Article

The History of Ellis Island

  • Grades: 6–8, 9–12

Ellis Island is a small island in Upper New York Bay, lying about 1.6 km (1 mi) southwest of the Battery, on Manhattan, and about 396 m (1,300 ft) east of Jersey City, N.J.

Although in New Jersey waters, it was long under the political jurisdiction of New York. The island, originally 1.3 ha (3.3 acres) but over time enlarged by mostly landfill to 11.1 ha (27.5 acres), was a major U.S. immigration station from 1892 to 1943 and an immigrant detention station until 1954. It has been part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument since 1965.

Once a picnic ground for the early Dutch settlers, the island had several nomenclatures prior to being named for Samuel Ellis, who owned the island in the 1770s. It was purchased by the federal government from New York State in 1808 for use as a government arsenal and fort.

After the creation of the Immigration Bureau (1891), the immigration station was moved from Castle Garden (at Battery Park, Manhattan) to Ellis Island. There immigrants were examined and either admitted or deported; at the height of its activity, the Ellis Island station could process 1 million people a year. Twelve million immigrants came through Ellis Island from 1892 to 1954. The Great Hall, where immigrants were processed, was renovated as part of the 1986 Statue of Liberty centennial celebration. The entire Main Building, including the Great Hall, has been restored; the Ellis Island Immigration Museum there opened to the public in 1990.

In 1993 the state of New Jersey took its claim to future tax revenues that could result from island development to the U.S. Supreme Court. A court arbitrator in 1997 recommended that 9.1 ha (22.5 acres) of Ellis Island fall within the jurisdiction of New Jersey and that 2 ha (5 acres) remain with New York. In May 1998 the Supreme Court issued a final ruling, giving New Jersey 9.8 ha (24.2 acres), including part of the historic main immigration building, and leaving New York with the 1.3 ha (3.3 acres) that comprised the original shape of the island.

 

Bibliography: Chermayeff, Ivan, et al., Ellis Island: An Illustrated History of the Immigrant Experience (1991); Coan, Peter M., Ellis Island Interviews (1997); Holland, F. Ross, Idealists, Scoundrels, and the Lady: An Insider's View of the Statue of Liberty–Ellis Island Project (1993); Moreno, Barry, Who Was Who at Ellis Island: A Survey (1995); Tifft, Wilton S., Ellis Island (1990); Yans-McLaughlin, Virginia, et al., Ellis Island: A Reader and Resource Guide (1997).

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  • Subjects:
    Immigration
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