Video below: "Ellis Island: The Dream of America" by composer Peter Boyer, for actors and orchestra with projected images.
Ellis Island was opened as an emigration station in 1892. Four out of ten Americans, according to the book 'Ellis Island:Gateway to the American Dream" by Pamela Reeves (1998, Barnes and Noble Books) can trace at least part of their ancestry to the 14,000,000 people who came through the processing station in New York Harbor there.
This giant wave of emigration, mainly from southern and Eastern Europe but also all points of the globe, was preceded by waves of Irish (2.1 million) and German (1.5 million) emigrants and hundreds of thousands of Scandinavians who started coming in the 1820's to the new nation. Many of the Irish came to America because of the agricultural failures of The Potato Famine of the 1840's, and the failure of British governments to fashion a system of relief to a place where over one million rural Irish people perished in a few years.
The German and other northern European immigrants also came because of wrenching changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution and the famine conditions that brought about revolutionary and reactionary violence in those nations, particularly on or about the late 1840's.
In 1820, the US population stood at just under 13 million. Forty years later it stood at 32 million.
As immigration became more politically controversial after the Civil War steps were taken to weed out people who were criminals or diseased. But the vast majority of those seeking asylum gained their chance in the rough and tumble world of New York City and beyond. Graft and dishonesty and racism also reared up in the inspection process, of course, but the worst of that was alleviated by the Presidency of the reform-minded Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) , who relentlessly fired and hired new administrators until it became less burdensome for most emigrants to pass through the medical inspection areas and less lucrative for corrupt officials and inspectors.
But some bigotry remained and many southern Europeans and Russian Jews had a lot harder time getting into America than the first waves of German/Anglo/Celtic peoples.
Economics and class also were factors in how a family "just off the boat" were treated, as this section on classification of people on ships makes clear (from the National Park site on Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island Monument)
"First and second class passengers who arrived in New York Harbor were not required to undergo the inspection process at Ellis Island. Instead, these passengers underwent a cursory inspection aboard ship; the theory being that if a person could afford to purchase a first or second class ticket, they were less likely to become a public charge in America due to medical or legal reasons. However, first and second class passengers were sent to Ellis Island for further inspection if they were sick or had legal problems.
"This scenario was far different for "steerage" or third class passengers. These immigrants traveled in crowded and often unsanitary conditions near the bottom of steamships with few amenities, oftenspending up to two weeks seasick in their bunks during rough Atlantic Ocean crossings. Upon arrival in New York City, ships would dock at the Hudson or East River piers. First and second class passengers would disembark, pass through Customs at the piers and were free to enter the United States. The steerage and third class passengers were transported from the pier by ferry or barge to Ellis Island where everyone would undergo a medical and legal inspection."
1907 was the height of entries through Ellis Island--over a million people arrived seeking a better life in America. At its height from 1894 to 1924, Ellis Island took in over seventy percent of all new Americans. And many of those who might have been sent back to their home countries for want of a citizen sponsor were spared being shipped back by outside religious and ethnic-based organizations who operated shelters in New York City and vouched for many without connections, providing free room and food until they could find work and a place to live.
New laws in the 1920's seriously abridged the acceptance of new emigrants to America. By 1924, Ellis Island became a holding station for people trying to get well enough to leave the hospital on the island than a hive of newly arrived emigrants. But still over half of new emigrants for the USA came through the island.
Right after World War One there was a new wave of emigrants--560,000 in 1921 alone. When the Bolsheviks took over in Russia and random labor-connected violence sparked fears of foreign radicals in America, hundreds of alien-born emigrants were rounded up in holding pens and deported from the country, sometimes without their wives or children. The Red Scare abated in the early 1920's when reformers got the mass deportations stopped and individual cases were reviewed.
By 1954, it was closed altogether, only to be reopened in 1990 after a six-year renovation effort as a National Monument.
Today, new generations can come and see just how America's greatest resources--its people--came to this little island with its great brick and stone buildings, seeking a better life for themselves and especially their children.
For more details on the Island, the processing of emigrants and its general history, see the link below:
Prologue from the GRAMMY®-nominated work "