On the Map: Ellis Island

Ellis Island

People enter the US of A at a great number of immigration stations in cities at our nation’s margins.  Despite the best efforts of the INS, many arrive through unofficial portals.  But a vast number of newcomers passed through a particular point on their way into this country.

Ellis Island, by Jersey City, off the southern tip of Manhattan, was the home of an immigration station that opened in 1892.  As ships approached this small speck of land in the Hudson River, they passed by Liberty Island, home of the Statue of Liberty, and immigrants were no doubt awed, hopeful and probably a little scared at what lay ahead.

By 1892, the immigration patterns into the US were shifting from the English, Irish and Western European nations to the Southern and Eastern European lands.   Greeks, Poles, Slovaks, Hungarians and Russians were amongst the many people escaping wars, religious persecution and poverty.  The greatest wave of arrivals came between 1900 and 1914, when 5,000 to 10,000 people a day would be processed.  Legend has it that in this crush, many had their names changed or mangled by ignorant officials, but the truth of the matter is that passenger lists were compiled at the port of origin where there were people familiar with regional surnames, and incoming passengers were not accepted without proper ID.  Ellis Island inspectors were themselves often immigrants, and interpreters of many languages were on hand to clarify confusion.  Name changes did occur over time, but they usually resulted from poor documentation made by officials encountered later, such as business clerks or teachers, or because of the immigrant’s own difficulties with English.

Legal Examination in the Great Hall

Partly due to the huge influx of immigrants, laws were passed in the 1920s that limited the number of immigrants allowed from particular countries, and the overall total, so from the ‘20s til Ellis Island closed in 1954, there were far fewer entries.  Still, more than half of all US immigrants in that later period came through Elllis Island.  In all, more than 12 million citizens of foreign nations began their American experience at Ellis Island so it is little wonder that somewhere around 40 percent of all people in this country can trace their family back to a relative who passed through that famous gateway.

(Photo credits: VisitDCStatue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation)

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