In its early history, the tidal waters of New York Harbor were host to large areas of oyster beds. They served as an important food source for Native Americans and early colonists. Their abundance eventually prompted Dutch colonists to name the harbor’s three tiny islands, Oyster Islands. Two of the so-named islands would later play an important role in greeting and processing future American citizens.
The Nation’s first large surge of immigrants began in 1814. On the east coast, Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore served as entry points for the “huddled masses yearning to be free.” From the start, New York was the major hub for immigrants. At first, immigration was regulated by individual states and not by the federal government. Typically, the states prevented criminals, the very poor and those harboring contagious diseases from entering the country.
“Room for millions – what the great Northwest offers settlers,” (New York Herald, February 10, 1892.) “Big opportunity in Michigan. Big money in grain, stock, poultry or fruits.” Our country was seeking immigrant workers via ads and newspaper articles. But certain immigrants were not always welcomed, yet for the most part, they were recognized as a valuable asset to a growing nation. In 1840, President John Tyler stated that “…landed immigrants from all parts of the civilized world, who come among us to partake of the blessings of our free institutions and to aid by their labor to swell the current of our wealth and power”. Tyler however, was mainly encouraging newcomers from European countries.
In 1624, the Dutch colony had installed a number of cannons at what would become Manhattan’s Battery Park. In 1811, as part of a system of defense for New York Harbor, a fort was erected at the same site. Then, about 10 years after the War of 1812, the fortification was converted into an opera house and theater. The site was renamed Castle Garden. Following the passage of the Passenger Act of 1855, federal legislation designed to safeguard the health and welfare of immigrants, Castle Garden became an official immigrant processing center. It was the first in the Nation. During just its first four months of 1856, Castle Garden processed over 16,000 immigrants, and over the next 25 years, the facility welcomed approximately 8 million former residents of European countries. Most of them were from Germany, Ireland, England, Italy, Sweden, Denmark and Russia. As part of their welcoming into their new country, immigrants were given information on housing, jobs and travel. In addition, their foreign currency was converted into American money. It is estimated that “more than one in six native-born Americans are descendants of those who entered the U. S. through Castle Gardens.”
By 1880, it had become apparent that Castle Garden was no longer capable of handling the influx of immigrants. The federal authorities thus decided to build a new facility on the nearby Oyster Island. For a time, the site had also been called Gibbet Island. Its name was derived from state executions of criminals, who were hanged from a gibbet – a gallows. But in 1808, after its purchase by a local merchant Samuel Ellis, it was renamed Ellis Island. During the War of 1812, fortifications were built on the site.
During construction of the new immigrant station on Ellis Island, arriving immigrants were processed at the Battery Park Barge Office. Castle Garden’s name had already been changed to Castle Clinton, in honor of Dewitt Clinton, the Mayor and later Governor of New York. While in operation, the Barge Office processed 405,664 immigrants. But finally, Ellis Island opened its gates on January 1, 1892. The very first immigrant to enter the new processing offices, Annie Moore, was a 15-year-old from County Cork, Ireland. Accompanied by her two younger brothers, Anthony and Phillip, they were soon reunited with their father who lived on Monroe Street, in Manhattan. By the end of the first day, 699 more immigrants had been processed. At years-end, 450,000 had passed through Ellis Island.
At Ellis Island, first and second-class passengers were generally not required to be examined at the federal facility. Instead, unless found ill, they were processed while still aboard ship. However, steerage passengers, assumed to be more likely to be sick or have other problems, were taken directly to Ellis for examination and processing.
On June 15, 1897, Ellis Island burned to the ground. Though there was no loss of life, immigration records dating back to 1855 were destroyed along with its pine structure. Determined to never have that occur again, the United States Treasury instructed that any future building had to be fireproof. In December of 1900, the new Main Building opened, allowing 2,251 immigrants to be processed on the first day. Seven years later, over that entire year, approximately 1.25 million new immigrants passed through Ellis Island. It was the largest number ever processed at the site! In 1954, the federal government declared Ellis Island as surplus property, leaving its buildings to deteriorate. However, in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson proclaimed the historic site as part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument. And beginning in 1984, Ellis Island underwent a $160 million restoration program.
In 1669, Isaac Bedloe had purchased the Oyster Island, a half-mile south of Ellis Island. At first, it was called Love Island, but after Bedloe passed away, it was renamed Bedloe Island. On October 23, 1886, the French designed and built the Statue of Liberty was completed on Bedloe Island. Five days later, New York held its first ticker-tape parade in honor of “Liberty Enlightening the World.” President Dwight D. Eisenhower renamed Bedloe Island to Liberty Island in 1956.
There always had been a local controversy about Ellis Island. Was it within the territorial waters of New Jersey or New York? On May 26, 1998, the US Supreme Court ruled that the island that originally been barely 2 acres in size, and later expanded with landfill to 27.5 acres, mainly belonged to the State of New Jersey. Though the main building with the Ellis Island Museum of Immigration is in New York State, the majority of its land lies in New Jersey.
For information on visiting the two former Oyster Islands, search online for Liberty and Ellis Island Tours. Be sure to make a reservation; there is a great deal of demand for the tours.