Pioneer History by Richard C. Schmal

Ellis Island

(from the Sept. 25, 2001, Lowell Tribune, page 20)

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

The above lines from the poem "The New Colossus" written by Emma Lazurus (1849-1887) in 1883 are inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty. She wrote the poem as a fund-raiser for the base of the huge statue.

The statue, dedicated in 1886 on Bedloe's Island at the entrance of upper New York Bay, was a gift to the United States from the people of France and commemorates the alliance of France and the American colonies during the Revolutionary War.

Beneath the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, 294 feet tall, stands Ellis Island, the threshold of liberty for more than 16 million Americans.

In 1855 Castle Garden, an old fort on the lower tip of Manhattan, was rebuilt as an immigration station, supervised by the State of New York. Under new federal laws of 1882, the Castle Garden site was operated under contract with the United States Government, but because of the increased number of immigrants by 1890, the government was looking for a new site and chose Ellis Island as an entirely new immigration station. The original three-acre sandbank was called "Kilshk" (Gull Island) by the Native Americans. The Dutch purchased the island and established the colony of New Amsterdam, but after several owners, Samuel Ellis purchased the land and named it after himself. Ellis sold his island to the State of New York in 1808, who in turn sold it to the federal government to be used as a fortification called Fort Gibson, an ammunition depot during the War of 1812.

The construction of the immigration center began in 1890, when hundreds of workers labored to erect a large reception center, hospital, laundry, boiler house, electric generating plant, dormitory, restaurant and baggage station. Through the years ballast dumped from nearby ships added more acreage; then a seawall was built and landfill brought in to make the present size of 27 acres.

The Ellis Island Immigration Center was officially dedicated on New Year's Day, 1892. Annie Moore, a 15-year-old Irish girl from County Cork, had the honor of being the first person to be processed at the island. She was presented with a ten-dollar gold piece, the largest sum of money that she had ever possessed.

The same day several hundred passengers from the ships "City of Paris" and "Victoria" were cleared. Passenger lists from hundreds of vessels have been preserved on microfilm, available for those who wish to trace their family histories.

Disaster struck at Ellis Island on June 15, 1897, when all of the frame buildings burned to the ground. The government moved swiftly to replace the buildings with fire-proof structures of brick, ironwork and limestone. During the two and a half years of construction, immigrants were processed on Manhattan Island.

Why did they come? All had very personal reasons to come to the United States of America. Many of them thought that their goals and dreams could no longer become realities in their native lands.

Some were looking for religious freedom, while others were running from conscription in the military and felt there would be great opportunity, as well as a better economy. Many new arrivals quickly wrote letters back to their relatives in Europe to tell about all the great advantages of the New World.

Most immigrants were eventually admitted to the United States, but there was also terrible heartbreak for some who were deported and separated from other members of their families. The long trip on the Atlantic Ocean, as storms and high seas pitched the small overloaded ships, caused terrible seasickness during the long weeks aboard. The poorer passengers, who were jammed into the holds of the vessels, slept on narrow bunks amid a diseased atmosphere.

After landing, the sick, bewildered and exhausted immigrants were soon huddled in the Great Hall at the island, with numbered identification tags pinned to their clothes, awaiting the legal and medical examinations. Because of the disgrace of being deported, it is estimated that there were three thousand suicides.

During the examinations the newcomers were asked "What is your name?" and there was often a problem when baffled officials each wrote down the name as it sounded to him, leaving persons in the same family with different names. Some shortened their names or changed them completely for various reasons.

Soon after World War I, U.S. immigration was restricted, and by 1954 the last immigrant walked through the door of Ellis Island. The island had borne the burdens, witnessed the sorrows, and heard the laughter of millions since its opening in 1892. The place soon became an abandoned, crumbling relic, but was restored in recent years as a museum and historic site.

What befell the immigrants after they struggled down the gangplank? Was your grandmother or grandfather one of them? A quote from Alex Haley's best-seller Roots: "In all of us there is a hunger, marrow deep to know our heritage -- to know who we are and where we have come from."

There is a wealth of information for those researching their family histories at the Lowell Public Library. Many family history books are available, as well as cemetery records, biographies, obituaries and much more.

To research the names and data of immigrant ancestors who may have come into the United States by the way of Ellis Island, the following Internet address should be of great help:

Last updated on April 13, 2002.

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