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The Colonial governors of Nieuw Amsterdam purchased a small, 3.5-acre mud bank in Upper New York Bay, near the New Jersey shore. The Indians called it Kioshk, or Gull Island, after the birds that were its only inhabitants. The Dutch settlers called it Oyster Island, after the many surrounding oyster beds. The Island barely rose above the surface at high tide.
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By the time of the American Revolution, the Island was owned by Samuel Ellis, a New York merchant and owner of a small tavern on the island catering to fisherman.
Samuel Ellis's heirs sold the island to New York State. The name Ellis Island stuck. Later in the year, the Federal Government bought Ellis Island for $10,000.
Shortly before the War of 1812, a battery of 20 guns, a magazine and a barracks were constructed on the island.
The States turned over control of immigration to the Federal Government. The U.S. Congress appropriated $75,000 to build the first Federal immigration station on Ellis Island. Artesian wells were dug, and landfill (from incoming ships' ballast and New York City subway tunnels) doubled the size of Ellis to over six acres. While the new immigration station was under construction, the Barge Office on the Battery on the tip of Manhattan was used for immigration reception. During 1891, there were 405,664 immigrants, or about 80% of the national total, that were processed at the Barge Office.
The first Ellis Island Immigration Station was officially opened. The first immigrant to pass through Ellis was a "rosy-cheeked Irish girl," Annie Moore, a teenager from County Cork. She came with her two younger brothers to join their parents in New York City. That first day, three large ships were waiting to land, and 700 immigrants passed through Ellis Island. In the first year, nearly 450,000 immigrants passed through the Island.
A fire of undisclosed origin, possibly faulty wiring, completely destroyed the Georgia pine structures on Ellis Island. No one died, but most of the immigration records dating from 1855 were destroyed. In five years, some 1.5 million immigrants had been processed. While a new, fireproof immigration station was being constructed on Ellis, processing was transferred back to the Barge Office.
The present Main Building opened, an impressive, French Renaissance structure in red brick with limestone trim. It cost some $1.5 million and was designed to process 5,000 immigrants per day. This was scarcely big enough for the surge in immigration in the pre-World War I years. The island was continuously enlarged with landfill, remodeling, additions and new construction.
This was the peak year at Ellis Island with 1,004,756 immigrants received. The all-time daily high was on April 17th of this year when a total of 11,747 immigrants were processed.
Post-war immigration quickly revived and 560,971 immigrants passed through Ellis Island in 1921. The first Immigration Quota Law passed the U.S. Congress, adding to the administration problems at Ellis Island. It provided that the number of any European nationality entering in a given year could not exceed three percent of foreign-born persons of that nationality who lived in the U.S. in 1910. Nationality was to be determined by country of birth, and no more than 20 percent of the annual quota of any nationality could be received in any given month. The total number of immigrants admissible under the system was set at nearly 358,000, but numerous classes were exempt.
The Immigration Act of 1924 further restricted immigration, changing the quota basis from the census of 1910 to that of 1890, and reducing the annual quota to some 164,000. This marked the end of mass immigration to America. The Immigration Act also provided for the examination and qualification of immigrants at U.S. consulates overseas. The main function of Ellis Island changed from that of an immigrant processing station, to a center of the assembly, detention, and deportation of aliens who had entered the U.S. illegally or had violated the terms of admittance. The buildings at Ellis Island began to fall into disuse and disrepair.
After the U.S. entered the war in December 1941, Ellis Island served primarily as a detention center for alien enemies, those considered to be inadmissible and others. By 1946, approximately 7000 aliens and citizens, with German, Italian, and Japanese people comprising the largest groups, were detained at Ellis Island. The detainees became so numerous that the immigration functions had to be transferred to Manhattan for lack of room. Ellis Island was also used as a hospital for returning wounded servicemen and by the United States Coast Guard, which trained about 60,000 servicemen there.
A brief flurry of activity occurred on Ellis Island after the passage of the Internal Security Act of 1950, which excluded arriving aliens who had been members of Communist and Fascist organizations. Remodeling and repairs were performed on the buildings to accommodate detainees who numbered as many as 1,500 at one time.
Ellis Island, with its 33 structures, was closed and declared excess Federal property.
President Lyndon B. Johnson issued Proclamation 3656 adding Ellis Island to the Statue of Liberty National Monument, thus placing Ellis Island under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service.
The largest restoration in American history was undertaken by the non-profit Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, Inc., established in 1982 and chaired by Lee A. Iacocca, which raised all the funds from private citizens, corporations, and other groups and oversaw the restoration, working in partnership the National Park Service.
The Ellis Island Immigration Museum opened to the public and has received over 40 million visitors to date. Also unveiled was The American Immigrant Wall of Honor®, the largest wall of names in the world, where individuals can have the name of an immigrant ancestor inscribed for posterity.
The American Family Immigration History Center® was opened by The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, which allowed visitors to the Center and its website to explore the extraordinary collection of records of the more than 25 million passengers and members of ships’ crews who entered the United States through Ellis Island and the Port of New York between 1892 and 1924. These records have since been expanded to include ship arrivals from 1820 through 1957.
Journeys: The Peopling of America® Center, 1550 - 1890 the first phase of a major expansion of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum which explores arrivals before the Ellis Island Era, is opened by The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation. Located in the historic Railroad Ticket Office, this exhibit highlights global reasons for immigration, describes both voluntary and involuntary forms of immigration, and underscores some of the historical debates and discussions about immigration in America.
The second phase of The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation’s Peopling of America® Center, which was delayed due to the damage sustained by Ellis Island from Superstorm Sandy, opens May 20, 2015. These post-Ellis Island Era galleries tell the story of arrivals to America after Ellis closed (1955-Present). With the complete story of American immigration now being told, the museum is renamed the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration.
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