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Little Oyster Island
Ellis Island was originally just a small plot of land in the New York Bay, with a surface of only 1.32 hectares, or 3.26 acres. The Indians called the island Kioshk , which means seagull.
In 1630, the New Amsterdam Dutch bought it from the Indians, and they called it "Little Oyster Island ", as it was only fit for oyster farming.
In the following years, the island changed ownership frequently. In 1780, during the American Revolution, Samuel Ellis purchased the island as land speculation. He tried several times to resell it, but failed to do so.
At his death in 1794 it was partially donated to the State of New York.
The military thought that the island would be ideal to defend the harbor against the British.
In 1808 the state sold the island to the federal government for $ 10,000, which was a very large sum in those days.
Fort Gibson was built in 1812, just before the start of the war with the British, but actually the fort was never used...
Between 1857 and 1892, eight million immigrants were processed at Castle Garden Immigration Depot in lower Manhattan, just across the bay.
In 1890, the administration decided to use Fort Gibson as an Immigration Station instead.
The island was greatly expanded with landfill between 1892 and 1934. With the excess soil from the excavations of the subway and Grand Central Station, the surface was extended to 11 acres (4.45 hectares), and 500,000 $ was spent on new immigrant buildings.
In 1892, the Immigration Center opened with a staff of 500 to 850 people.
In 1897 all the buildings were destroyed by fire, but by 1900 everything was rebuilt. This time the reconstruction cost one million dollars...
The concept was brilliant, but soon one small glitch made itself apparent ; the installation had been calculated to process 500,000 immigrants per year, which revealed itself to be completely inadequate for the flood of new arrivals !
Corruption and Cruelty
During the next fifteen years, the staff exercised an unbelievable climate of corruption and cruelty, and they were allowed to proceed arbitrarily and without any possible appeal.
On an immense scale the immigrants were robbed and treated with contempt, women were raped, and children were mistreated.
No administration, police, management or politician ever bothered to intervene...
At the start of World War I, the immigration came to an abrupt stop, because of the danger of enemy infiltration.
The government decided to use the installations for other purposes.
Without any trial or legal procedure, 1,500 German sailors and 2,200 suspected spies and foreigners were imprisoned...
Again an Immigration Center
In 1921, the immigration mill got back in full swing, and Ellis Island processed another 500,000 immigrants.
Just an anecdote ; between 1892 and 1931, exactly 63,141 Belgians obtained American citizenship !
However, the call to restrict immigration grew louder in 1924, and a quota system was introduced.
It required an initial investigation in the consulate of the country of origin, a procedure that remains the basis of the current immigration system.
The result was that the transit of immigrants at Ellis Island decreased considerably.
Between 1892 and 1954, twelve million immigrants were processed !
During World War II, the premises were once more used as a prison for enemy foreigners.
In 1954 the installations were closed, and a year later they were transferred to the General Services Administration.
Finally, in 1965 the island was transferred to the Statue of Liberty National Monument.
They restored the buildings, and reopened them to the public in 1990.
Video : Immigration through Ellis Island
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