When Did New York Immigration Start at Ellis Island?

July 25, 2018  - by 

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.

The first Ellis Island Immigration Station only lasted 5 years before burning down.

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.

A history of Ellis Island immigration: Who were the immigrants and where did they come from?

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.

Where did the Ellis Island immigrants come from?

An Algerian man

Who were the immigrants that came through Ellis Island?

A Ruthenian woman

How to find your immigrant ancestors that came through Ellis Island using FamilySearch

A Romanian man

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.

Search Ellis Island Records


Here’s a great introduction to finding your immigrant ancestors on FamilySearch, and you can read about even more online immigration resources.

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.

Find and share your Ellis Island immigrant ancestors' stories through 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?

How to use Ellis Island archives in genealogy research to find your ancestors



  1. “U.S. Immigration History,” Immigration EIS, accessed July 5, 2018. http://www.immigrationeis.org/about-ieis/us-immigration-history


Sunny Morton

Sunny Morton teaches personal and family history to worldwide audiences. She's a Contributing Editor at Family Tree Magazine, past Contributing Editor at Lisa Louise Cooke's Genealogy Gems, and the author of How to Find Your Family History in U.S. Church Records (co-authored with Harold Henderson, CG); Story of My Life: A Workbook for Preserving Your Legacy; "Genealogy Giants: Comparing the 4 Major Websites," and hundreds of articles. She has degrees in history and humanities from Brigham Young University. Read her work at sunnymorton.com.

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  1. This little bit of information is very helpful. My grandfather was put up for adoption when he was a couple of weeks old. According to the orphanage records he had his mother’s last name. His mother was Mary Grimaldi and she was born in Italy. His father was Joseph Laqua and he too was born in Italy. They were both 20 years old. Since my grandfather was born on 21 Apr 1905 and put up for adoption on or about 5 May 1908 I can assume a couple of things.
    His parents logically came through Ellis Island somewhere between their births and my grandfather’s birth.
    They arrived between 1885 and 1905.
    He was born in Manhattan.
    I’m not sure where to go next. Could you give me some hints?

  2. Thank you for your reports on Chinese immigration to Canada and America. I am not sure who did the numbers of immigrants to each cities in these two countries. The numbers must be in typo or mis-copied since they couldn’t be the same! Are they the numbers of Chinese living in theses cities?

    1. James, thank you for catching this error! We’ve corrected the numbers and updated the graphic.

    1. Are you not able to access any records on the site? If so, what are you seeing when you try to access those records?

  3. My Grandmother came from Germany in 1904. Her name was Marie Kochansky, but was shortened to Koch. I would like to know what ship she arrived on. I believe that she came from Hemelinger, Germany, along with my father and uncle. My Father’s name was John, and my uncle’s name was Paul.
    My mother came from Germany in 1923. Her name was Frieda Abendroth. She came from Pirmeases Germany. She traveled alone. I would like to know the name of the Ship she sailed on.
    Any infotmation would be appreciated. Thanking you in advance.

  4. Üdv.Keresem Déd nagypám utvonalát Amerikába Homokbödögéről Fiuméig Szólt a legenda . Ahelységet Amerikába nemtudom az év-szám kb 1900-lehet.Azért kérem a segítséget mert amatőr vagyok a gép kezelésbe.A déd Nagyapám Balassa Dániel 1857-ben született.Köszönettel Kovács Zsuzsanna

    Google Translate – Hungarian to English: Greetings. I’m looking for my grandfather Déd’s route to America from Sand Pit to Rijeka. I don’t know my place in America, the year-number may be about 1900. I am asking for help because I am an amateur in machine treatment.

    1. Hi Borosne! Thank you for your research question. Please check out the FREE Virtual Research Strategy Sessions where you can schedule time with a specialist to help you on any family history question you may have. You can also connect with other FamilySearch users who may be able to help you, by joining the FamilySearch Community. Good luck and thank you for reading the blog!

      Google Translate – English to Hungarian: Szia Borosne! Köszönöm a kutatási kérdést. Kérjük, nézze meg az INGYENES virtuális kutatási stratégiai foglalkozásokat , ahol ütemezheti az időt egy szakemberrel, aki bármilyen családtörténeti kérdésben segítséget nyújt Önnek. A FamilySearch közösséghez . Sok sikert és köszönöm, hogy elolvasta a blogot!

    2. Köszönöm a segítséget

      Google Translate – Hungarian to English: Thanks for the help