National Ellis Island Family History Day

If you love ancestry, checking out Ellis Island is a riotous “rabbit hole” to investigate. I had family enter the U.S. there, as did the nearly 40% of American citizens who can trace at least 1 ancestor to Ellis Island. 40%! That’s HUGE! It all started in 1892.


Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library

Three unaccompanied minors, 17-year-old Annie Moore, a teenager from County Cork in Ireland, and her 11 and 7-year-old brothers, were the first immigrants to come through Ellis Island on January 1, 1892. They were among the 124 passengers aboard the steamship Nevada. On one single day in 1907, more than 11,000 immigrants arrived. Ellis Island, named for Samuel Ellis, its last private owner, served as the port of entry for more than 12 million immigrants, until the site was permanently closed in November 1954.

Ellis Island lies between NY and NJ… not far from the Statue of Liberty. Originally 3.3 acres in size, it was intentionally expanded to 27.5 acres to accommodate more people and buildings. Ellis Island sits in the waters of New Jersey, but an 1834 agreement stated the island belonged to New York. A 1998 agreement stated that the original 3.3 acres of land belonged to NY, but the additional 24.2 acres belonged to NJ.

Regardless of which state owned the island, all entrants approaching the United States were stopped for a quarantine checkpoint off Staten Island before their ships were even permitted to enter New York Harbor. Doctors check for dangerous contagious diseases, such as smallpox, yellow fever, plague, cholera, and leprosy. Plus, travelers in steerage and their belongings were sprayed down with disinfectant. After inspection, immigration officers then boarded the ship and began clearing U.S. citizens and all other 1st and 2nd class passengers. Most travelers, those in steerage, were given manifest tags to present to U.S. Customs officers to identify passengers. No passports or visas were required, nor were any papers needed.

Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library

80% of those arriving spent 3-5 hours getting through the Ellis Island process and were then admitted. However, the process for the other 20% could take a couple of days, weeks, months, or in rare cases, a couple of years. While waiting, free meals were served. This usually included beef stew, potatoes, bread, bananas, and ice cream. Dormitories were provided for longer waiting periods. About 2% or less than half a million people were denied entry and sent back to their ports of origin.

Arriving in 1916 as a small child, along with an older brother and his mother, my Armenian grandfather and his family were nearly among those deported. That fact is visible today upon examining the records at Ellis Island. Language challenges had made it difficult to help officials understand that his mother had been badly injured by Ottoman Turk soldiers, rather than being ill with some dreaded disease. Though it took a lot of time and tears, they finally were able to find someone who could help communicate, and they were able to join relatives waiting on the shore, rather than being sent back to Europe.

I was most pleased to share their store in the first two books of my Destiny historical fiction trilogy. “Destiny of Dreams” tells a blunt and difficult account of my ancestors’ struggles in Armenia, and “Destiny of Determination” follows the survivors arriving at Ellis Island and building a new life in America. (The concluding book in the trilogy is due for release this Fall.)


Tomorrow, I will continue sharing about Ellis Island. We’ll look at why it earned the “Island of Tears” nickname and how it grew out of its dark past into a popular tourist destination.

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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