More on Ellis Island

Yesterday I mentioned that Ellis Island had a dark past. Before becoming a major immigration center, it was used for hanging condemned prisoners, pirates, criminals, and mutinous sailors from the early 1800s through 1839. It then served as a Navy munitions depot before being repurposed as a federal immigration station.

Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library

In truth, Ellis Island was not an immigrant’s first stop in America. Waters around the island are not deep enough for the steamships, so ships initially docked and unloaded all passengers in Manhattan. U.S. citizens and all other first- and second-class passengers entered the country there. However, all passengers in steerage were then herded onto ferries and shuttled to Ellis Island for processing.

Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library

Upon arrival at Ellis Island, immigrants were ushered into the Great Hall to undergo a series of examinations for both physical and mental fitness. This is where some immigrants’ tags were marked with chalk and taken for additional screening, hospitalization, or deportation. Though America heralded its open immigration policy, anyone could be denied admittance if it seemed likely that person could become a financial burden for the government.

Despite folklore to the contrary, foreign-sounding names were not shortened nor “Americanized” at Ellis Island. Immigration officers merely checked names against each ship’s own passenger manifest. Name changes typically happened before or while boarding ships in foreign ports.

There are many more “little known facts” regarding immigration to America. For example, women could not leave Ellis Island with a man not related to them. Other automatic detainees included stowaways, alien seamen, anarchists, Bolsheviks, criminals, and anyone suspected of being “immoral.”

In 1790, US naturalization required 2 years of residency and “good moral character. Plus, the applicant had to be a “free white person.” In 1795 the residency period was extended to 5 years and then to 14 years in 1798, but back to 5 years in 1802. In 1870 the right of citizenship was extended to those of African origin.

Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library

To be admitted during the nation’s open immigration years, arriving people had to be seen as healthy and able to enter the workforce. Any sign of declining physical or mental health could get someone deported. More than 60 diseases and disabilities could disqualify a person from entry. Sick children were separated from their parents. Wheezing, coughing, shuffling, or even limping could get a person hospitalized, rather than admitted to the U.S. In truth, tens of thousands of immigrants were hospitalized on the south side of the island, where they were held for treatment and possible deportation. More than 3,500 immigrants died in this hospital.

When the Civil War began in 1861, the demand for workers increased. Pro-immigration Republicans and President Abraham Lincoln advocated for better immigration policies. Progressives championed literacy tests and “various other eugenics-inspired racial and ethnic exclusions of Jews, Asians, and Africans.” By 1875 immigration restrictions included bans on criminals, people with contagious diseases, polygamists, anarchists, beggars, and importers of prostitutes. Ellis Island became more famous for deportations than immigration. In the early 1900s, many Progressives argued that immigrants “impeded the achievement of an ideal society, committed crimes, and abused welfare.”

U.S. immigration sentiment had grown quite negative by April 1917. People sought restrictions, fearing that many of the newcomers were racially inferior. Warnings included the danger of our “melting pot” philosophy bringing an impoverished, criminal, radical, and diseased horde.

In 1921, President Warren G. Harding signed into law the first Quota Act, ending America’s open-door policy. The new law set monthly quotas and limited admission of each nationality to 3% of its representation in the 1910 U.S. Census. By 1925, the government shifted the inspection process from American ports to U.S. Consulates abroad. Ellis Island then operated primarily as a detention and “deportation point for undesirable immigrants.”

Wear and tear took its toll on the buildings at Ellis Island. Eventually, restorations were ordered, and the facilities opened for tourist visitors during our nation’s Bicentennial in 1976.  Some 3 million visitors tour Ellis Island annually. People can access Ellis on the same ferry as the one to the Statue of Liberty. While on the island, many look up ancestors who first arrived there.

About Cathy Burnham Martin

Author of 20+ books, and counting! A professional voice-over artist, dedicated foodie, and lifelong corporate communications geek, Cathy Burnham Martin has enjoyed a highly eclectic career, ranging from the arts and journalism to finance, telecommunications, and publishing. Along with her husband, Ron Martin, she has passions for entertaining, gardening, volunteering, active and visual arts, GREAT food, and traveling. Cathy often says, "I believe that we all should live with as much contagious enthusiasm as possible... Whether we're with friends or family, taking people along for the ride is more than half the fun."
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