The Story of Ellis Island & The People That Arrived

Did you know Ellis Island officially opened as an immigration station on January 1, 1892? Seventeen-year-old Annie Moore, from County Cork, Ireland was the first immigrant to be processed at the new federal immigration depot.

The Statue of Enlightening the World

Most of us have heard of New York’s Ellis Island and it’s immigration depot. When mentioning Island, it often brings to mind the Statue of Liberty, which many believe both to be located on the same island. But in fact, they are not. The statue welcomed millions of immigrants entering New York Harbor on their way to Ellis Island.

Ellis Island was previously called Gull Island. This was before Samuel Ellis purchased the island in the 1770’s. Samuel had a good sized tavern built on the island, which was used by many Manhattan residents in its day. But “Ellis Island” is also the name given to the immigration depot located on the island, which first opened on January 1, 1892.


Questions Answered Here. 

After I discovered the above information, I was curious to know more. Like what the island was used for between the time Mr. Ellis ran his tavern, when America became a nation in 1776 and when Ellis Island, the immigration depot began in 1892… I had questions like:

1. Where did all if the immigrants to America enter as they came through the New York Harbor between during that century?
2. Why was the immigration depot built on an island in the first place?
3. Were there records of the people who entered America before the immigration depot opened.
4. If so, what happened to them?

So, I set out to do more research and was able to answer those questions, as well as several others that I didn’t even know I had. Although the research was vague between 1776 and 1811, it picked back up just prior to the War of 1812.

Preparing for War

With tensions rising between America and Great Britain due to America’s departure from Great Britain’s rule in 1776, an armament known as the Southwest Battery was built on Ellis Island in 1808 in lower southwest Manhattan. This became known as Fort Clinton. The fort was one of four built within close proximity to each other used to protect New York Harbor.

What happened to Fort Clinton?

Getting back to Ellis Island and Fort Clinton. In 1823, following the war, the fort was deeded to New York City. It was turned into an opera house and theater called Castle Garden for the next 31 years. Castle Garden was a hot spot for cultural entertainment, showcasing not only entertainment venues but also the newest inventions, such as Samuel Morse and his telegraph and steam powered fire engines.

Within a year after Castle Garden Opera House closed its doors, Castle Garden started being used as an immigration station. Here, clerks were hired to process and log every person entering American shores through the New York Harbor from various countries. This was America’s first immigration depot. Prior to this, passengers exited the ships directly onto the shores of Manhattan, often bringing with them many different diseases.

Many of the ill passengers had already been struck by disease before they even boarded ships in their native country, although many also contracted diseases during their nearly twelve day voyage across the ocean.

Somewhere between 8 and 12 million people came through Castle Garden until it closed 1890 when the federal government took over the task of immigration, which happened in part because of the corruption among clerks who were designated to process voyagers at this time.

Corruption such as blatant use of a federal act of 1882 forbidding entry of “lunatics, idiots, criminals and public charges” (prostitutes and other unwelcome professions) by making their own personal judgement calls. Typically, they did this in hopes of be offered bribes to look the other way.

Building Ellis Island Depot

While the first federal immigration depot began being built on Ellis Island, designed by Edward Tilton and William Boring, a temporary depot was located on a barge just off shore of Castle Garden. In 1891, the barge welcomed just over 400,000 passengers.

Ellis Island was no where near large enough to accommodate the new depot, so it was necessary to increase the size of the island. This was done by unloading the ballasts of ships (stones in the lowest level of ships used for balance) and using the dirt and debris from the building of elevated railways in the in New York City.

On January 1, 1892, when the island finally opened, it is said that a young girl, Annie Moore 17 years old, was the first to be processed through the new wooden immigration depot built upon the island. She came on a ship from Cork County, Ireland with her two younger brothers to join their parents who were already in America.

Eventually, Annie married Joseph Schayer, of German decent, a salesman at Manhattan’s Fulton Fish Market. Together they had at least ten children. Annie died in 1924, although my research wasn’t clear as to the cause. Many accounts relay it being a horrible streetcar accident, while others report she died of a heart attack.

Rebuilding the Immigration Depot

It was on June 15, 1897, that a fire on Ellis Island broke out. It destroyed the wooden structure taking the majority of the 1.5 million immigration records of not only those of the island itself, but also the records which were being stored from the Castle Garden days. As a new fireproof structure began being built, the barge depot once again welcomed new passengers. By December of that same year, the new fireproof building reopened and Vice President Theodore Roosevelt appointed the first immigration commissioner, William Williams to manage the depot.

Commissioner Williams fired the vast majority of the depot’s employees in 1902, eliminating widespread corruption and abuse. He began offering awards based on merit and announced any suspected dishonesty were grounds for dismissal. Signs featuring Williams new rules of kindness and consideration were posted as reminders all around the depot.

This new generation of immigrants saw many of Jewish faith, who left their home country due to political and economic unrest, as well as people of Italian decent escaping poverty. Ellis Island welcomed many Polish, Hungarians, and Greeks to name a few, also many non-Europeans from locations such as Serbia, Turkey and Armenia.

Story Of Ellis Island and The People That Arrived | History of Ellis Island | Raising World Children

Why People Came

After learning all of this, I was interested in finding out about specific stories of some people who took a chance to voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. I discovered families like Barnet Chadekel, who chose to travel under his wife, Chann’s maiden name of Mirelowitz because in their native land they were perceived to be wealthy because he owned a glass working shop. In the country they left behind, they were considered to be wealthy and were persecuted for this. Often put to death.

As another aside: For a little over ten years in the early 2000s, I taught a life journaling class to hundreds of senior citizens all over the metro Detroit area. Every person in every class had an interesting story to tell, but many had traced their family histories all the way back to Ellis Island and beyond. What they discovered during their research was that there were many family members who, when they told immigration clerks their name, the clerk wrongly spelled their name the way they heard it so their name turned out to be something different from what it really was. Some clerks shortened their name. And some immigrants, like Iparhos Perdikis (who you’ll read about here) chose to give the clerk at their departure from their home country, a completely different name. I learned so much while working with everyone during these years, about immigration and their personal lives I was also able life lessons, which I still use today.

The Many Reasons Why People Came

The reasons people made the long expensive journey to America vary widely. Some escaped war in their home country, as well as drought, hunger, and persecution for their religious beliefs. People came hoping for jobs, some were only in the States long enough to earn enough money to support their family when they returned to their homeland and some came hoping to get land to farm. But everyone came in hopes for a better opportunity.

Passengers waited in long lines on the island following their nearly two week voyage, some of them waited only to be detained for weeks… or worse, deported because they didn’t pass the interviews with immigration inspectors, who claimed they were too sick or deemed as illiterate. During various different periods, immigrants from certain countries were banned entirely. But this didn’t stop people from coming in search of their dreams.

Nearly 12 million people were welcomed by the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor during Ellis Island depot’s 62 year history. Though due to a multitude of immigration acts in the U.S., immigration to the island dramatically decreased by 1924. Ellis Island immigration depot finally closed its doors in November of 1954.

Meet Giuseppe D’Amico

Giuseppe D’Amico was an electrician by trade. His family was already in America, but upon arriving, he found that in Manhattan, his profession had already seen unionization, which left him unable to find work. Fortunately, a family member, skilled as a seamstress, taught him her trade. Guiseppi went from learning the basic skills of dressmaking and through the years, worked his way to becoming a highly skilled dressmaker, managing a shop, then creating his own business designing beautiful gowns for the women of his day.

Tong Ly Jue Journeyed from China

Tong Ly Jue, a herbalist by trade, immigrated from China. He and his wife, Jeang Quai, settled in San Francisco’s Chinatown. With him, he brought many Chinese herbs and medicines and was able to come to the aid of people afflicted with many different diseases. Tong Ly is said to be among one of the first herbalists welcomed to America.

The Perdikis Family

Lastly, let’s meet Iparhos Perdikis. In 1921, the 16 year old traveled with his parents who settled in New York City. Iparhos chose to completely change his name to Harold Perrin, as many others often did, when he came to America. He studied hard in school before finding his calling and consuming himself in music and dance. Later, he performed on vaudeville stages and in nightclubs all across America.

When reflecting back to his arrival through New York Harbor and looking up at the lights of the New York city, Harold recalls, “From that beautiful city, I got my dreams.”

Over all, from the time Ellis Island opened until 1954 when it closed, more than 12 million people were welcomed into the United States. Today, the island is a National Park and hosts a museum in the main building. Restoration is being done, with the help of donations, to the Ellis Island hospital building. While visiting, you can go on guided tours of both the Ellis Island immigration depot island and our Lady Liberty. You also have the opportunity to take a guided cruise through New York Harbor and much more.

Janie Saylor | Raising World Children | Parenting | Cultures | Diversity | Cultural SensitivityJanie Saylor is a professional certified life coach with a degree in psychology, her focus is in the emerging field of positive psychology. Janie is the mom of two grown children, her son, age 21, and her daughter, age 25. In 2006, Janie published the book, “The Road You’ve Traveled, How to Journal Your Life,” which came from her experiences teaching life journaling to people over the age of 60 for 10+ years in various communities in the Metro Detroit area. Janie’s used her experiences and education as she developed an 8-week online coaching program and has had tremendous success in improving the communication, lives and relationships of her clients. Janie enjoys uplifting others with positive posts and memes on her Facebook page, Become University. Janie calls it “Your Happy Place.”

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