The cluster of islands, including what would become known as Ellis Island, were known to the Algonquin as “Oyster Islands.” Ellis Island was know as “Little Oyster Island,” despite being the second largest. Though probably not used for permanent settlement, the island was still considered Native American territory, so when the Dutch wanted to obtain rights to it in 1630, they made a purchase agreement. The island changed hands several times and began serving other purposes. From the mid-1700s through at least the 1830s, it became a place for public executions, including “Pirate Anderson,” who was publicly hanged in 1765.
In 1774 Samuel Ellis purchased the island and it was re-named for him. The island passed to his heirs until New York City bought it in 1808. It continued to be used for military purposes to varying degrees, until 1890 when it began to be used primarily for immigration. The island changed dramatically as the federal government built new facilities to accommodate the thousand of immigrants who came through the port, including buildings for medical care, processing, and housing.
Until 1875, immigration was handled by each state, except for minor quotas. That year, the federal government enacted the first exclusion law, barring criminals and prostitutes. In 1882, it added “any convict, lunatic, idiot, or any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge.” In 1885, the Alien Contract Labor Law, aimed at Chinese laborers, made it “unlawful to import aliens for labor under contract.” These restrictions, and the difficulty that states had to care for sick or indigent migrants led immigration to become centralized under the federal government. New York’s state immigration facility at Castle Garden was deemed inadequate, and a new location was sought. Opposition to using Bedloe’s Island, where the Statue of Liberty stood, Ellis Island was chosen in 1890.
The site official opened on January 1, 1892 and seven hundred immigrants landed on the island. The first was Annie Moore from Ireland. She arrived with her two brothers to join their parents in New York, the event immortalized in the ballad “Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears.” However, the song was among many misconceptions about Annie Moore. She was seventeen, not fifteen, and instead of moving to Texas, she spent the rest of her life in New York, though this was not corrected until 2006.
Over the next several decades, the site grew, as more land and buildings, including dormitories, a greenhouse, and hospital were added. As immigration decreased in the 1920s, the site changed in the 1930s to a detention center. It officially closed on November 12, 1954. In 1965, it the National Park Service designated it as a national park, rehabilitating the main immigration building and landscape.
Many books, both fiction and non-fiction include immigrants’ experiences at Ellis Island. Ellis Island Interviews: In Their Own Words explores immigration across Europe, Chinese immigration in New York City’s Chinese Community, though most Asian immigrants arrived on the west coast through Angel Island, and parts of black immigration in Caribbean Americans in New York City 1895-1975. Black immigrants came from the Caribbean, and from the southern United States.
Some of the well-known people who passed through Ellis Island include Antonius Dvorak, who arrived on September 27, 1892. He wrote “The New World Symphony” while serving as the director of the National Conservatory of Music of America from 1892-5. The them from the “Largo” portion of the symphony was adapted into “Goin’ Home” by Dvorak’s pupil William Arms Fisher, who wrote the lyrics in 1922. W.E.B Du Bois, African-American scholar and civil rights activist, passed through Ellis Island on March 18, 1924 when he returned to the United States from France. Lin Yu’Tang, a Chinese scholar who popularized classic Chinese literature in the West came to attend university. When he returned to the United States in 1931, he was briefly detained for inspection, and he was nearly deported for his leftist views.