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Thursday, January 5, 2017

January 5, 2017: Ellis Island Studying: Quarantine

[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!]
On how Ellis continued yet changed the long history of New York harbor quarantine stations.
One of the most famous pop culture depictions of Ellis Island (although that’s certainly a long and evolving list, and while the film isn’t great overall, I would say that this sequence from Hitch is worth noting too) would have to be in The Godfather, Part 2. As part of that film’s extended flashback sections, young Vito Corleone arrives at Ellis on a steamer from Sicily, only to find himself marked as suffering from a communicable disease and moved to a room in the island’s quarantine section. However we read the moment symbolically—and much of Vito’s Italian American story, as told in those flashback sequrences, is one of continual obstacles that help make him into the Godfather he would become, so this delay in arrival might well be analyzed as an early and formative example of that trend—it’s certainly accurate historically: one of the greatest fears embodied in the processes and procedures at Ellis Island was of European and global diseases and epidemics coming to the U.S., and the station made responding to such threats a central part of its mission throughout its history.
To say that serving such a role was nothing new for a New York harbor island would be to seriously understate the case, however. As this excellent website documents at length, harbor islands had served as quarantine stations (or “plague houses”) since at least the 1750s, when Bedloe’s Island (the future site of the Statue of Liberty, after which it was renamed Liberty Island) became a quarantine spot (that last hyperlink dates its first use as a quarantine facility even earlier, in the 1730s). When Castle Garden immigration station opened in Lower Manhattan in the 1850s, it used two nearby harbor islands, Blackwell’s Island and Ward’s Island, as its quarantine spots. As those two hyperlinked histories illustrate, each such quarantine island had its own unique and multi-layered story and identity, one often connected to other “undesirable” New York City communities such as convicted criminals and those deemed insane. Yet in the 1870s, the city went another way, creating two new artificial harbor islands, Swinburne Island and Hoffman Island, that would be dedicated solely to use as quarantine spots and would remain in that role once Ellis Island immigration station opened in 1892.
While Ellis did use those artificial islands for some of its quarantined arrivals, however, the immigration station also had quarantine quarters on site (it’s in one such room that young Vito Corleone waits out his own quarantine). That shift reflected the station’s more comprehensive embodiment of national immigration policies and narratives than any prior facility, as well as its gradual move toward more and more exclusionary roles (both trends about which I’ve written earlier in the week). Yet making the quarantine process a more explicit and interconnected part of the immigration station’s work has also had an unexpected result for historians: our ability to better trace those immigrants who did not survive their time in quarantine. This website, for example, matches relevant New York City death certificates from 1909 to 1911 with ship manifests and passenger details, identifying immigrant arrivals who seem to have passed away while in quarantine. That information not only tells us a great deal about individual immigrants and immigrant communities, as much of Ellis’ archives and records do, but also helps us better understand the histories and realities of the complex, dark, and vital quarantine process overall.
Last IslandStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Ellis Island responses or contexts?

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