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Remembering the Past: Ellis Island

Remembering the Past: Ellis Island


Ellis Island may be a monument to our past, yet it is very much alive, particularly if you are searching for your roots.


By FamilyTime

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One of the best tours for anyone living in or visiting New York City is to take the ferry to Ellis Island. Once there, you'll learn a great deal about our country's great immigrant history and you can make use of the museum’s computers to trace your own lineage.

While large numbers of our ancestors entered the country through other ports, such as Baltimore, Miami, San Francisco and New Orleans, many millions of people passed through Ellis Island in New York’s harbor. Because of this, it’s an important American symbol, a reminder that — other than the Native Americans who have been here for centuries — we are a country of immigrants.

Even if you never visit the museum, you can still search for family records by logging onto Ellis Island or Ellis Island Ancestry

Island History

Ellis Island operated from 1892 through 1954. During those 62 years more than 12 million souls entered the country through the facility, with the majority arriving before 1921.

To deal with the growing influx of European immigrants, the federal government took over their processing in the late 1800s, realizing it was too massive a job to leave to the individual states. Ellis Island was one of the first of the federally run sites, and to this day stands as a reminder of our past.

The wave of people entering the country peaked around 1907, with more than 1.25 million people recorded that year at Ellis Island. This came with a price and anti-immigration sentiment across the nation stemmed the tide somewhat after 1921.

Ellis Island was needed less after World War I when we opened embassies in numerous world capitals. This meant those who wanted to emigrate could obtain visas and other paperwork in their home countries and did not need to funnel through the stateside facilities.

After 1924, only immigrants with legal problems, war refugees and displaced persons were routed through Ellis Island. By World War II, enemy merchant seamen were detained there, and the Coast Guard also trained servicemen on the island.

Ellis Island officially closed its doors in 1954. Just more than a decade later, President Lyndon Johnson signed a bill making it part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument.

After significant renovations, the museum opened to the public in 1990. More then two million Americans and foreign tourists visit annually.

What Happened on Ellis Island?

In the early days, people seeking a home in a new land arrived in the port of New York and most were sent to Ellis Island for “processing.” Those steamship passengers who had managed to pay for first- and second-class passage were permitted to disembark on Manhattan Island, but the vast majority of travelers could only afford steerage or third-class tickets.

These weary folks were required to board ferries that took them to Ellis Island. Most people passed through the lines expeditiously and were able to take a ferry back to the city after a few hours. Others were not as fortunate.

The immigrants were corralled in a large hall, where their paperwork was checked and verified. They then were given a quick once-over by doctors, who looked for symptoms of contagious diseases. This medical exam came to be called “the six-second physical.”

Only those with illnesses and legal problems were detained on the island. Many were treated at the hospital wards built to hold them; others were refused entry and sent back to their homelands.

Records indicate that about two percent of the people who were processed were forced to return home. If they were found to have a disease that would endanger the public health, they were denied entry. If they were believed to be entering the country under false pretenses (to become an illegal contract laborer, for instance) or were determined to be someone who would become a public charge, they were not permitted to enter the U.S.A.

Without question, Americans from New York to California can trace their family histories back to Ellis Island — particularly if they are of European descent. Visiting the museum or its websites is an uplifting experience, and also provides insight into how our country grew in the last century.



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