Annie Moore was lucky.
Because the 15-year-old Irish girl was the first immigrant to pass through
Ellis Island, on Jan. 1, 1892, she was treated more like a celebrity than
one of the "huddled masses yearning to breathe free" described on the
nearby Statue of Liberty. Fresh off the boat from County Cork, Annie entered
America bearing a $10 gold coin from the state immigration commissioner.
The 12 million immigrants who came after her in the next 32 years enjoyed
a less red-carpet introduction to America. Herded like animals, probed
by doctors, interrogated, tested, sometimes separated from their families
and even sent back where they'd come from, the "wretched refuse" of Europe's
teeming shores came to think of Ellis Island as "island of hope, island
But they made it, most of them, following Annie Moore to the promised
land and remaking America in their image. Today, more than 100 million
Americans have at least one ancestor who came through Ellis Island.
Gauntlet to a New Land
For your immigrant ancestors, having their name on a ship's manifest
was the culmination of a dream and often the beginning of a nightmare.
A steerage ticket to America cost about $25, which might be two years'
wages. That bought a crowded, 3,000-mile voyage of two weeks to a month
as human cargo, suffering seasickness and unsanitary conditions on a diet
of thin soup and bread.
Harder still than the voyage was leaving behind everything and everyone
you knew. Julia Gonipow, who emigrated from Lithuania in 1899, remembered,
"The day I left home, my mother came with me to the railroad station.
When we said goodbye, she said it was just like seeing me go into my casket.
I never saw her again."
But they said their goodbyes and endured the trip to reach, as one British
cartoon put it, "the U.S. Ark of Refuge," where they'd find "free education,
free land, free speech, free ballot, free lunch." They left behind joblessness
and poverty, conscription and persecution. Though English, Irish, Germans
and Scandinavians had led the migration to America for most of the 19th
century, by the time Ellis Island opened in 1892 immigrants from Italy,
Russia and Austria-Hungary had joined the flood. By 1907, these three
groups accounted for 75 percent of the traffic through Ellis Island.
On arrival, first- and second-class passengers were cleared onboard by
immigration officials. Steerage passengers were hustled onto a ferry to
Ellis Island. At its peak in 1907, Ellis Island was handling more than
11,000 immigrants a day.
Wearing numbered tags that matched a page of the ship's manifest, the
immigrants came up the steps from the pier into the ornate, red-brick
and limestone, Beaux Arts main building. First stop was the Baggage Room.
Here they could check their meager possessions, a sampling of which can
be seen today in Ellis Island's Treasures from Home exhibit: wool gloves
from Norway, eyeglasses from Scotland, an apron from Romania, a ladies'
fan from Italy, a battered teddy bear that came to America from Switzerland
with Gertrude Schneider, age 10.
From the Baggage Room, the immigrants went up to the Registry Room, the
great, two-story main hall with its vaulted, terra-cotta-tiled ceiling
and American flags. Even as they mounted the stairs, Public Health Service
doctors would be watching for signs of infirmity. In what became known
as "the six-second physical," the doctors scanned for ailments that might
disqualify a newcomer. A chalk mark on the clothes identified those to
be detained for further examination: "H" for heart problems, "L" for lameness,
"E" for eye disease particularly the highly contagious trachoma,
which doctors checked for by turning the eyelid inside-out with a buttonhook.
Intelligence was tested, too. A typical question might be, "Would you
wash stairs from the top down or from the bottom up?" which once
brought the sharp response, "I didn't come to America to wash stairs."
At the far end of the Registry Room waited the legal inspectors. Working
with an army of interpreters, they tried to weed out anarchists, polygamists
and immigrants unable to support themselves in their new land ("S.I.
L.P.C.," these were coded: "special inquiry likely to become a
public charge"). About 10 percent of immigrants were held for a hearing;
today, visitors to Ellis Island can relive this experience by serving
as a mock hearing board, deciding an "immigrant's" fate in a reenactment.
According to one of the most often-told tales about Ellis Island, the
harried inspectors also changed immigrants' names, through misspelling
or simplification. But Sharon Carmack, author of the forthcoming A
Genealogist's Guide to Discovering Your Ethnic Ancestors (and a contributor
to Family Tree Magazine), debunks this legend: "No evidence whatsoever
exists to suggest this ever occurred, and I have challenged countless
people who insist their ancestor's name was changed on Ellis Island to
provide me with proof. So far, no one has been able to.
compared the names the immigrants told them against what was recorded
on the passenger lists. These lists were created at the ports of departure.
There was no reason to record or change anyone's surname once they arrived.
More likely, immigrants themselves changed their names after they settled
in America to avoid prejudice and to blend more easily into American society."
The average stay at Ellis Island was less than a day. Some, however,
had to stay overnight in crowded dormitories, or were quarantined in the
island's hospital. Families got separated, and anxious parents might wait
weeks to be reunited with their children. More than 3,500 immigrants died
on Ellis Island, and more than 350 babies were born.
Ultimately, about two out of every hundred would-be new Americans were
turned away. All immigrants' steamship tickets, in a nice little subsidy
for the steamship companies, were required to be for a round trip. A heartbroken
handful completed the ticketed journey.
A Nation of Immigrants
Most who came to Ellis Island, however, went down from the Registry Room
to the railroad ticket office and the free ferries to New York and New
Jersey, to begin a new life. Immigrants bound for Manhattan met their
relatives many of whom they'd never seen at the "kissing
post." Katherine Beychok, a Russian Jewish immigrant in 1910, remembered
meeting her father for the first time: "I saw a man coming forward and
he was so beautiful.
And I fell in love with him and he with me."
Gaining entrance to America, another immigrant recalled, "was as if God's
great promise had been fulfilled."
Once beyond the gateway of Ellis Island, though, immigrants found that
life could be every bit as hard as it had been back home. An old Italian
story posted in today's Ellis Island museum puts it this way: "I came
to America because I heard the streets were paved with gold. When I got
here, I found out three things: First, the streets were not paved with
gold. Second, they weren't paved at all. Third, I was expected to pave
But pave them they did and build our cities and make our laws
and enrich our culture. Irving Berlin came through Ellis Island from Russia
in 1893; Al Jolson, from Lithuania, in 1894. Knute Rockne arrived from
Norway in 1893. Felix Frankfurter came from Austria in 1894, followed
by Maria Von Trapp and family in 1938. Sol Hurok came from the Ukraine
in 1906. Isaac Asimov came from Russia in 1923.
They gave America their children, too. For example, among the 600,000
names inscribed on Ellis Island's American Immigrant Wall of Honor are
the parents of one Francis Albert Sinatra.
"It touches a human chord in the great spirit of adventure," says the
foundation's Stephen Briganti, "how these people made it possible for
us to be Americans. They are our history."
Immigrants entered through other ports, too San Francisco, Boston,
Baltimore and more. But the greatest influx during the greatest human
migration in history came through Ellis Island. In 1903, for instance,
706,113 of the 951,227 immigrants began their American life at the Port
of New York. And today, Ellis Island is the only national monument dedicated
to the immigrant experience shared by so many of our ancestors.
In 1990, the Ellis Island Immigrant Museum opened in the former main
building, restored at a cost of $170 million. You can retrace your ancestor's
footsteps and see how Ellis Island and U.S. immigration changed over the
years. You can also hear more than 1,700 oral-history interviews of immigrants
and former Ellis Island employees.
Soon, as part of the American Family Immigration History Center, you'll
be able to add your own memories and family treasures to Ellis Island.
In phase two of the project, the Living Family Archive, visitors (both
in person and via Internet) will be invited to contribute scanned copies
of family documents, records and photos. These files will be stored for
posterity along with the newly computerized ship passenger lists.
It's all part of discovering and preserving our roots, which for so many
of us run through this "island of hope, island of tears." Like 15-year-old
Annie Moore, who's immortalized in a statue in Ellis Island's museum,
our ancestors sailed under the Statue of Liberty's lamp and to this "golden
door." Most weren't as lucky as Annie, and it was a long time before many
of them would see a $10 gold piece.
But we're all lucky that they came.