JIM REES looks at the history of Ellis Island, gateway for millions of immigrants to the United States from 1892 to 1954, including millions of Irish
Here’s a statistic: of the 280,000,000 Americans, over 100 million – almost a third – have at least one ancestor who arrived in America through Ellis Island. It’s a truly remarkable figure, but no more remarkable than the story of the island itself.
The local Lenape tribe knew the island as an ideal location for oyster beds. When the first European settlers arrived in the area from Holland, they named it Oyster Island.
Over the years, environmental changes destroyed the beds and the island was given a series of different names. One of the most colourful was Gibbet Island, reminding everyone that in the 1760s several pirates had been hanged there.
Then, a Welshman named Samuel Ellis claimed it as his. He tried to sell it in 1785, reverting to the better sounding Oyster Island. No doubt, modern estate agents will appreciate his grasp of branding.
There were no takers, but nine years later the state of New York agreed to lease the island and began to fortify it the following year. Ellis’s ownership soon came into dispute and, by sleight of legislative hand, the United States took ownership in 1808.
That’s the last that was heard of Mr Ellis, but from that time on it continued to be Ellis Island.
A twenty-gun battery, magazine and barracks were erected – probably more in anticipation of worsening relations with Britain than an expectation of Sam Ellis sneaking back to reclaim it. It was further fortified a few years later as Fort Gibson, which it remained for the next eighty years.
In the meantime, unrestricted immigration to the United States had exploded in the second half of the nineteenth century. It suited the United States government to attract new settlers to farm land which had once been roamed by native tribes; people now confined to reservations and second class citizenship.
Not surprisingly, some of the earlier immigrants looked down their noses at new arrivals. ‘Lace curtain Irish’ did not want to be associated with the Famine-fleeing poor who carried disease, often starting epidemics in New York, Boston, and New Orleans.
The shout of ‘Quarantine!’ could be heard with increasing regularity. There were even calls for an end to immigration, many Americans arguing that the vast country was now ‘full’.
In 1855, an immigration depot was opened in New York’s Castle Garden to appease the growing anger. Over the next thirty-five years over eight million people passed through it to begin new lives.
Such was the influx that in 1890 the Federal government assumed control of immigration throughout the country, and opened the Ellis Island Immigration Depot on 1 January, 1892.