Ellis Island is famous for being the United States’ front door for receiving immigrants—but did you know millions of people had already come to the U.S. by the time Ellis Island opened in 1892? This history of Ellis Island can help you better understand your immigrant ancestors’ arrivals and how to find the evidence in New York immigration records.
Why Was the Ellis Island Immigration Station Built?
During the first 100 years of U.S. history, the nation placed few restrictions on immigration. In fact, many newcomers were actually enticed to make America their home. The federal government offered incentives like fast-tracked citizenship for military service and the ability to purchase homestead land. U.S. employers actively recruited workers overseas. New arrivals wrote home to encourage their relatives to join them.
By the 1870s, enthusiasm for welcoming immigrants began to fade, especially when it came to poor immigrants. The federal government began restricting entry with legislation such as the Immigration Acts of 1875 and 1882.
Massive numbers of immigrants continued to arrive, however: about 600,000 per year.1 Most came through the Castle Garden Emigration Landing Depot at the Port of New York. Eventually, this facility and its management proved inadequate. The federal government stepped in to manage immigrant processing—but first it built an entirely new facility on Ellis Island.
When Did Ellis Island Open?
The Ellis Island Immigration Station opened on January 1, 1892. The main building was 400 feet long with square corner towers. Travelers stored their luggage on the first floor and underwent inspection on the second. Those successfully admitted could exchange currency and purchase rail tickets on the spot. Any who were detained stayed in the island’s dormitories or hospital.
Unfortunately, the main building burned to the ground 5 years later. For the next 3 years, officials processed immigrants at the Barge Office on the southeast tip of Manhattan. A new—fireproof—Ellis Island facility opened on December 17, 1900. For the next several years, Ellis Island welcomed unprecedented numbers of arrivals, peaking at 1.25 million in 1907 alone.
Laws passed in 1921 and 1924 dramatically restricted immigration to the United States. Additionally, prospective immigrants began applying at U.S. embassies in their home countries. Traffic at Ellis Island diminished. After 1924, the Ellis Island facility housed enemy aliens, war refugees, displaced persons, WWII servicemen, Coast Guard trainees, and imminent deportees. It closed in 1954, after more than 12 million immigrants passed through its doors.
Who Were the Immigrants?
U.S. immigrants during the Ellis Island era largely came from eastern, southern and central Europe. Some fled poverty. Others, such as eastern European Jews, fled religious persecution. All sought the relative safety and prosperity for which the country was known.
Only steerage (“economy-class”) passengers were personally sent to Ellis Island. Because they were poor, these passengers were closely scrutinized to be sure they were disease-free and financially able to care for themselves. Wealthier travelers received a brief inspection on the ship before being cleared to enter the country. Read more about Ellis Island passenger arrival lists.
A Ruthenian immigrant at Ellis Island in 1906
An Armenian immigrant at Ellis Island in 1926
A Syrian immigrant at Ellis Island in 1926
How to Find Your Ancestors’ Records
Wherever they were from—and whether they were rich or poor—you can learn more about immigrant ancestors in passenger arrival lists. You can search the entire history of Ellis Island passenger records for free at FamilySearch:
- Pre-Ellis Island Arrivals: New York Passenger Lists from 1820–1891
- Ellis Island Era: New York Passenger Lists from 1892–1924
- Post-Ellis-Island-Era: New York Passenger Lists from 1925–1957
Do you have any stories about your ancestors that passed through Ellis Island? Please share! Post in the comments below or to social media with #familysearch.
Learn more about Ellis Island and New York immigration. How can you learn more about your immigrant ancestors through passenger arrival lists and other resources?
- “U.S. Immigration History,” Immigration EIS, accessed July 5, 2018. http://www.immigrationeis.org/about-ieis/us-immigration-history