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history of ellis island

Ellis Island New York


During the American Revolution (1776) Ellis Island proprietor and New York merchant Samuel Ellis caters to local fisherman in his tavern located on the island.
The first federal immigration law, The Naturalization Act, is passed in 1790. This allows all white males living in the U.S. for two years to become citizens.


In 1808 Ellis Island is sold by the heirs of Samuel Ellis to the State of New York, but the name is kept. Later this year, the island is sold for $10,000 to the Federal Government.
There is little regulation of immigration when the first great wave begins in 1814. Nearly five million people will arrive from Northern and Western Europe in the next forty-five years.


The potato blight strikes Ireland and the ensuing famine (1846-50) leads to the immigration of over 1 million Irish in the next decade. Concurrently, large numbers of Germans flee political and economic unrest.
Castle Garden, one of the first state run immigration depots, opens in New York City in 1855.


Rapid settlement of the West begins with the passing of The Homestead Act in 1862. Attracted by the opportunity to own land, more Europeans begin to immigrate.
Beginning in 1875, the United States forbids prostitutes and criminals from entering the country. The Chinese Exclusion Act is passed in 1882. Restricted as well are "lunatics" and "idiots."


The control of immigration is turned over to the Federal Government, and $75,000 is appropriated for construction of the first Federal Immigration Station on Ellis Island. Artesian wells are dug as the size of Ellis Island is doubled to over six acres with landfill created from incoming ships' ballast and the subway tunnels in New York. During the time of this construction, the Barge Office at the Battery at the lower tip of Manhattan serves as the reception site for immigrants


On June 15, 1897, with 200 immigrants on the island, a fire breaks out in one of the towers in the main building and the roof collapses. Though no one is killed, all immigration records dating back to 1840 and the Castle Garden era are destroyed. The Immigration Station is relocated to the Barge Office in Battery Park in Manhattan.


On December 17, 1900, the New York Tribune offered a scathing account of conditions at the Battery station including "grimy, gloomy...more suggestive of an enclosure for animals than a receiving station for prospective citizens of the United States." In response to this, New York architectural firm Boring & Tilton reconstructs the immigrant station and the new, fire proofed facility is officially opened in December as 2,251 people pass through on opening day.
To prevent a similar situation from occurring again, Commissioner of Immigration William Williams cleans house on Ellis Island in 1902 - he awards contracts based on merit and announces contracts will be revoked if any dishonesty is suspected. He imposes penalties for any violation of this rule and posts "Kindness and Consideration" signs as reminders.
By 1903 anarchists are denied admittance into the U.S.
On April 17, 1907, an all time daily high of 11,747 immigrants received is reached. Ellis Island experiences its highest number of immigrants received in a single year, with 1,004,756 arrivals. Federal law is passed excluding persons having physical and mental defects as well as children arriving without adults.

Vocabulary word: "anarchist" - one who rebels against any authority, established order, or ruling power


World War I begins in 1914 and immigration to the U.S. halts. Ellis Island experiences a sharp decline in receiving immigrants - from 178,416 in 1915 to 28,867 in 1918.
Starting in 1917, Ellis Island operates as a hospital for the Army, a way station for Navy personnel and a detention center for enemy aliens. The literacy test is introduced at this time, and stays on the books until 1952. Those over the age of 16 who cannot read 30 to 40 test words in their own language will not be admitted through Ellis Island. Asian immigrants are nearly all banned.
By 1918 the U.S. Army takes over most of Ellis Island and creates a make-shift way station to treat sick and wounded American servicemen.

Vocabulary word: "alien" - a person of another family, race, or nation


The passage of the Internal Security Act of 1950 excludes arriving aliens with previous links to Communist and Fascist organizations. With this, Ellis Island experiences a brief resurgence in activity. Renovations and repairs are made in an effort to accommodate detainees, sometimes numbering 1,500 at a time. The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1952, and a liberalized detention policy, results in the number of detainees on the island to plummet to less than 30.
Ellis Island is formally placed under the jurisdiction of the General Services Administration from 1954 to 1964, and all thirty-three structures on the island are officially closed in November, 1954


After President Lyndon B. Johnson issues Proclamation 3656,Ellis Island falls under the jurisdiction of The National Park Service as part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument.


Ellis Island opens to the public in 1976. During this year over 50,000 people visit. Restoration of Ellis Island begins in 1984.
The $156 million dollar restoration of the Main Arrivals Building is completed and re-opened to the public in 1990. Since then millions of visitors have retraced the steps of their ancestors by experiencing Ellis Island.

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