Simanaitis Says

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“HOW FAR WOULD you travel to find a better life? What if the journey took weeks under difficult conditions? If you answered, ‘Whatever it takes,’ you echo the feelings of 12 million immigrants who passed through these now quiet halls from 1892 to 1954.”

These words, prophetically appropriate these days, introduce “Island of Hope, Island of Tears,” the opening statement at the National Park Service website dedicated to the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration. Here are tidbits on Ellis Island, gleaned from this website and other Internet sleuthing.

Ellis Island today. Image by Fred Marvaux/REA/REDUX for

Before Ellis Island. According to Wikipedia, “In the 35 years before Ellis Island opened [in 1892], more than eight million immigrants arriving in New York City had been processed by officials at Castle Garden Immigration Depot in Lower Manhattan, just across the bay. The federal government assumed control of immigration on April 18, 1890, and Congress appropriated $75,000 to construct American’s first federal immigration station on Ellis Island.”

By the late 1800s, immigrants to the U.S. included Germans fleeing political violence, the Irish driven away by the Great Famine, Jews fleeing pogroms, Chinese laborers working the U.S. westward expansion, and Eastern Europeans deemed surplus after improvements in their homeland farming economy. Hope as well as tears were part of these earlier immigrations, what with the U.S. Nativist/Know Nothing movement, antiCatholicism, antisemitism, and legislation such as the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.

Google Map view of Ellis Island, with the Statue of Liberty south of it, both west of Manhattan.

Ellis Island. Ellis Island is in Upper New York Bay, north of the Statue of Liberty. Largely created through land reclamation, Ellis Island has a land area of 27.5 acres. The island was made part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument in 1965, with its National Museum of Immigration added in 1990.

Ellis Island buildings, c. 1893.

Ellis Island as a Port of Entry. The first immigrant inspection station opened on January 1, 1892. Three ships carrying a total of 700 immigrants landed on this first day. During Ellis Island’s first year, some 450,000 passed through.

That’s an average of more than 1200 each day. For example, a 7000-person caravan would have taken less than a week to process.

Cover of “The World on Sunday” magazine of the New York World, April 29, 1906.

Buttonhooks and Chalk. The U.S. Public Health Service operated an extensive medical facility there, familiarly known as the Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital. Inspection of immigrants was intensive, not to say odious: Buttonhooks were used to probe eyelids in examining for trachoma. Symbols were chalked on the clothing of those failing a cursory six-second inspection. Symbols included TC for trachoma, G for goiter, H for heart, L for lameness, PG for pregnancy, S for senility, X for suspected mental defect and a circled X for definite signs of mental deficiency.

Inspection queue at Ellis Island, 1904. Image from Underwood & Underwood—Library of Congress Print and Photograph Division.

According to Wikipedia, “Between 1891 and 1930, Ellis Island reviewed over 25 million attempted immigrants. Of this 25 million, 700,000 were given certificates of disability or disease, and of these 79,000 were barred from entry.”

Two computations: 700,000/25 million = 2.8 percent. 79,000/25 million = 0.003 or .3 percent.

“In 1898,” Wikipedia continues, “a Chicago surgeon named Eugene S. Talbot wrote, ‘Crime is hereditary, a tendency which is, in most cases, associated with bodily defects.’ ”

So much for Trump’s “many of whom are stone cold criminals.”

Ellis Island, 1905.

Peak Years for Ellis Island. “Between 1905 and 1914,” Wikipedia writes, “an average of one million immigrants per year arrived in the United States. Immigration officials reviewed about 5000 immigrants per day during peak times.… The all-time daily high occurred on April 17, 1907, when 11,747 immigrants arrived.”

Today, perhaps 35 percent of Americans, more than 100 million, have ancestors who arrived at Ellis Island and sought fulfillment of their hopes and dreams in the U.S. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2018


  1. sabresoftware
    November 29, 2018

    Canada has its own version of Ellis Island. It is Pier 21 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. On a visit there a number of years ago I was able to locate records of my parent’s Immigration to Canada in 1948. To say the least that is a pretty emotional moment when you find these records.

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