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Ellis Island Immigration Facts

Ellis Island was the main entry port for immigrants to America. Some estimates suggest at least 1/3 of all Americans can trace their ancestors through Ellis Island. This article tells you what you need to know.

Ellis Island is a small island off the tip of Lower Manhattan. It operated as an immigration center from 1892 to 1954. During much of that time, Ellis Island was the main port of entry for immigrants to America.

Castle Garden 1890s
Up to 1890, immigrants to New York City were processed at a facility known as Castle Garden in lower Manhattan (part of the facility still remains in modern-day Battery Park, where it is now called Castle Clinton). The increasing number of immigrants arriving in America forced the federal government to open up dedicated facilities on Ellis Island in 1892. This image is of Castle Garden c1897. Notice the Statue of Liberty in the background. Source: Library of Congress

Ellis Island processed an average of 5,000 people per day. A total of 12 million immigrants passed through the island over the years. As the table below shows, more immigrants passed through Ellis Island at its peak than all other North American ports of entry combined.

Top 10 Ports of Arrival in North America in 1903

Number of Immigrants
Ellis Island
Montreal & St. John's
San Francisco
Key West Florida
New Orleans
New Bedford Mass.
  Source: Ellis Island

As can be seen from the numbers above, Ellis Island dominated all other ports of entry for immigrants to America during the peak years of immigration from Europe.

When looking at Ellis Island immigration records, here are the things you need to know:

• For an immigrant coming from Europe, the most expensive part of the journey from their home in the old country to their final destination in North America would have been the cost of buying a ticket on a transatlantic steamer. New York City had by far the most number of ships visiting its port.

Ellis Island location map
Ellis Island is marked with the pin showing its location relative to New York City. Vessels carrying immigrants from Europe would sail up the Hudson River from the ocean and dock at Ellis Island. The small island just below Ellis Island is the Statue of Liberty.

• For many immigrants, New York City was the cheapest and most convenient port of entry to North America regardless of their final destination.

• Even immigrants to Canada could have chosen New York City as their port of entry (many crossings at the border between Canada and the US were totally open and had no customs or border officials).

• Anyone who had ancestors who arrived anywhere in North America in the forty-year period between roughly 1892 and 1932 should consider checking the Ellis Island immigration records.

• Not all immigrants were successful in entering the United States. Official statistics suggest about 2% of immigrants were rejected and sent home. The most common reason for rejection was a concern by immigration officials that the person may become a ward of the state. This could be due to health issues (especially a fairly common eye disease called trachoma, which led to blindness), mental illness or lack of sufficient funds for immigrants to support themselves.

ellis island medical exam
All immigrants to Ellis Island were required to undergo a basic medical examination before being allowed into the country. Source: Library of Congress

•Immigrants were sorted based on their health condition, financial status and language. When looking at the records, don’t assume all your ancestors passed through Ellis Island. Some may have been sent home.

ellis island stairs
Every immigrant also had to walk up these stairs at Ellis Island. Doctors were stationed around all sides and at the top to see if anyone had difficulty with the stairs. It is rumored that when Charlie Chaplin arrived here as an immigrant he walked up the stairs on his hands.

• Immigration officials also turned away communists, anarchists and bigamists. They did this by asking some rather ingenious questions: “Are you a communist?” “Are you an anarchist?” and “Are you a bigamist?” If a person answered ‘yes’ to any of the questions, they were rejected. If a person answered ‘no’ to any of the questions they were put aside for further questioning. The correct answer would have been: “What is a communist?”, "What is an anarchist?" and “What is a bigamist?”

• One hundred years ago, most people would not have been familiar with the terms communist, anarchist or bigamist. If they were aware of any of these terms then they may have been a communist, anarchist or bigamist and they were questioned in greater detail.

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