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Facts About Ellis Island: Part of the History of Immigration

written by: Patricia Gable • edited by: Noreen Gunnell • updated: 7/12/2012

If your ancestors immigrated to the U.S. there's a good chance they visited Ellis Island. Learn more about the history of Ellis Island; you may be able to see a picture of a steamship your ancestors sailed on to the Land of Opportunity. Climb aboard!

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    Wouldn’t it be cool to actually see paperwork of your ancestors who, as immigrants, entered the United States at Ellis Island to begin a new life? You could even see a picture of the ship they were on. There is actually a free website that allows you to do searches of your ancestors and learn facts about Ellis Island. You do need to register but unlimited searching is free.

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    What is an Immigrant?

    So what is an immigrant and how did Ellis Island fit into the story? First of all, an immigrant is a person; man, woman or child; who120px-Ellis island 1902  travels to another country in hopes of living there and becoming a citizen.

    Millions of immigrants came to the United States to start a new life. They wanted to be free to worship however they wanted. Immigrants were often poor and were looking for jobs no matter how hard the job might be. Some wanted to join relatives who were already in the United States. Others had been jailed for speaking against their own government and wanted to be free in a new land, still more people wanted space to spread out. The United States had it all and was nicknamed “The Land of Opportunity”.

    Most of the people traveled on steamships. It was not an easy journey. Back then, of course, there were no cell phones, video games or McDonald’s French fries. Often making plans for years, folks paid $30.00 or more for a ticket on the steamship, which was a lot of money back then. Before 1900 people only needed a ticket to come to The Land of Opportunity. In 1900 The United States government decided that people needed passports and a visa, which gave them permission to enter the country.

    Once they had a ticket they would have to wait for an available ship to take them. Anyone who was sick would not be allowed on the ship. They were given shots to prevent diseases. On board they had tiny bunks in which to sleep. For most the conditions were dirty and crowded. Imagine 300 people sharing two bathrooms? The smell was overwhelming.

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    Ellis Island Enters the Story

    So how does Ellis Island fit in with the immigrant story? Located in the New York Bay, Ellis Island was the destination for the steam ships. It is the place where immigrants were processed into the country.

    But let’s find out how this came to be. Originally the Native Americans called the island Gull Island. Then as Dutch settlers arrived they called it Oyster Island. In the 1770’s storeowner Sam Ellis bought the island and named it after himself. Since so many people were entering the new land, The U.S. government needed a more organized system and the space to process these new people so they bought Ellis Island. It made sense because most of the ships came into the New York Harbor anyway.

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    What Happened When Immigrants Arrived at Ellis Island?

    In 1892, the first immigrants were greeted on Ellis Island. The first person was a fifteen-year-old girl from Ireland named Annie Moore and when she arrived she was given a $10 gold piece. It was the most money she ever had.

    When the immigrants arrived at Ellis Island, government workers talked with each person. Doctors examined them, too. While they waited they were provided with food and a place to sleep. Here’s what they check with each person:

    • Age
    • Married or single
    • If over 16, can you read?
    • What jobs can you do?
    • Do you know the difference between right and wrong?

    Ellis Island was designed to handle 5,000 people a day but often had many more. The huge buildings on Ellis Island were first made of wood and then replaced with brick buildings after a terrible fire in 1897. The buildings included a cafeteria, a hospital to care for the sick and the moms who delivered babies, a dorm for sleeping and a registry room where immigrants were interviewed. The immigrants even had to climb a special set of stairs to see if they were healthy enough to climb. Finally there was a “Kissing Post” where they finally got to meet up with friends and relatives who already lived in the United States.

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    What Happened as Time Went On?

    Life was not all good for these immigrants. Ellis Island was sometimes known as “The Island of Tears”. After all, the immigrants were now eating strange food (that included ice cream) and hearing different languages. Some Americans did not want these strangers coming to take their jobs and their land.

    In 1943, the immigration offices were moved off the island but Ellis Island was still was used for prisoners in World War II. The Coast Guard trained there, too. Finally Ellis Island was officially closed. Years later, in 1990, it was reopened as a public museum. Ellis Island history remains an important part of the story of the United States, The Land of Opportunity. Ellis Island was the site that welcomed over 17 million people who arrived from most parts of the world.

    According to the Ellis Island facts, over 40% of Americans today can trace an ancestor who came to the Land of Opportunity through Ellis Island.


  • Links to ancestors and facts:
  • Ellis Island by Elaine Landau
  • Photo:
  • Ellis Island by Lori Mortensen
  • Ellis Island by Thomas S. Owens