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For many, the journey that brought them under the watchful gaze of the Statue of Liberty was often a difficult one; some fled tyranny and oppression, others impoverished conditions, but all came to America hoping for a better life for them and their loved ones. The road was not always an easy one for the country’s future citizens, but the stories that continued to grow with each ferry crossing the waters of Upper New York Bay are a historical reminder of why the United States means so much to Americans from sea to shining sea.
The first view of America would come from the deck of a commercial steamship as it entered New York Harbour. Steerage passengers would board ferries at the East River or Hudson piers, where they would be shuttled to Ellis Island. This ferryboat arrives in New York in the early 1900s, while the U.S. Customs House is under construction.
Some were fleeing political oppression or famine. The family pictured above is believed to have left Legnava, in modern-day Slovakia, sometime between 1906 and 1914.
For others it was violence and religious persecution. Reverend Joseph Vasilion, pictured above, was a Greek Orthodox priest who arrived in America in 1910. He is wearing traditional garments, including his kalimavkion hat usually worn during religious services.
On its first day of operations 700 immigrants arrived via three large boats and were processed. The first through the doors was Irish teenager Annie Moore and her two brothers, all of whom were on their way to a reunion with their parents who had already successfully arrived in New York and then sent for their children. During peak times, 5,000 immigrants daily were being processed. On a record-setting day, 11,747 people were processed (April 17, 1907).
In its first twenty years open the majority of immigrants landing at Ellis Island were there from Northern and Western Europe. In this timespan nearly nine million people arrived on the island’s docks. Many early Scottish immigrants, like the children pictured, settled in New Jersey and Charleston, North Carolina.
In the early 1900s millions of immigrants from around the globe were setting off for America, arriving from countries like Austria, Hungary, Italy, Russia, Japan, the West Indies, Greece and Mexico. In 1907 alone 1.25 million immigrants were processed on the island. This woman is wearing a bonnet traditionally worn by the Dutch. She is believed to have arrived around 1910.
Over 100 million Americans today can trace their ancestry to a relative who landed at Ellis Island. Many of them landed in tenement housing in New York, although many others eventually settled around the country.
Everyone had to undergo a medical examination upon arrival. If an individual was visibly ill, it could be grounds to be refused entry. One major reason immigrants were refused entry was trachoma, known today as pinkeye. At the time, pinkeye was thought to be incurable, and could lead to blindness and death.
The Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital was the largest marine hospital in the country, and dealt with cases such as cholera and tuberculosis daily. At its height it had 28 wards, four operating theatres and a morgue.
All arrivals were required to have at least $18 on them upon inspection (approximately $600), a figure the government decided was what would be required for someone to support themselves while they adjusted to life in a new country. Immigrants such as this Ruthenian woman (who would have originated from one of the Slavic-speaking nations) could have struggled for years to make that kind of money.
Immigrants, such as this arrival from Algeria, were asked a series of 29 questions, including who the current president of the United States was, who the first President was, which President freed the slaves, if the immigrant identified as polygamists or anarchists, what occasion was celebrated on the Fourth of July, and whether or not the immigrant had identifying marks such as scars or tattoos.
These interviews could be gruelling, particularly for immigrants that spoke little to no English. People could face further inquiry as well, for visa issues, a perceived likelihood to become a public charge, or suspicion of health issues.
The inspection process usually lasted between 2-5 hours, with roughly 2% of those wanting entry being refused for a variety of reasons including chronic contagious health conditions, being an unskilled labourer, having a criminal record, or mental health issues. It was those denied entries that gained Ellis Island the nickname, ‘the Island of Tears’.
Many immigrants waited long hours at Ellis Island, with no sign that they or their family members would be admitted to the United States.
In the case of many immigrants this would be the menu for the first meal they ever had in a free country, upon their arrival in the United States.
For some of these new arrivals a reunion with their families would be taking place upon a successful inspection at the Kissing Post, an area outside of the registry office that was often the scene of many a public display of emotion-both of the kissing and crying variety.
However, not all families were happily reunited. Many immigrants were sent back to illness, lack of funds, or various other reasons.
Ellis Island officially closed on November 12, 1954. It was opened to the public in 1976 and visitors can now tour the Immigration Museum and check immigrant arrival records released in 2001 for their ancestors.
“I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.” – Thomas Jefferson
Watch: The People That Helped Make America Great
Has one of your ancestors come through Ellis Island? Let us know in the comments below.