Ellis Island

A brief history of the place where so many Jewish immigrants entered the U.S.

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Excerpted with permission from Hadassah Magazine. 

Samuel Ellis was a New York merchant who at some point during the American Revolution became owner of a muddy little island in New York's bay. But the history of this unimposing bit of land began way before that. Native Americans named it Gull Island after the seabirds that flocked there. The governors of Nieuw Amsterdam bought it in 1630, renamed it Little Oyster Island and proceeded to harvest shellfish. When pirates were executed there it became Gibbet Island.

In 1808, when it was still owned by the Ellises, the defense-conscious federal government bought it for $10,000 and it became a fort. But the Ellis name remained.

After the War of 1812, the island was used for munitions storage until 1890, when the House Committee on Immigration decided that it offered the perfect alternative for the problem-fraught Castle Garden immigration station where prospective new citizens slept on the floor, went hungry, and were routinely cheated by money-changers and other con artists.

Immigration Center Opens

Two years, $500,000, and a lot of landfill later, a splendid Georgia pine arrivals building topped by a quartet of turrets opened its doors. The first immigrant to step inside was 15-year-old Annie Moore from County Cork, Ireland. She was followed by about 700 more newcomers that day alone--450,000 the first year. Then the numbers decreased until 1900 because of tightening immigration laws, a cholera scare, and the economic depression that began in 1893.

In December 1900, a palatial new arrivals building--of fireproof red brick and sculpted limestone, adorned with elegant ironwork and festive towers--was inaugurated. To the steerage passengers (first- and second-class passengers proceeded immediately to the mainland) emerging from weeks trapped in mobbed, dank, filthy, noisy, stinking, disease-ridden quarters, it was truly a vision of hope and promise.

New immigrants waiting to be discharged from Temporary Detention Room,
Discharging Division, Ellis Island, New York City.
Photo: American Jewish Historical Society.

Unfortunately, the ethics of some of the people employed here were not as fine as their surroundings. Currency exchange rates and prices of railroad tickets and food were inflated; bribes were demanded; rudeness and cruelty were rampant. But in 1902, a new commissioner of immigration instituted drastic reforms, heralded by signs everywhere demanding "kindness and consideration."

Still, the average immigrant, exhausted and unable to speak or understand English, quaked at the prospect of getting the door to the New World to open, the "hundred forms and ceremonies, grindings and grumblings of the key," as Henry James decorously put it.

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Elin Schoen Brockman is a writer based in New Haven,Conn.