Several estimates indicate between one-third to a half of all Americans living today had at least one immigrant relative that was processed through Ellis Island. Think about it… If you take the higher estimates, it the same as the flip of a coin… 50/50! That’s approximately 162 million Americans as of 2018.
Ellis Island was established in 1892 as the immigration processing center for New York City after the US government took over the processing of immigrants from the states. Prior to 1892 immigration through New York City was performed by the State of New York in Castle Gardens at the southern tip of Manhattan. During its 62 years (1892-1954) that it was used as an immigration facility it processed over 12 million people. Today, it is part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument under the US National Parks Service.
This little island that is located in the New York Harbor happens to be closer to New Jersey than New York City. The US Supreme Court even ruled in 1998 that a majority of Ellis Island is part of New Jersey.
Steamships departing primarily from the ports in Europe would dock in New York City. First and second class passengers were processed on board the ship while the lower class passengers, foreign or non-US citizens, were ferried on smaller boats to Ellis Island for processing. Once at Ellis Island the immigrants would disembark the ferry and enter the main building where they were led into what is known as the Great Hall for processing. The Great Hall is the most iconic and recognized part of the island.
Processing consisted of two parts – the first is questioning by an immigration agent and the second is physical inspection by doctors.
With the help of an interpreter the first part consisted of an immigration agent, asking the immigrant a series of questions. Most of the questions were basic such as; “What is your name?”, “How old are you?”, “What is your occupation?” and “Who paid for your travel?” Some questions may have been difficult or simply unknown by immigrants such as; “How many stars and stripes are on the flag?”, “Who is the President of the United States?”, “Can you name the original 13 colonies?” and “Which president freed the slaves?”
The second part of the processing included a physical examination that actually began when the immigrants entered the building as they made their way to the Great Hall. The doctors watched the immigrants looking for any weaknesses or disabilities. These included both physical and mental. For example, an immigrant who appeared winded from climbing the stairs could be singled out as possibly having heart problems.
The doctors would examine each immigrant’s hair, face, neck and hands. Immigrants who had observable disorders were given a chalk mark on their clothing. Some examples include a “B” would indicate back problems, “H” would indicate heart problems, or “Pg” indicated pregnancy. About 1 in 5 immigrants would receive a chalk mark and require an additional examination or testing.
Typically the average wait time for processing was between three to five hours. The greatest fear of any immigrant at Ellis Island was being denied admission into the US. Most were granted admission even after additional inspections or examinations. Only 2% of immigrants processed through Ellis Island were denied entry into the US.
The shipping companies also had incentive for immigrants to be granted admission. The shipping company who provided passage to any immigrant that was refused entry to the US was required to provide their return passage at the company’s expense.
This blog describes only general details about the processing of immigrants at Ellis Island. Ellis Island had many more processes, services and accommodations necessary to address the many issues and circumstances of the immigrants. To truly experience this place, where up to 50% of Americans have an ancestral connection to, you have to make the visit. Take the tours and walk the same steps your ancestor did to experience the story of your family’s origins in the United States.
GenealogyChris has two immigrant ancestors who were processed at Ellis Island in 1895 and 1903. Do you have an immigrant ancestor who was processed through Ellis Island? Do you know their story?