Ellis Island – Island of Hope or Island of Tears?

Ellis Island SignWhile on our trip to New Jersey and New York we made a trip to Ellis Island. I knew it would be an interesting and enlightening visit, but I was shocked at how thought-provoking it would be.  We got off the boat and made our way to the main building (just like many immigrants that landed in New York would.

Ellis Island BldsAs soon as we walked in the first thing you noticed was a huge room called the baggage room where the immigrants would have to leave their bags then climb the huge staircase leading up to the Great Hall. We soon found out that this was the first part of an inspection process that took approximately 3-7 hours for the vast majority of immigrants. For many Ellis Island was truly an “Island of Hope” – the first stop on their way to new opportunities and experiences in America. For the rest, it became the “Island of Tears” – a place where families were separated and individuals were denied entry into the United States.

Ellis Baggage Room
These stairs were actually used as a way to determine that newcomers to the United States were medically fit to enter the country. The doctors would look at the immigrants as they climbed the stairs from the baggage area (on the main floor)  to the Great Hall. Immigrants’ behavior would be studied for difficulties in getting up the staircase. They were then given a six second medical examination and marked with codes in chalk on the immigrants clothing for further testing or review. Some were stated to have gotten around this by wiping it off or turning their clothes inside out. Here are some of the codes they used:


Ellis Island Button HookIf they made it that far, they were then given an eye check for diseases such as trachoma using a dreaded button hook implement. It was painful and wasn’t cleaned between each use. Therefore you could come into Ellis Island trachoma free, but leave with it or another disease. Scary and sad.

Ellis Island ArrivalFor those who did not make it through the medical inspection , one of a few things could happen. You could be send immediately back to your country or origin, you could be held for further inspection in the Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital, our you could be detained until the “cured” whatever ailment you were perceived to have. They were very worried about these new immigrants becoming  a public charge.  We heard so many sad stores about children who had issues and had to return to their country but they couldn’t leave alone, thus one of the parents had to return as well, never to see each other again. I understand their concern, but it is so heartbreaking.

Ellis Island LinesIt is an amazing building that was built in 1892 and continued to be an inspection station until 1954. It is stated that an estimated 12 million people passed though on their way to obtaining the American dream. The first immigrant to pass through Ellis Island was Annie Moore, a 15-year-old girl from Cork, Ireland, who arrived on the ship Nevada on January 1, 1892.She and her two brothers were coming to America to meet their parents, who had moved to New York two years prior. She received a greeting from officials and a $10 gold coin. It was the largest sum of money she had ever owned. The last person to pass through Ellis Island was a Norwegian merchant seaman by the name of Arne Peterssen in 1954. There were quite a few notable immigrants that came through Ellis Island. Check on the link to see if you recognize any names.

Ellis Island Great HallWhile we were there just soaking up the experience a tour guide came by with a group and we listened. He made sure that we all knew the truth about the myth that government officials on Ellis Island compelled immigrants to take new names against their wishes. He stated that it was not true and  that  Federal  immigration Inspectors were under strict supervision. They were more interested in preventing inadmissible aliens from entering the country (for which they were held accountable) than in assisting them in trivial personal matters such as altering their names. As I have found out through doing genealogy, it was more likely written down wrong when the immigrant left their country of origin.  Many people could not read or write, so it was often misspelled by the person helping them fill out paperwork on the ship’s manifest. I have seen a lot of that in my research.  Such a shame and makes researching quite frustrating at times.

Ellis Island MazeIt was quite an experience and they have a great research area (for a fee) for anyone who wants to see if any of their relatives came through Ellis Island. They also have what they call a kissing section where families were reunited. What a joyous reunion those must have been! It was astonishing some of the things these people went through and I am glad we went to learn more about it. It’s not just a place anymore, it is a memory for me.


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