejmain Harrison Harrison, Benjamin
[p]Harrison, Benjamin;and immigration[Immigration] responded to the scandal by passing legislation that placed the regulation of immigration exclusively under the authority of the federal government. The 1891 law also expanded the category of prohibited immigrants to include anyone with a contagious disease or a criminal record, and it required steamship companies to return rejected aliens to their homelands free of charge.

On New Year’s Day, 1892, the Ellis Island Immigration Station officially opened. At 8:00 that morning, several large ships were already waiting to land. The first person to enter the country through Ellis Island was the fifteen-year-old Annie Moore Moore, Annie , described as a “rosy-cheeked Irish girl.” Superintendent John C. Weber presented her with a ten-dollar gold piece. She and her two younger brothers passed the inspection and were allowed to take the ferryboat to the barge office. About 700 immigrants were processed at the station on the first day, and a total of 445,987 immigrants, including Israel Baline (Irving Berlin Berlin, Irving ), arrived on Ellis Island during its first year of operation.

All of the immigrants processed at Ellis Island were checked for disabilities, diseases, Diseases;and immigrants[Immigrants] and legal difficulties. Frequently, one or two members of a family were sent back to their home countries. Immigrants had no right to a legal hearing if authorities ordered them deported. About one thousand persons each month were found “undesirable,” as a result of which the receiving station received the nickname Island of Hope, Island of Tears. With immigrants speaking so many different languages, the clerks sometimes wrote approximations of their names or simply used English phonetic spellings.

Within five years, 1.5 million immigrants had landed on Ellis Island, but on June 15, 1897, the day after the facility was completed, the original wooden buildings on the island burned to the ground. While new buildings were under construction, immigrants had to pass through the temporary depot of the Battery’s Barge Office. In December, 1900, although its new brick and limestone buildings were still incomplete, Ellis Island resumed processing immigrants. The main building, called the Great Hall, attracted much attention: It was a huge, fireproofed structure in French Renaissance style with four turrets. The impressive array of buildings, costing more than one million dollars, suggested the importance of immigration to the country at that time. Federal officials made the mistake, however, of designing the new complex for only 500,000 immigrants per year, seriously underestimating the number of persons who would enter the country in subsequent decades.

Until passage of the Immigration Act of 1924 Immigration Act of 1924 , the “golden door” to the United States was open to European immigrants with relatively few restrictions. As the number of immigrants decreased to a trickle after 1924, Ellis Island was used primarily for law-enforcement purposes. On November 12, 1954, what had by then become the Immigration and Naturalization Service moved to Lower Manhattan and officially closed all the buildings on the island. In 1965, however, the site became part of the Statue of Liberty Statue of Liberty;national monument National Monument, and the Ellis Island Immigration Museum was opened to the public in 1990.


Between 1892 and 1924, Ellis Island served as the primary receiving station for the largest and most successful wave of mass migration in modern history. Like the Statue of Liberty that stands nearby, the island came to symbolize the promises, hopes, and dreams of opportunity and freedom that lured millions of impoverished and oppressed peoples to immigrate to America. During the early twenty-first century, almost 40 percent of the U.S. population—more than 100 million Americans—were able to trace their ancestry through at least one person who entered the country through Ellis Island.

Further Reading

  • Benton, Barbara. Ellis Island: A Pictorial History. New York: Facts On File, 1985. Fascinating collection of photographs accompanied by a concise history of the island.
  • Bolino, August. The Ellis Island Source Book. Washington, D.C.: Kensington Press, 1985. Excellent source of information about the history of the island; especially good on legal matters.
  • Carmack, Sharon D. Guide to Finding Your Ellis Island Ancestors. Cincinnati, Ohio: Family Tree Books, 2005. In addition to practical advice about locating and using ancestral records, the book describes immigrants’ experiences on the island.
  • Coan, Peter M. Ellis Island Interviews: Immigrants Tell Their Stories in Their Own Words. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1997. Following a helpful introduction, this book contains 114 fascinating interviews selected from the Ellis Island Oral History Project.
  • Foner, Nancy. From Ellis Island to JFK: New York’s Two Great Waves of Immigration. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000. Scholarly summary of both the 1880-1920 wave and the post-1970 wave of immigration to the United States.
  • Sandler, Martin. Island of Hope: The Journey to America and the Ellis Island Experience. New York: Scholastic, 2004. Illustrated account of the experiences of individual immigrants; primarily for young readers.
  • Tifft, Wilton. Ellis Island. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1990. Excellent historical text with many revealing photographs of the immigrants.
  • Wasserman, Fred, ed. Ellis Island: An Illustrated History of the Immigration Experience. New York: Macmillan, 1991. Beautiful volume containing many hundreds of photographs of immigrants, buildings, and artifacts.
  • Young, Robert. A Personal Tour of Ellis Island. Minneapolis, Minn.: Lerner, 2001. One of several well-illustrated books written primarily for young readers.

Westward American Migration Begins

American Era of “Old” Immigration

Great Irish Famine

Mormons Begin Migration to Utah

United States Acquires Oregon Territory

Chinese Begin Immigrating to California

American Protective Association Is Formed

U.S. Census Bureau Announces Closing of the Frontier

America’s “New” Immigration Era Begins

Immigrant Farmers Begin Settling Western Canada

Related Article in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i><br />

Benjamin Harrison. Ellis Island
Immigration;to United States[United States]
New York City;Ellis Island