The Story of Ellis Island

For a nation of immigrants, few locations have greater significance than Ellis Island. But the story of the Island begins way before it became the home of America’s first federal immigration facility.

Back in the 17th century, European colonists referred to the island as Little Oyster Island–so named for its abundance of oyster beds. The story of the island then took a rather macabre turn in the 18th century. Pirates–who had long been terrorizing the seas–were publicly executed when caught. Ellis Island became one of the places where these executions took place, hence its 1760s moniker of Gibbet Island, named so for its gibbets–or gallows with a projecting arm at the top from which the bodies of criminals were hung in chains and left suspended following execution.

Image from the Wellcome Library, London A Man Rides Past a Gibbet. Lithograph by W. Clerk. via Untapped Cities

The Island was bought in the late 18th century by a merchant named Samuel Ellis–a man who would undoubtedly have been very surprised to find out that his name would eventually become one of the most recognizable in the nation. In his will, he bequeathed the island to the unborn child of his pregnant daughter. But this hinged on two conditions: the child would have to be a boy as well as be named Samuel Ellis. Though the child ended up male and with the name Samuel Ellis, he died in infancy. The situation, which created all kinds of legal complexities, led to the island being transferred over to the federal government.

When the elder Samuel Ellis died–in the late 1790s, shortly after the American Revolutionary War–the young US government (specifically the War Department) developed an interest in the island for its strategic purposes. But the fort that was built in the early 1800s to protect New York from the British never saw any military action.

Though the city had banned public pirate executions by the 19th century, the federal government kept up the practice for a few more years. Since piracy was a federal offense and the Island was now under the jurisdiction of the Federal Government, all the pirate executions moved to Ellis Island. The last such execution took place in 1839.

First Ellis Island Immigrant Station, opened on January 1, 1892. Built of wood, it was completely destroyed by fire on June 15, 1897.
 Via Wikimedia

1892 marks the next chapter in the life of the Island–the year it became the first federal immigrant processing facility. From 1855 to 1892 the immigrants were processed through Castel Garden. But as the numbers of immigrants continued to grow further on into the 19th century, the need for an actual federal immigration policy became urgent. Ellis Island was then chosen as the location for the nation’s first immigrant processing facility. Poorly constructed, it burned to the ground; the structure currently standing in that location was built in 1900. It operated until 1954, after which it was closed down and abandoned.

Main Building, entrance

Ellis Island was eventually preserved as a national monument, restored, and opened as a museum in 1990. Visitors today can enter the Great Hall and climb the stairs their great grandparents may have climbed before, view exhibits, enjoy some of the best skyline views of New York City, and ponder the fate of those 12 million people that came through here many years ago.

  • 1630-1770s

The Dutch acquired the island from the Indians in 1630, calling it Oyster Island. It became known as Gibbet Island in the 1760s for its gibbets–gallows that were used to hang men convicted of piracy. The notorious pirate Anderson was hanged on the island in 1765, with the island thereafter becoming known as “Anderson’s” or “Gibbet Island.”

  • 1774-1794

Samuel Ellis, a New York merchant, purchased the island and built a tavern for local fishermen around the time of the Revolutionary War. He died in 1794.

  • 1800

Even though Ellis Island was still owned by the Ellis family, New York City deeded it to New York State for the purposes of constructing fortifications by the U.S. War Department.  In its turn, the State of New York passed an act that ceded control of Ellis Island, Governor’s Island, and Bedloe’s Island (later changed to Liberty Island) to the United States government.

  • 1808

New York State bought the island and the U.S. War Department acquired the rights to use Ellis Island for military fortifications during the War of 1812.

  • 1839

The island’s last pirate execution took place.

  • 1814-1855

With very little regulation, the first great waves of immigration began. The immigrants came through the country’s first state-run immigration depot at Castle Garden.

  • 1861-1892

During Civil War, Ellis Island was used as a munitions arsenal for the Union army.

  • 1892

With the federal government now in control of immigration, the construction of the first federal immigration station on Ellis Island began. The first Ellis Island Immigration Station officially opened on January 1, 1892.

Over the next several decades, over 12 million people passed through the island on their way into the United States.

  • 1897

On June 15, a fire broke out in one of the towers in the main building, causing the roof to collapse. Though no one was killed, all the immigration records dating back to 1840 were destroyed along with the building.

  • 1900

The new fireproof facility was officially opened. These are the same structures currently standing there.

  • 1892 – 1924

The majority of the 12 million immigrants that came through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954 arrived before 1924. Ellis Island experienced its peak immigration year in 1907, with over 1.2 million people arriving. An all-time daily high of 11,747 immigrants received was also reached that year.

  • 1924 – 1954

The National Origins Act–passed in 1924–dramatically reduced immigration. The new law required immigrants to obtain visas in American consulates before leaving for America. The number of immigrants that could enter the United States also became based on Country of Origin quotas. America was experiencing the end of mass immigration. Ellis Island also ceased being a port of entry into the US since immigrants no longer arrived by steamships.

  • 1954

The immigration facility on Ellis Island closed down. The buildings on Ellis Island soon began to fall into neglect and abandonment.

  • 1965

President Lyndon B. Johnson issued a proclamation declaring Ellis Island as part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument, thereby putting it under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service.

  • 1976

Ellis Island opened to the public, with hour-long guided tours of the Main Arrivals Building being offered. Over 50,000 people visited the island that year.

  • 1982-1990

In 1982–at the request of President Ronald Reagan–Lee Iacocca of the Chrysler Corporation became the head of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, an organization aimed at raising funds from private investors meant for the restoration and preservation of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.

  • 1990

Ellis Island was restored and opened as a museum to the public.

  • 1998

Following a lawsuit initiated by the State of New Jersey, the U.S. Supreme Court voted to divide the sovereignty of Ellis Island between New York and New Jersey. New York retained the original 3.3 acres, while New Jersey won the remaining 24 landfilled acres of the island.

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