Ellis Island

Ellis Island is one of the most famed entryways to America in all US history. Ellis Island was a product of necessity; the 19th century saw turmoil and instability throughout the whole of Europe. This resulted in the largest mass migration of people in all history to date, many of whom sought life in America. An immigration facility called Castle Garden has been used prior, but was ill-equipped to handle the massive influx of immigrants coming to the US. Ellis Island immigration facility opened January 1, 1892.

On June 15, 1897, a fire broke out in the Ellis island facility and burned the structure to the ground. Decades worth of immigrant documentation was lost in the fires. Five years of construction ensued and a new facility was built atop the old structure. The new facility was considered fireproof and reopened its doors in December of 1900. In its first day of reopening alone, over 2,200 immigrants were accepted into the facility.

Ellis Island welcomed more than twelve million immigrants before it’s closing in 1954. Immigrants were required to carry specific documents with them and be in reasonably good health to enter Ellis Island. Interpreters of all major languages staffed the immigration facility, and doctors made use of quick health inspections before sending immigrants on their way. These immigrants were inspected inside of the “Great Hall” and generally, after a few hours, were released into the New York/New Jersey area. Politicians and nativists fought fiercely to limit the number of immigrants in the US, and after passing many federal laws limiting the entry of immigrants, Ellis Island saw a rapid decline in immigrant entry in the 1920s. The last three decades of its operation saw Ellis Island become a center for war refugees and displaced persons.


“Overview History: Ellis Island.” Statue of Liberty & Ellis Island, 14 July 2020, www.statueofliberty.org/ellis-island/overview-history/.


Latitude: 40.699474800000
Longitude: -74.039558700000

Timeline of Events Associated with Ellis Island

Date Event Manage
1 Jan 1800 to 1 Jan 1900

19th Century US Immigration

Immigration to America was largely unregulated through the 18th and most of the 19th century. Following the Civil War, restrictions began to be placed upon immigrant entry to the US. A large influx of German, Irish and English immigrants came to America in the 1870s and 1880s. They, like most immigrants at the time, fled their home countries in search of economic prosperity and freedom from religious and political persecution. Many Chinese immigrants also came to America, largely settling in California in hopes of attaining wealth in the Gold Rush, though Chinese immigrants were later excluded from entry to the US following federal law banning them.

         Once immigration became a federal concern in 1875, new laws followed like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Alien Contract Labor Laws of 1885 and 1887, and the Immigration Act of 1882 which levied a 50 cent tax on all immigrants. This act excluded those with mental illness, disability, criminal convictions, or those “likely to become a public charge,” which allowed for exclusion of the poor or those who could not earn livable wages in America, like women travelling alone. First- and second-class passengers aboard ships were given a preliminary inspection before boarding in their homeland, and upon arrival to the US, did not require further inspection at immigration centers unless they were sickly or found to be criminal. All lower-class passengers, referred to as “steerage,” were not afforded this luxury, and awaited potentially lengthy stays in immigration centers where they fulfilled required inspections.

         Though many millions of immigrants were allowed into the US, these federal bans validated some already existing prejudices against immigrants, who were often victims of poverty, low wages, poor healthcare and rampant discrimination. While employers sought immigrant labor, particularly in inland states where immigrant populations were lower, many natives to the area felt immigrants were saturating the job market by accepting unlivable wages, making it much more difficult for non-immigrants to retain employment. Unfortunately, these prejudices can still be seen in the US today.


“Early American Immigration Policies.” USCIS, 30 July 2020, www.uscis.gov/about-us/our-history/overview-of-ins-history/early-american-immigration-policies.


“Immigration to the United States, 1851-1900  :  Rise of Industrial America, 1876-1900  :  U.S. History Primary Source Timeline  :  Classroom Materials at the Library of Congress  :  Library of Congress.” The Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/classroom-materials/united-states-history-primary-source-tim....

Portrait of Italian Immigrant in Ellis Island facility, c. 1900.