Monday, October 18, 2010

"Ellis Island: The Dream of America"--Prologue


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 "


  1. How interesting, doug. I often wonder how on earth it was all organised with so many people to cater for?. Once the immigrants had to fend for themselves, it must have been quite scary. I wonder how many actually went home, or had they for the most part burned their bridges?

  2. It was nice to know the religious groups helped out. I wonder if the influx was more than America expected?

  3. Before Ellis Island the people that came to NYC went to Castle Gardens. There is a lot of records there also. There were many ways into America besides Ellis Island though. Through Canada. And other Atlantic seaports.Charleston I believe is one. it is interesting to find the earlier arrivals

  4. According to the book by Pamela Reeves, and the pictures we have, there were massive dining halls and temporary wards for awaiting emigrants to sleep. It was not without corruption, of course, but the main concern in say, 1910, was not to let someone in with a contagious disease.

    People were herded about in twelve foot wide sections and kept in holding pens for hours. Most got out and soon had to fend for themselves if they weren't lucky enough to have a close relative or a relief group outside. Given the squalid looks of tentament housing in New York City at the time, I imagine it had to be quite scary. I can't imagine, Cassandra, what say, a Russian/Polish emigrant must have felt like to suddenly be loose in the biggest and most diverse metropolis in the world!

    Some emigrants did go home, especially after the Economic Panics in America that happened about once a decade. Thankfully during World War One, President Woodrow Wilson ordered that no one be shipped back to Europe for the duration.

  5. Yes, it is nice. There were of course politicians who stoked up "nativist" sentiments, and successful emigrants turned their backs on new arrivals, but many were generous too. I think most people realized at least until the 1920's that America was an emerging economic power and needed people to compete with other nations in a skilled and industrialized work force.
    My fraternal grandfather came to Canada via an English relief society after he was orphaned in the 1889,and these groups were in the States as well.

    Judging by the hostility toward the Irish in the 1840's, the Italians and Jews a few decades later, I think some were frightened by any serious influx of people who didn't look like they did.
    And some confidence men took advantage of those who knew not the language or the proper exchange rates for what money they had.

  6. You're absolutely right Tess about Castle Gardens and other previous and alternate entry points I chose to leave out. There is another part of the emigration story not having to do with Ellis Island I will write about tomorrow.

  7. Been right within the place it's truly and experience within itself to see the place. It's really one of the most fascinating places to see. There were places as Tee has mentioned Pier One in Canada but I have never experienced a place like Ellis Island to be there and see it is something that is beyond ones expectations. Back then it was seemingly was a time where people from Europe had such high hopes with what was thought of as this new uncovered land called America. Oh Douglas you hit an area that one could just write and write as I don't have pictures at hand, my best friend here has the video and you really have a great topic here with this one.

  8. There has to be corruption, doesn't there, someone seeing the opportunity to make a fast buck.

    I don't know if it's true, but I read that during the cold war, the Russians used Ellis Island as propaganda, saying it was a concentration camp.

    Yes, I can imagine it must have put the fear of god in the hearts of the people. I suppose it depended on what kind of life they had left behind. A farmer plonked down in a city must have been pretty grim.

  9. So you have English blood, or Welsh. I seem to remember you saying something about Wales in relation to your family, excuse me if I got that wrong, Doug.

    I suppose people get scared of the ghettos formed, but one can understand the need to be with ones own kind.

    I understand Typhus killed over 7.000 people on the journey over on the boats. One can see the need to make sure those landing were reasonably healthy. I wonder how many in those first few months after landing were indeed fit to work.

    Thank you Doug.

  10. Thanks Jack. Yes, its a topic that really could consume a lot of blogs. I'd love to see the island and especially all that restoration work. I will do that someday I'm sure the next time I'm on the East Coast.
    Trying to get to the nub of Canada and the USA without dealing with emigration and the experiences of the arrivals would be leaving out a huge amount of our respective history. When we read about what these voyagers came for and how they established themselves so we can live in relative security and freedom, it truly is an amazing human story.

  11. Corruption, sadly, is a prime feature of 19th and early 20th Century urban America. It still exists of course but it was a fact of everyday life back then. I suppose its a universal human vice, Cassandra, but the rush to the cities of rural people and foreign arrivals looking for work, many without friends and close community contacts, just made things worse.

    As far as the period between 1918 and 1921, the initial "Red Scare" period in the USA, many of the 2,500 "radicals" ( mostly foreign-born Marxists, industrial union leaders not affiliated with the moderate American Federation of Labor, and anarchists) who passed through Ellis Island to deportation in Soviet ships, were in fact treated as concentration camp inmates, denied access to their families in some cases. Many were deported without hearings. By 1921, the scare had abated, but I imagine these harsh measures were used for decades as a "business as usual" treatment of foreigners on Ellis Island by Soviet propaganda.

    A lot of farmers likely headed out as soon as possible for the rural Midwest where homesteading and cheap or free land made farming the "new land" easier. Many later lost their farms due to drought and blizzards that were harsher in some cases than at home. Some farmers even went back to Europe. But most stayed and ,at least until the Great Depression, fared better than they would of back in Norway or Ireland or Italy, et al.

  12. No it's quite right s far as I know. Some of fraternal grandmother's family was Welsh.( Pokey and I are probably third cousins or something! There's an interesting thought. ;-) Wish I had his gift for the one-sentance jibe.)

    I not entirely defending ghettos of course, but I think they had a function as a kind of "halfway-house" for younger and working-age people at least in getting started in America. And although there was ethnic strife and crime and all that, many people learned tolerance from being in an adjoining neighborhood with others who were in their same situation, but who spoke a different language.

    It's amusing to read about Irish kids, for example, who learned to speak fluent Yiddish because they were living next to a part of New York or Chicago where East European Jews settled. :-)

    Infectious disease was a nightmare back then, ,of course, since so little was known about many of these maladies. Plus people who arrived off crowded ships in steerage class were next herded about into common rooms on Ellis Island, waiting to be questioned or examined.

    If you weren't sick from something after a voyage and a few days of being penned in with so many people, you would have to have a strong constitution indeed!

  13. America was really a first within all of this, I started a little write of my own tonight when I arrived home here that again was inspirted by this write of yours but for the most part outside of Quebec, Canada was really a secondary for the longest. Many came here as my grandfather did from Hungary due to the fact that Canada was giving away land for free. This made up for a huge influx of immigrants from the slavic countries. Many Scots came here for one thing ironically Doug by way of what is called the Hudson Bay Company and to hunt predominantly for (dont laugh) Beaver. I kid you not. But I can see you did both coasts and it's truly interesting there was a story on this program here called the Passionate Eye - I shall send it your way as it was on Ellis Island. And all to interesting to watch.

  14. As I have mentioned before, one of my grandfathers--a Cockney kid all of twelve or thirteen-- came through an emigration station St. John's, Nova Scotia, in 1889 as a young lad. According to information sent me by someone at The Canadian Immigration History Center he and his fellow orphans were bound for Ontario after that.

    George Frederick Noakes was part of the "Home Children" movement that sent hundreds of thousands of kids out of Britain and Ireland off to Canada and other Dominions for resettlement via railroad "orphan trains" that went into the interior . The practical function, of course, was for these kids to be adopted by farm families and help work all that free arable land.

    My grandfather left when he was of age and tried his hand for a couple years as a farmer near a North Dakota town called Jamestown. (Ironic because that was, of course, the same name as the first successful English settlement in the colony of Virginia in 1607 .) He later had his fill of Dakota blizzards and came to Oregon around 1903-4 and the town of Grants Pass to work in the timber companies. He met my grandmother--whose family had also moved on from the Middle West--and were married shortly after.

    By happenstance I now live after forty miles from that town. I saw their marriage certificate listed in a geneology center up there.

    Canadian settlement is something I need to find more about. I know a bit about The Hudson's Bay Company and the rush for supplying beaver furs for men's hats. (The company still operates department stores in Canada, right?)

    The first American settlement in the British-held Oregon Territory was in Astoria, Oregon, around 1811, on the Columbia River. So long before gold was discovered in the Pacific Northwest here was already a bit of a "fur rush" to the frontier to hunt and then scalp rodent hides! No fun for the beavers ,who seem such gentle and industrious creatures to me. :-)

    Thanks Jack. Looking forward to whatever you might add with the television program and your thoughts.