History of Ellis Island
For generations Ellis Island, located in upper New York Harbor near the Statue of Liberty, has been a symbol of immigration to the American people. In earlier times Ellis Island was known by other names and served other purposes. The local Indians originally called Ellis "Kioshk" or Gull Island when it was a small, 3.5 acre natural island. During the Dutch and English Colonial periods in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Ellis Island was known as one of the three Oyster Islands in the harbor, because of the abundant oyster beds and fishing grounds in its surrounding waters. In its history Ellis Island was also known as Dyre's Island, Bucking Island, and Gibbet Island before permanently acquiring the name of Ellis Island from Samuel Ellis, a New York City merchant who was the island's last private owner from the mid to late eighteenth century.
From 1794 to 1890 Ellis Island was used for military purposes by the U.S. Government after it purchased the island from the family of the late Samuel Ellis in 1808 for $10,000 through condemnation procedures. Fort Gibson was completed by the U.S. Army on the eve of the War of 1812 to aid in the coastal defense of New York, and was in use as a powder magazine by the U.S. Navy until the late nineteenth century. In 1890, when the U.S. Government assumed all responsibility for immigration reception from the states, a study was made to determine the best location for a new federal immigration station in New York Harbor. Originally Castle Garden in lower Manhattan served as the first immigration station under the state of New York from 1855 to 1890. But over time it had failed to meet the growing needs of the increasing multitudes seeking America's shores.
Ellis Island was finally chosen as the new site after Bedloe's Island (Liberty Island) and Governor's Island, had been considered. From its opening in January 1892 until its closing in November 1954 over twelve million immigrants entered the United States through Ellis Island, which was gradually expanded over time through landfill to its present size of 27.5 acres 36 buildings. Between the peak years of 1903 to 1914 approximately 5,000 to 7,000 immigrants were being inspected on Ellis Island everyday primarily from Southern and Eastern Europe. Despite increasing legal barriers which excluded various classes of undesirables: anarchists, paupers, beggars, lunatics, persons likely to become a public charge, polygamists, prostitutes, individuals suffering from medical disorders, the illiterate, and certain oriental immigrants.
In August 1914 the outbreak of World War I in Europe, drastically cut immigration to the United States sharply. Ellis Island which had inspected approximately 5,000 to 7,000 immigrants a day, had few immigrants to process during the war and was able to assume its share of wartime activities. During World War I 1,150 German merchant seamen and other enemy aliens were interned on Ellis Island for the duration of the war. After the entrance of the United States into the war in April 1917, the U.S. Army Medical Corps utilized the hospital buildings on the island for the treatment and care of sick and wounded soldiers returning from Europe.
After the end of World War I immigration to the United States had revived quickly by the early 1920's and threatened to reach the huge numbers of the pre-war years. But restrictive legislation which had long been a subject of pre-war concern went into effect in 1921 and 1924 with the passage of the First and Second Quota Acts to restrict immigration. A limit was now placed on the number of immigrants allowed to enter the United States on a yearly basis determined by nationality quotas. Under these new laws, Ellis Island during the 1920's and 1930's found its use as an immigration reception station greatly reduced, and its use as a place of detention and deportation increased. Not only were fewer arriving immigrants landed on the island, but their legal and medical inspection was now being increasingly handled by the State Department at U.S. Embassies and Consulates in their homelands.
With the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, Ellis Island went through a period of use similar to what it had experienced in World War I. During World War II the U.S. Coast Guard and Navy, utilized the buildings on Ellis Island for training and ship assignment for its personnel. The crews of several German, Italian, and Japanese merchant ships were temporarily detained on Ellis Island until they were transferred to permanent detention camps. By May 1942, the FBI had rounded up approximately 1,000 German, Italian, and Japanese enemy aliens for detention on the island. Some of whom were not released until 1947.
Ellis Island, once the entranceway to America for over twelve million immigrants, spent the last years of its use as a place of detention and deportation until its closing in 1954. In March 1955, Ellis Island was declared surplus federal property and was placed on sale. Despite several private offers over the years to buy and develop the island, public support began to grow over time to preserve Ellis Island as a monument dedicated to America's immigrant heritage. While touring Ellis Island in October 1964, Secretary of the Interior, Steward L. Udall proposed the addition of Ellis Island to the Statue of Liberty National Monument. The Secretary's proposal quickly received support in the wake of several congressional bills to decide the island's fate.
In May 1965, in Rose Garden Ceremonies at the White House President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a presidential proclamation which declared Ellis Island to be part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument. The National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior reopened Ellis Island to the public from May 1976 to September 1984 for guided tours. In September 1984 Ellis Island was closed to the public for several years of restoration work. Ellis Island reopened to the public as the Ellis Island Immigration Museum in September 1990 after the completion of a six year, 156 million dollar restoration project through private fundraising under the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation. In September 1990 with the dedication of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation in cooperation with the National Park Service opened the American Immigrant Wall of Honor on Ellis Island. A project which will allow people to honor their families by enrolling the names of immigrant relatives who entered the United States through Ellis Island or not. From the beginning of fundraising in 1987 to 2004 the foundation has raised over $20 million to help continue the historic restoration of Ellis Island by enrolling more than 600,000 names on the American Immigrant Wall of Honor memorial located behind the historic Ellis Island inspection building. For a tax deductible enrollment fee of $100.00 anyone can enroll an immigrant relatives name on the wall where it will be preserved forever to honor America's immigrant heritage.
Jeffrey S. Dosik
National Park Service
Statue of Liberty
& Ellis Island