Guest Author - Rebecca Graf
Ellis Island is known by everyone in America. Ask them what it is and they will tell you that it is the island in New York were immigrants came through. They are correct, and yet they are so wrong. Ellis Island has been so much more than just a portal for immigrants. It has been vital during several wars and political actions. It has played a huge role in American history.
When America was first being settled, you would not have recognized Ellis Island. In fact, you might not have even been able to see it. It was a low piece of sand located in New York harbor that was a gathering place for birds, oysters, and fish. It began as hunting grounds for Native Americans. It was not a place that anyone would be looking to live on.
It became privately owned by a man named Samuel Ellis sometime in the 1770’s. We do not know what he did with it, but we do know that pirates took advantage of this small piece of land. Though now it is almost 30 acres, it began as just over 3 acres. Over the years as the need for the strategic location of the land increased, so did the land. Dirt was brought by boat and dumped around the island to broaden it.
What happened next in this island’s history really began back in the Revolutionary War. The British were able to occupy New York which proved to be an issue. They just sailed right on it and took the city. The politicians knew that a war was getting ready to break out in 1812. As they were preparing themselves politically, they were also preparing physically for the war with Britain. If they could just waltz in forty years earlier, they could do it again. So, Ellis Island became a fort that was used to protect the city and give Americans the time needed to draw troops in to protect New York City. The fort was later named Fort Gibson after a young soldier who was killed in the war it was built for.
After the War of 1812, the island was rarely used. Most people would think that the immigrants began using it almost immediately. During this time in history, the Federal government had no control over immigration. That was left to the individual states. As the years went on, the state systems began to be highly corrupted. As the government watched this after the Civil War, it realized that something had to be done. Officially the federal government took over the immigration process and chose Ellis Island as the main portal. This was not the only way to enter the U.S., but it was the most heavily used as most Europeans came through New York. San Francisco was a major entry port on the West coast as well as a few other cities scattered around the perimeter of America.
On January 2, 1892 the construction of the immigration buildings were complete and Ellis Island opened as an immigration portal. In fact, the very first immigrant was a young fifteen year old girl named Anne Moore from Ireland. Disaster struck just five years later when the buildings constructed in pine burned to the ground. No one knows what caused the fire, and nobody perished. The worst part was that all the records in the buildings at that time were completely destroyed.
It took three years to build fireproof buildings and reopen to eager immigrants. As the years went by, it became known as the “Island of Tears” because of how many immigrants were treated. Though millions entered each year, only about 1% were ever turned away based on health issues and legal concerns.
During World War I, immigration dropped dramatically. Instead of an entryway, Ellis Island became a place to detain people charged with suspicious activities during the war. This lasted only a short time before all prisoners were transferred and the island became a medical hospital for the Navy. It reopened in 1920 to welcome the immigrants once more.
After WWI, embassies began to spring up throughout the world and the process of immigration transitioned to them. This did not kill the usefulness of Ellis Island. It became a place again to detainee prisoners and to conduct training exercises.
Eventually it closed in 1954 to not reopen again until 1990 when after an extremely expensive reconstruction was done to the island and the Statue of Liberty. It is now a public museum to all the many people who came through those gates and began new lives in a new land.