[On January 1, 1892, Ellis Island immigration station opened in New York Harbor. Nearly 500,000 immigrants came through the station in its first year, and the rest is history. Very complex history, though, and so for Ellis’s 125th anniversary I’ll analyze five contexts for the station and the immigration stories to which it connects. Leading up to a special weekend post on 21st century immigration!]
What didn’t change when Ellis replaced New York’s prior immigration station, and what did.
It isn’t nearly as present in our collective memories as Ellis Island—for some of the reasons I’ll get to in my third paragraph, along with the simpler fact that it’s located further in our past, and moreover in an era with far fewer photographs and no newsreels—but New York City’s Castle Garden was the nation’s first official “immigration station.” Located in The Battery, the park and fortified area at the southern tip of the island of Manhattan, the facilities and grounds known as Castle Garden were leased to the New York State Commissioners of Emigration in 1855, and opened as an official arrival point for immigrants in that same year. (Ships carrying immigrants had been docking in the area since at least 1820, but in a more local and somewhat less catalogued way.) By the time Ellis Island opened in 1892, more than 11 million immigrants had come through Castle Garden, and the excellent CastleGarden.org website features a searchable database of ships and passengers from across those decades (again, prior to 1855 less information was consistently recorded about those arrivals).
We might remember Ellis Island more fully than we do Castle Garden, but the truth, as I’ll come back to in the week’s final post on immigration myths, is that the process of arrival for those immigrants who began coming through Ellis in 1892 was very similar to what had been the case for Castle Garden arrivals. Since the only national immigration laws as of 1892 were those excluding Chinese arrivals, virtually all of whom came to the West Coast, the vast majority of Ellis arrivals were no more subject to legal categorization than had been Castle ones. Instead, the process was defined by two steps: principally, recording the arrivals’ names, countries of origin, and American destinations (information that had been gathered in at least partial form since 1820); and secondarily, assessing arrivals for such potential problems as communicable diseases and status as criminal fugitives. The questions and procedures for both the information gathering and the risk assessments had evolved throughout the decades at Castle Garden, and would likewise evolve at Ellis, culminating in the list of 29 questions about which I’ll write later in the week. But nonetheless those procedures represent much more of a continuity than a change between the Castle and Ellis stations.
If many of the on-the-ground realities connected the two stations, however, the collective images of them were far different—and not only in our 21st century collective memories, but in Ellis’ own era as well. It’s fair to say that images of immigration had become more nationally prominent overall by 1892, thanks to a variety of factors: the 1886 opening of the Statue of Liberty, which of course would become closely associated with its island neighbor Ellis; the fears and debates that produced the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and all of its aftermaths; the ongoing, largest (by propotion of population) wave of immigration in the nation’s history; and more. But it’s also important to note that prior to the Exclusion Act, and the subsequent Supreme Court decisions which upheld Congress’s ability to pass such an immigration law, immigration had been considered and treated as far more of a local or regional question than a national one. So if Ellis didn’t necessarily do much that Castle Garden hadn’t done before it, it nonetheless entered into—and very fully and enduringly came to embody—a new moment in our images and narratives of immigration. All the more reason to spend a week AmericanStudying it, I’d say!
Next IslandStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Ellis Island responses or contexts?
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