Ellis Island

Ellis Island
Ellis Island

Famous the world over for serving as a gateway to a new life of opportunity, Ellis Island was a symbol of hope and new beginnings for over 12 million immigrants between 1892 and 1954.Situated in New York Bay, it is part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument.

Originally known as 'Kioshk' by local Native American tribes, it was renamed 'Oyster Island' by Dutch settlers in the 17th century, due to its vast oyster harvests.  In 1765 the island was again renamed as 'Gibbet Island', after the famous hanging of the pirate Anderson (The gibbet was the instrument used for his execution!)   Finally in the 1770’s, Samuel Ellis, a colonial New Yorker bought the island and it has retained his namesake ever since.

In 1874 the United States army built Fort Gibson, which saw the island serve a military purpose until the forts dismantling in 1861.  However it was still used as a munitions storage facility until 1890, when complaints from nearby New Jersey residents had it shut down.  It was then chosen to be the new immigrant screening station, taking over from the Castle Garden Immigration Depot.

The first immigrant to pass through the station was Irishwoman Annie Moore, a native of county Cork, in 1892. Annie was followed by many, many more Irish in the years to come. Some of the most common Donegal names on the register were Gallagher and Sweeney.  Today, about a third of the population of the United States can claim descent from immigrants who arrived in America through Ellis Island!

Despite being a symbol of opportunity and new beginnings, Ellis Island also had a dark side.  Families would be split apart forever as 2% of immigrants were rejected after tremendous, often life threatening journeys due to disease, criminality or mental illness.  People were also rejected on the grounds that they would “become a public charge”.  In other words, they would be unlikely to find employment.  This gave rise to the nickname “Island of Tears”. 

A hospital was built in order to medically inspect the new entrants who may have brought foreign-born illness or disease. Unfortunately the facility was poorly equipped and understaffed.  Tragically, more than three thousand people died while being treated in the hospital.

In 1954 Ellis Island Immigration Station was shut down due to harsher legislation leading to less immigrant activity.  The last person to pass through was a Norwegian seaman called Arne Petersson in 1954.

Ellis Island was once a hugely popular tourist attraction but was severely damaged during the October 2012 hurricane Sandy.  No reopening dates have been projected as of yet.