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. My Grandmother, Bertha Van Doorn, arrived in New York on the 22nd of March, 1916. She arrived with her parents and 8 of her 12 living siblings. Four of the oldest boys stayed behind in the Netherlands. She told me the captain of the ship they traveled on, the New Amsterdam, liked her as she never got sea sick. When she got to the states and settled in one of the best things was that she was able to wear colorful gingham dresses because back in the old country they were only allowed to wear white every day. She never mentioned Ellis Island, but I don’t think they traveled steerage so it wouldn’t have been as traumatic for them.

  2. I’m sad because my grandma died before she could tell me stories of our ancestry. All I know is that we relocated to Omaha

  3. My family – my great grandfather’s brothers William with his wife Eliza; Henry with his wife Sarah; and Matthew Allott all emigrated pre Ellis Island in 1849/50 from Yorkshire (from Thorpe Hesley, a pit village, between Sheffield and Rotherham). Matthew returned, William’s wife died on the journey – the fate of her new baby is not known – whether dying, remaining in the UK prior to the voyage or returning with Matthew. They were coal miners and William stayed in mining and remarried to Mary but Henry ventured west and settled or claimed farm land. I believe one of his sons (or William’s) was killed fighting for the north in the Civil War. His youngest daughter married one of the early Mormon Church members, Peter Eden. They left England after a lock out in 1849 when the miners were ‘locked out’ of the pits for refusing to accept lower wages during the economic slump (the hungry 40s).

  4. My paternal grandmother’s youngest brother Edward Finlay, emigrated around 1906 – he came backwards and forwards a few times but must have gone through Ellis Island. Originally a professional soccer player be then settle in Flint, Michigan working, of course for General Motors.

  5. Ellis Island story is very interesting and I’ve found numerous Corkum names in the Ellis Island era as well as the pre and post periods. However a sampling of the the ones in the Ellis Island records appear to be either those who were already American residents returning from trips abroad or others who were crew members of Canadian vessels arriving in New York during that time (this is still useful information). Most of my relatives in the US immigrated from Nova Scotia, Canada often through Boston and most settled in that area. FamilySearch has helped find much information on the US branches of my family. I’ve much more research to do but so far looks like all Corkums may have descended from families of two brothers who left Germany for Nova Scotia in 1752 and if so we should all be related somehow. Obviously I’ve got a lot of cousins out there somewhere!

    Rod Corkum – Halifax, Canada

  6. Ancestor Thomas Black arrived in New York city about 1797 from Scotland. Trying to find who he might have come to America with, parents, etc. I can find much about Thomas after 1800, but nothing prior. Any suggestions?

  7. I was told because my Grandmother came from Germany as a nanny with a wealthier family who had migrated earlier she may not have passed through Ellis Island in 1912. Is there anywhere else her migration could have been recorded?

    1. Try Philadelphia, Pennsylvania this is where my grandparents came through between 1911 and 1913. A lot of people came through this port as well.

  8. I am very interested in finding my Grandmother who came over with her brother we think about 1898 or so she was born in 1887 and they say she was 11 when she came over here from Norway.
    We don’t know her brothers name though. I hope we can somehow find her.

    1. June Macare try looking at Baltimore. My ancestors came from Bohemia, now the Czech Republic, and landed at Baltimore before 1896, when their oldest son, my Grandfather, who was born in Michigan, USA.

  9. I know from various sources that my great-grandparents came to America in 1888, but sadly, to save my life, I can’t find the ship or exact date.

  10. Can you check on this? I have been told of family folklore that I have no way of confirming. My maiden name is Ellis. My father’s ancestors were native american. The story goes; the United States government purchased the land from our family. My grandfather’s name originally was Orba Rosco Ellis, changed to Orbie when he was in the military. He had 2 sisters whose names started with ‘O’. His son was named Orbie Rocco Ellis, Jr. I would love to know if the family story is accurate or not, but I don’t know where to look.

  11. Can you help me understand the European roots of my maiden name—Ague. I heard that Frederick Ague came here from Germany. He is not listed on Ellis islands records.

  12. My grandmother arrived in New York about 1891-1893. Have not been able to find any record of this Her maiden name was Yetta Birer and was married to Isaac Fricklas Pricklas ( who I also can’t find) in 1900. Any ideas where I can look for information.Thanks

  13. Hello, we are looking for our family part of Marseille to New York between 1917 and 1925. The last name is TZIKUNIB, the first name is: FATIMET IDRISOVNA or MYIUMIN IDRISOVNA or HADZHET IDRISOVNA. All three are women. But there is only one woman who has arrived in New York. We thank you for your research. Cordially.
    Bonjour, nous sommes à la recherche de notre famille partie de Marseille à destination de New york entre 1917 et 1925. Le nom de famille est TZIKUNIB , le prénom est : FATIMET IDRISOVNA ou MYIUMIN IDRISOVNA ou HADZHET IDRISOVNA. Ce sont toutes les trois des femmes. Mais il y a qu’une seule femme arrivée à New york. Nous vous remercions pour vos recherches. Cordialement.