No visit to New York City is complete without seeing the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. I had decided to do both in one day along with the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, for a jam-packed Saturday filled with history, culture and emotions. I began my morning with a tour of our Lady Liberty followed by a visit to the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. If I had known how much fascinating information was available in all these three attractions, I would have spread out my visits over the course of two full days. I was stunned to discover how much I was moved and interested in discovering my own heritage after touring the fabulous Ellis Island Immigration Museum. I could have spent at least four hours there but alas I only had two.
I took the ferry to Ellis Island from the Statue of Liberty where once again we were dropped off at the pier and directed inside the museum where we could grab a set of free headphones for an audio tour. Since my time was limited, I was not able to do the complete tour and skipped ahead on the narration at times. Both Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty have wonderful documentation that you can easily read as you walk through the exhibits without bothering with a headset. However, when I entered Ellis Island I wanted to hear the personal stories of some of the immigrants who walked through these grounds en route to America.
“Over 12 million immigrants entered the United States through Ellis Island, the nation’s chief gateway during the years 1892 to 1924. Today, over 100 million Americans can trace their ancestry to the immigrants who crossed this island before dispersing to points all over the country.”
– Sign inside the entrance of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum
Immigration to the United States came in waves and for different reasons. This map below shows some of the great waves of migration to the United States. (Note: Please excuse the poor quality of the photo as it is the only one I had and couldn’t find this map online).
Per the National Park Service’s Historical documentation, in the 35 years before Ellis Island opened, over eight million immigrants who arrived in New York had been processed by New York State officials at Castle Garden Immigration Depot in lower Manhattan, just across the bay. It wasn’t until 1892, that immigrants began coming to Ellis Island, the site of a previous fort, to be be processed and either welcomed into the United States or sent back home.
From 1892 to 1924, Ellis Island was America’s largest and most active immigration station, where over 12 million immigrants were processed. On average, the inspection process took approximately 3-7 hours. For the vast majority of immigrants, Ellis Island truly was 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 this country. (Source for two paragraphs above: National Park Service, Ellis Island: History).
In 1890, Congress appropriated $75,000 to construct America’s first Federal immigration station on Ellis Island. The first federal immigrant inspection station was completed January of 1892 which was destroyed a few years later by fire. A grander immigration building designed in French Renaissance Revival style was built in 1900. This beautifully constructed building was restored in the 1980s and reopened as the Ellis Island Immigration Museum in 1990.
The Museum was created as a symbol of America’s immigrant heritage and a series of fabulous exhibits chronicles Ellis Islands’ role in immigration history and the making of America. Each exhibit offers personal narratives about immigrants’ unique experiences immigrating to the United States.
The first floor provides an overview of all immigration to the United States and the top floor lets visitors walk through the entire immigration process at Ellis Island just like it was back in 1892.
Each exhibit offers a powerful display of the courage and determination that enabled men and women to leave their homes and seek new opportunities in an unknown land most never seeing their families or homeland again.
So why did they come?
Many immigrants came to the US willingly in search of freedom, opportunity and wealth. However, sadly many others came unwillingly, in chains. Some of the reasons that brought many immigrants to America include:
1. The Great Hunger: From 1845 to 1849 Ireland experienced the worst disaster in its history leading. The over-dependence on one crop, the potato, lead to wide scale famine. One million people died from starvation and another two million left the country with 1.5 million immigrating to the United States.
2. Nature’s Wrath: Natural disasters such as drought, floods and epidemics – sparked a mass exodus.
3. Escape from religious intolerance: The US offered a refuge for English Puritans and Protestants challenging the Catholic Church.
4. Against their wills: From the 17th to the early 19th century, more than half of the people who arrived in the Americas came against their wills. The largest forced migration in human history was the African slave trade in which 12 million people were enslaved and brought forcibly to plantations in North and South America and the Carribean to produce export crops, generating the wealth that built powerful European empires and much of the wealth of the United States. Also during this time many Native Americans were driven from their homelands, enslaved or killed.
5. Seeking Economic opportunities and belief in “The Promised Land” : Many came to the US because there was overcrowding and lack of land and opportunities in their own countries. These immigrants had heard that land was plentiful and cheap, yet tragically they ignored the rights of the native people who already occupied the land. There was also the Gold Rush that brought in many immigrants from China in the 19th century.
Source: All information above gathered from documentation inside the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, first floor exhibit.
The stories of immigrants are not always easy to hear. Many left their homes and families to never see them again. Some came to the US as indentured servants who were unable to pay their passage to the United States. Others were detained and deported.
“On the day of arrival, most immigrants felt both hope and apprehension. On Ellis Island, the weary travelers would be observed, examined and either permitted to land or sent back to their homelands. Many immigrants had invested all they owned in the journey, and exclusion at this point would almost certainly cause great financial and emotional hardships.” – Plaque inside Registry Room at Ellis Island Immigration Museum
Unfortunately I did not have enough time to fully tour all the exhibits however I left the Ellis Island Immigration Museum with a strong curiosity about my own heritage. I was born and raised in Minnesota, however, where did my ancestors come from? Although some cultures can trace their ancestry for centuries it isn’t as easy for Americans. I asked my mother and the details on her ancestry are mirky. She knows that her mother had family immigrate from Prussia but is unsure about her father’s side. In the case of my father’s heritage, it is a little bit easier to trace thanks to his Uncle Carl who spent the remaining decade of his life researching and writing a family book documenting the “Anderson” heritage (my father’s father’s heritage).
My grandfather’s brother Carl had traced our entire family heritage on my father’s side. My grandfather Howard’s great-grandfather, Carl Anderson, had left Sweden on April 5, 1882 with his wife and four children and arrived in Batavia, Illinois to establish their new lives. Four generations ago, the “Anderson” part of my heritage came from Sweden.
I wish I knew more about my past. As time goes by, more and more of our heritage will be lost. But my curiosity about what the trip was like to the United States and if life here was what they had dreamed of or not, will forever be on my mind.
As I left the museum, I was reminded of why they came and why they stayed. Freedom. Something we are still fighting for today.
Want to learn more?
All the information above for this post is from the Ellis Island Immigration Museum.