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A tale of an island and immigrants


"Emigrants coming up the board-walk from the barge, which has taken them off the steamship company's docks, and transported them to Ellis Island." [Original text from Library of Congress "About this item" page].

In 1883 Emma Lazarus wrote a sonnet she titled “The New Colossus” in an effort to raise money for the pedestal that would hold The Statue of Liberty.  Of the100 word sonnet, it is the last 35 words that are imprinted in the collective memory of Americans. "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"


The Statue of Liberty stands at the base of Ellis Island, a place that once saw about one million immigrants a year through its doors and welcomed them to the new shore.


Before Ellis Island was known as such it had a varied history. The local Indian tribes called it “Kioshk” or “Gull Island” because of its abundant oyster beds. For many years it was also known as Oyster Island, says


It was President Benjamin Harrison that designated the land in New York to be the first federal immigration station, says says that Ellis Island opened on January 1, 1892. A seventeen-year-old girl from County Cork Ireland, Annie Moore, was the first person to be processed through.


The island is named for Samuel Ellis. Ellis was a merchant who originally owned the land. An advertisement placed by Ellis in Loudon’s New York-Packet on January 20, 1785 read, “TO BE SOLD: By Samuel Ellis, no. 1, Greenwich Street, at the north river near the Bear Market, That pleasant situated island call Oyster Island, lying in New York Bar, near Powle’s Hook, together with all its improvement which are considerable...”


Initially, the State of New York leased the island in 1794. “Ownership was in question and legislation was passed for acquisition by condemnation in 1807 and then ceded to the United States in 1808,” according to Wikipedia. The island remained a military post for 80 years.


The first station was a three-story tall structure. It opened on January 1, 1892, with much ceremony. According to Wikipedia, “Three large ships landed on the first day, and 700 immigrants passed over the docks. Almost 450,000 immigrants were processed at the station during its first year.”


Five years later on June 15, 1897, a fire destroyed the first building. While no loss of life was recorded, the records dating back to 1855 were destroyed. This would include about 1.5 million immigrants that would have been processed during those years. The new structure opened on December 17, 1900.


According to Wikipedia, “A myth persists that government officials on Ellis Island compelled immigrants to take new names against their wishes. In fact, no historical records bear this out. Immigration inspectors used the passenger lists they received from the steamship companies to process each foreigner.” It goes on to say that the Americanization of the surnames was adopted by the family after the immigration process or by second or third generations.


In the years before and that followed, Ellis Island would welcome more than 12 million immigrants to America. A home that at the time held a promise of freedom from tyranny, a new start at a better life. According to Politico, today 40 percent of Americans can trace their family lineage to this gateway in New York.

On November 12, 1954, Ellis Island closed its doors. A seaman detained for having overstayed his shore leave became the last person processed through Ellis Island, Arne Peterssen. He then returned to his native Norway.


According to, Ellis Island is in the territorial jurisdiction of both New York and New Jersey. The main museum that is dedicated to immigration stands in the New York area, while the expanded area lives mostly in New Jersey. But since 1808 the entire island remains federal property.


President Lyndon B. Johnson declared Ellis Island part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument in 1965. It then opened to the public for a limited time from 1976 to 1984. Restoration then began; the $160 million dollar project was the largest historic restoration in U.S. history. The doors to the main building reopened on September 10, 1990.

Ellis Island stands today as the country’s primary museum devoted entirely to immigration.

Top Photo: By Unknown author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Second photoFirst Ellis Island Immigrant Station: By unidentified photographer - the Personal image of an old stereo photograph, Public Domain,
Third photoSecond Ellis Island Immigrant Station: By A. Coeffler - Library of Congress via the American Heritage website; description,[1] high-resolution image.[2], Public Domain,



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