On January 1, 1892, Ellis Island opened to process the millions of immigrants entering New York. Although certainly not only entry point for immigrants, it was the primary location where the immigrants needed to labor in American factories first experienced the country. Annie Moore, an Irish immigrant, was the first person to go through processing that morning, one of over 12 million who would enter the country from this point before the facility closed in 1954.
The rapid growth of American industry during the Gilded Age required the importation of a new labor force. While some of this could be filled through in-migration, native-born English speakers not only could not fill the needed jobs, but also eschewed the brutal and dangerous labor of the steel mills, meatpacking plants, and coal mines whenever they could, moving into managerial and supervisory positions. After 1880, immigration spiked. While the west coast saw waves of immigrants from Asia and the southwest began to experience slight increases in migration from Mexico (although this would not become a major boom after 1910), most of the immigrants came from Europe, headed for the heart of American industrial production in the northeast and Great Lakes states.
The American government had no established immigration procedure and with the exception of the Irish had mostly welcomed the Protestant western Europeans who had made up most of the American immigration experience before the Civil War. But the anti-Irish sentiment that marked the antebellum period would be repeated when they new immigrants of the Gilded Age originated from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Italy, Russia, the Ottoman Empire, Greece, and other areas of southern Europe, eastern Europe, and the Middle East. Americans were highly torn between needing the labor and mortification over these weird people and their clothes, their languages, their food, and their religion.
In order to manage the enormous numbers, at the beginning of 1892, the federal government opened the processing facility at Ellis Island. Until 1890, the federal government played basically no role in immigration processing and the state of New York ran the precursor to Ellis Island. On the first day of the new facility’s opening, 700 immigrants passed through its gates; by the end of 1892, 450,000 had arrived and 1897, 1.5 million people. The peak year for Ellis Island was 1907, when slightly more than 1 million people were processed for entry at the site.
For immigrant labor, the experience of Ellis Island combined hope and dread. Here was the land of opportunity–if one could get in. Of course most did. But some did not. Immigrants, most of whom did not speak English, were often petrified at the process of medical checks and chalk marks on coats. If one member of the family received a special mark, would they be separated? Imagine the terror. About 9% of immigrants were detained for medical reasons. All unaccompanied women and children were detained until an adult male came to claim them. Ellis Island had wards for the detained, medical and otherwise. Approximately 2% of immigrants were denied entry entirely.
Inspections for trachoma caused great pain in immigrants, as the doctors pulled back people’s eyelids with a hook. Elda Del Bino Willits from Luca, Italy passed through Ellis Island at the age of 5, in 1916. She remembered:
When I got on the boat, I was only five and this little, this gentleman who had been back and forth several times, and well my mother took a liking to him because he was so knowledgeable about it. He spoke Italian. And so he took me on a walk one day and he said, “You know what? When you get over to Ellis Island they’re going to be examining your eyes with a hook,” and he says, “Don’t let them do it because you know what? They did it to me one eye fell in my pocket. (Paul laughs) So you can imagine how I entered this…So we get over there and everybody has to pass and I’m on the floor screaming. I passed without a physical. I passed the eye test because the other seven passed.
Others who did get in had their names changed by immigration agents who could not understand strange and long family names from Poland or Russia. The museum at Ellis Island today contains a lot of unclaimed luggage from immigrants. What happened to those people? Why did they not claim their luggage? They checked it at the entrance. Did they die inside? Did they lose their tags and thus lost their clothes and their family histories and religious materials? It’s heartbreaking.
Wonderfully, silent filmmakers in New York captured part of the arrival experience. Here is a 1906 film. I find the viewing of these films incredibly powerful and moving.
As the immigrant experience began scaring Americans and as immigrants began being tainted with the labor radicalism that resulted from the terrible conditions of their labor, the nation’s powerbrokers, at least those who did not rely on this labor for their workforce, began organizing to restrict migration. In 1903, anarchists, epileptics, polygamists, and “beggars” were officially refused entry (with the power to decide who fell into these categories residing in the immigration agents). Knowledge of English became a requirement in 1906, although this was haphazardly enforced to say the least. In 1907, unaccompanied children and those suffering from tuberculosis were banned.
It’s also important to remember that many and perhaps a majority of immigrants did not see the United States as a permanent home. The major exception to this were the Jews, looking to escape anti-Semitism and especially Russian pogroms. Relatively few Irish returned as well. But for many Christians from eastern and southern Europe, as well as the Middle East (most of these people called Syrians then would be recognized today as Lebanese Christians), the United States was a money-making venture before going back home. Around 30% of immigrants returned home during this period, with numbers much higher among Italians and Greeks. Many, like immigrants from Mexico or Central America today, went back and forth several times, as the need to earn money clashed with the desire to be around loved ones, speaking a language you understood in the village and nation of your birth.
After passing through Ellis Island, the immigrants became the labor force of the Gilded Age. Norwegians and Swedes took trains to the Dakotas to homestead. Jews went to the Lower East Side and worked in the garment trade. Many Poles went into the steel industry and Lithuanians into meatpacking. Like anything, their experiences as American laborers were mixed but they built much of the country we live in today.
Ellis Island closed on November 12, 1954. By now, it was rarely used, as between 1924 and 1965, the United States turned its back on its immigrant past, closing the nation’s door to immigrants during one of the nation’s occasional fits of extreme racism.
Hurricane Sandy nearly destroyed the facilities at Ellis Island, causing the site to be closed for over a year. It has now reopened.
This is the 87th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.