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Why Ellis Island was the Gateway to America

Updated on May 16, 2014
Main entrance to the Ellis Island Museum.
Main entrance to the Ellis Island Museum.

This may be hard to believe but it’s true: 9 percent of the population of Norway relocated to the United States during the 1880’s. And that was just the beginning. Another 27 million immigrants followed between 1890 and 1930, most of them searching a fresh start and a brighter future. For about 20 million of those travel-weary newcomers, Ellis Island was the first stop in their new homeland. Today, 40% of all Americans have had at least one foreign-born ancestor that was processed through this 27.5-acre portal in New York Harbor: the facility now known as the "Gateway to America."

For millions of immigrants Ellis Island was their Plymouth Rock.
For millions of immigrants Ellis Island was their Plymouth Rock.

Then and Now

Back when the first Europeans arrived, the original native Americans called this tiny plot "Kioshk" or Gull Island. It was also known as Oyster, Dyre, Bucking and finally Anderson’s Island to both the Dutch colonialists and the English who later replaced them. When Samuel Ellis bought the island in 1770 only 3-acres was visible at high tide.

Despite its size, the Federal government purchased it from New York State in 1808 and by the start of the War of 1812 it was a major military installation in the strategic defensive system that encircled New York Harbor. The battery of cannon positioned on Ellis Island supported those within the three other fortresses placed on Governor’s Island, at Battery Park, and on Bedloe’s Island. When combined with the two additional installations on the Varrazano Narrows at the entrance to the harbor, Ellis Island became a key component of an impenetrable gauntlet. Through the years, with the help of landfill development, Ellis Island grew to 27.5-acres. In addition, nearby Bedloe’s Island was renamed Liberty Island and its fortress replaced by the Statue of Liberty.

Fifteen-year-old Annie Moore became the first new immigrant to be processed on Ellis Island.
Fifteen-year-old Annie Moore became the first new immigrant to be processed on Ellis Island.

"Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,..."

Legal immigrants arriving in New York City once passed through Castle Garden, a facility located in Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan. In 1890, President Benjamin Harrison designated Ellis Island as the first Federal immigration station in the country. A brand new facility opened for business on the first day of January 1892. On that day, Anna "Annie" Moore, a fifteen-year-old lass from County Cork, Ireland, sailed into New York Harbor onboard the steamship Nevada. She became the first immigrant to officially enter the United States through Ellis Island. Five years later, in 1897, a massive fire leveled the entire wooden structure, destroying priceless records dating back as far as 1855. It took three and a half years to recover from the blaze but on December 17, 1900, processing in a new main building resumed. It continued without any further interruptions until the outbreak of World War I.

After the war, the screening of immigrants shifted from the home front to U. S. embassies and consulates around the world. Immigrants now had to apply for visas and medical testing in the country in which they lived. Toward the end of 1924, Ellis Island became a staging center housing war refugees, displaced persons, and aliens with document irregularities. Finally, in November 1954, following the release of Arne Peterssen, a Norwegian seaman and the last person detained on Ellis Island, the facility officially closed its doors but not for long.

Bob Hope, Frank Capra, Bela Lugosi, Baron Von Trapp, Irving Berlin, Max Factor, Xavier Cugat, Rudolph Valentino, and Igor Sikorsky all entered the USA through Ellis Island.
Bob Hope, Frank Capra, Bela Lugosi, Baron Von Trapp, Irving Berlin, Max Factor, Xavier Cugat, Rudolph Valentino, and Igor Sikorsky all entered the USA through Ellis Island.

During 62 years of operation, Ellis   Island, along with the ports of San Francisco, New Orleans, Miami, Savannah, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Boston, processed more than 27 million arriving immigrants while denying entry to only 2%. Nearly 1.25 million immigrants were processed in 1907 alone, more than in any other year in the history of the USA.

Ellis Island is closer to the New Jersey shore but officially within New York State.
Ellis Island is closer to the New Jersey shore but officially within New York State.

A New Era, a New Mission

When President Lyndon Johnson merged Ellis Island with the nearby Statue of Liberty National Monument in 1965, Ellis Island was to enter a new era, to embark on new mission. During the years that followed, almost all public access to the island was limited. Then, in 1984, The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, with the cooperation of the National Park Service, requested donations from mainstream and corporate America to fund a $160 million dollar project that was to become the largest historic restoration in the history of the United States. When renovations were completed six years later, the main building reopened as the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. It has been attracting 2 million visitors a year ever since. The huge success of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum is a remarkable testimonial from Americans who, as they venture into the future, are still looking to recall their past.

One of the outstanding features of the Museum is The American Immigrant Wall of Honor with over 700,000 names nominated by friends and families of immigrants who shared the Ellis Island experience. Another remarkable event this year is the Ellis Island Living Theater with its frequent performances of "Taking a Chance on America: Bela Lugosi’s Ellis Island Story." This 30-minute production, written by playwright and screenwriter Aurorae Khoo, focuses on the Ellis Island experiences of famed actor Bela Lugosi as it depicts the Ellis Island inspection process.

The most acclaimed resource at the museum, however, is the American Family Immigration History Center with public access to the names of 22 million immigrants, crew members and other passengers who arrived in New York between 1892 and 1924. Finding the name of an ancestor is as easy as 1-2-3:

  1. Use your home computer or one of the terminals at the museum to access
  2. Enter your ancestor’s first name (optional), last name, approximate date of birth, and gender.
  3. Click START SEARCH.

Then relish the rush of emotion as you read details about your ancestors from ship passenger records, as you view images of the actual ships’ passenger manifests, as you absorb pictures and the histories of the vessels on which they arrived. You can even add your own notes to the record or read those left by others. This amazing interactive experience can be as profound and rewarding for those who knew their forebears as it can be for those who wish they had.

Next time you are in New York, take a day trip to see the Statue of Liberty and the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. Two fantastic adventures into the past, both with the same ferry ticket.

Face of America: The Ellis Island Immigration Museum

Immigrants arrive at Ellis Island April 27, 1906

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Visit my profile at or leave a comment below.
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"Feathered Quill" by Simon Howden provided by

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  • Ken Burgess profile image

    Ken Burgess 

    6 years ago from Florida

    New York has a lot of history, few states can compare as far as what New York meant, and all that went on in the State for the first 100+ years of America.

    Hard to imagine now, but the Southern and Western states were nothing more than frontiers at a time when New York had one of the biggest cities in the world and produced an incredible amount of goods.

  • Dolores Monet profile image

    Dolores Monet 

    9 years ago from East Coast, United States

    I remember going to Ellis Island and seeing this huge pile of old steamer trunks that had been donated to Ellis Island by the children of immigrants. How moving it was, the very thought of them still brings tears to my eyes.

    A lovely hub. I am going to link this hub to my own on Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, if you don't mind.

  • profile image

    Sandi 3m 

    9 years ago

    Wow, very interesting story. I will have to check this out. I love reading your hubs, always interesting.

  • Quilligrapher profile imageAUTHOR


    10 years ago from New York

    Thanks for droping a comment, Brad.

    I found my grandfather's name on a passenger manifest of the SS Arcadia.  He processed through Ellis Island in 1903 and settled on Long Island.  Seeing his name was an awesome experience.


  • brad4l profile image


    10 years ago from USA

    It must have been a very interesting experience to come into America through Ellis Island and have one of your first sights be the Statue of Liberty.

    That search at is very cool, I will have to see if I can find any of my relatives. Too bad about that fire that destroyed those records in 1897 though...


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