Millions of Immigrants came to the United States between 1870 and 1900. The majority of these immigrants came mostly from Northern European countries like England, Ireland and Germany. These groups are often referred to as Old Immigrants. New Immigrants consisted of groups from Southern and Eastern Europe. They spoke different languages and had different religions. The influx of these new groups of people eventually gave way to Anti-Immigrant sentiments and Nativist policies that led to the change of Immigration policies in the 1920s.
22 minutes of recordings.
The majority of Immigrants to the United States came through NY Harbor. At first through Castle Gardens and then Ellis Island once it was built in 1892. The Library of Congress has great resources on this and a wealth of primary source documents. The National Immigration Museum at Ellis Island and The Statue of Liberty are other great resources. The United States is a nation of immigrants. If you are not a Native American, you come from a family of immigrants. You see immigration increasing and decreasing throughout our country’s history for a number of reasons. You see a dislike of immigrants and growing anti-immigration sentiments throughout our country’s history. Aimed at different groups at different points in time for a variety of reasons. In the post-revolutionary war era you see some immigration, immigration was slowed during the War of 1812 and after tensions decreased between the US and Great Britain and France, you see immigration resume. You see a large influx of Asian immigrants once Gold is discovered in the Western US in the mid-1840s. Immigration from China and Japan was prohibited by the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Gentlemen’s Agreement with Japan. The largest waves of Immigration to the US occurred between 1820-1900. There were a variety of push and pull factors. The Industrial Revolution encouraged immigrants to come to the US. Europe’s lack of available land, land being passed down to only the eldest son, war, famine, religious persecution and the notion of the American dream will all act as catalysts for immigration from not just Northern European countries, but Southern Europe, Eastern Europe and Asia.
There were a number of different port of entries for immigrants coming to the US. Some cities that served as ports of entries for immigrants were Philadelphia, which has the country’s oldest quarantine station known as Lazaretto, named after St. Lazarus the patron saint of lepers. Major cities such as Boston, Baltimore, New Orleans and San Francisco all served as ports of entry. We will talk more Angel Island a little later in the podcast. The most famous and most popular was NY Harbor. When people think of immigrants arriving in New York, they think of Ellis Island, but the first Immigration processing center was at Castle Gardens NY. From 1820- 1890, millions of immigrants entered the United States through Castle Gardens. It was originally built as a fort to prevent a British land invasion of New York during the War of 1812, Castle Gardens has served a number of different purposes over the course of its history. Today, its where you can purchase tickets to see the Statue of Liberty but it was also once a theater and the site of the NYC aquarium before it was relocated to Coney Island, NY. It is now known as Castle Clinton National Monument. There are so many hidden gems that countless people must walk past every day never knowing or fully realizing that how perhaps 130 years ago, the place where they are standing or maybe busily walk past every day, at one time held such significance.
The NY Board of emigration commissioners established the emigrant landing depot in 1855 at Castle Gardens. This was utilized until the Federal Government took control of immigration up until then, individual states controlled immigration at their respective port of entries. The way the process used to work, was that a Health Inspector would come aboard the ship, and any passengers who were sick or appeared to be ill were taken to quarantine on Staten Island. The Quarantine hospitals on Staten Island were disliked by the residents who blamed it for the spread of disease, especially, yellow fever. Eventually, the Staten Island residents took matters into their own hands and burned down the buildings. Immigrants needing to quarantine were then kept on board a floating hospital known as the Florence Nightingale. The Staten Island Museum has a lot of information about this if you are interested in learning more. Two artificial islands in NY Harbor near Staten Island were built in 1870 and 1873 for the use of quarantining sick or potentially exposed immigrants. You talk to most New Yorkers, especially those Downstate in the five boroughs and when asked what Staten Island is known for, most will say how Staten Island had the dump – where the city brought its garbage for years and one time was the largest in the world. In NY, many former landfills or dumps have now been turned into parks. So there is a history of Staten Island being used as a dumping ground. Another interesting NY Garbage fact, many parts of New York city or islands were built from putting garbage into the water. Ellis Island, Battery Park, the FDR Dive, Riker’s Island. All that excavated dirt and rock from building the subways or major construction projects, bam, we used it to enlarge the city’s footprint.
In order to afford to come to the United States, many people sold all that they had to be able to afford tickets in steerage aboard immigrant ships. The journey was long and difficult. The ships were packed with people all looking for a chance at a better life. Tight quarters and people packed in like sardines provided perfect conditions for disease to spread easily. Especially diseases like yellow fever and cholera which if let lose in crowded city tenements would quickly lead to out breaks and epidemics. So the Swinburne and Hoffman Islands were built off of the coast of Staten Island. Swinburne had both a hospital and crematorium and Hoffman Island was where people were sent who were suspected of having been exposed to a disease and needed to be monitored before they could be safely processed and enter NYC. Today, those islands are used as bird sanctuaries. You can learn more about them by visiting the National Park service website.
The Federal Government took control over Immigration processing as a result of a number scandals and numerous instances of immigrants being taken advantage of. Agents from railroad companies often flooded docks with promises of opportunities in states out west abundant with land and job opportunities and often charged high rates for passage. Many Northwestern states in particular printed pamphlets out in a variety of languages and printed ads in European newspapers advertising the promises of a better life out west. States and cities lost control over immigration to the federal government. The Immigration Act of 1891 gave the federal government the right to admit, inspect and process all immigrants entering the United States. It required that all passengers provide biographical information to inspectors, mandated that all passengers be given a medical exam to ensure no one with a disease could enter the US. The act also allowed for the deportation of immigrants and vessels had to transport individuals back at their own cost under penalty of a fine. This portion of the law made it less likely that vessels would knowingly allow sick people on board, because they would then have to foot the bill for their hospital stay or to be sent back to their country of origin. Laws were also passed that banned companies from advertising jobs to potential migrants as a reason for coming to America.
The US Barge Office was located near Battery Park in Manhattan and was used to process immigrants coming into the US in NY from 1890 – 1892 and then again from 1897-1900 after a fire destroyed the original wooden buildings at Ellis Island.
The US Office of Immigration opened on Ellis Island on January 1, 1892. The first immigrant processed was a young 17-year-old girl from Ireland named Annie Moore who was traveling with her two younger brothers. There is a statue of her likeness on Ellis Island. If you ever go to Ellis Island, try to find it and take a picture with it!
It’s important to note that the experience of immigrants at Ellis Island were not all the same. People who were able to afford first and second class passage, were processed on board the ship and didn’t have to wait on the same lines as the 3rd class or steerage passengers. After weeks at sea and surviving the journey across the Atlantic Ocean, they were then sent to wait on lines to be processed. Immigrants were required to go through both a legal and medical inspection. For physical inspections, doctors and nurses worked quickly to scan each man, woman and child for signs of illness. Coughing, difficulty breathing, paleness (I mean many were below deck for weeks sea sick – I’m pale and green after 10 minutes on a boat) imagine what most looked like after that voyage! They took special precautions to make sure no one with cholera, tuberculosis or a disease of the eye known as Trachoma made it through. Immigrants had to fill out multiple questions which they were then questioned on upon their arrival. Questions ranged from height, weight, age, full name, place of birth, occupation, current health status, how much money they had on them, did they have any known relatives they were going to live with in America, did they have work lined up or did they need to look for work, their language spoken and religious beliefs. Inspectors made young children talk and walk and checked for cognitive impairments. The point of all of this was that they didn’t want to let anyone in that would potentially be a burden to the government. Health inspectors or doctors would use chalk marks to label those that required quarantine or a hospital stay. X was used for possible mental illness, PG for pregnant, SC if they had a scalp disease, P if it was something physical, just to name a few of the most common markings. Even healthy able bodied women who were unaccompanied by a man or who didn’t have someone already in the country were seen as someone who would be a burden to the state. How could they support themselves? We are still very much in a time where women couldn’t get many jobs. Some factories hired women and young girls but their wages were less than what a man would be paid. Today, in many industries, women are still paid less than men. If you were sick, depending on your illness, you were either sent back or you were told how long you would need to quarantine at their hospital or medical wards.
What most immigrants recall the most about their journey to the U.S., was the sight of the Statue of Liberty welcoming them to the United States. This enduring symbol of freedom, took 9 years to build and was given to the US by the people of France to commemorate their alliance during the American Revolution. Very few people know that the other important meaning behind the statue was to celebrate the end of slavery in the United States. There are broken shackles at the feet of lady liberty. If you have never noticed this part of the statue, be sure to google an image of the statue of liberty’s feet. The famous poem by activist and poet Emma Lazarus that is now at the base of the statue, was written in 1883 for a festival to raise money for the cost of the pedestal of the statue. It wasn’t added until 1903. The most famous line of the poem, that people often quote “Give me your tired your poor, your hungry.” Well we wanted your tired and poor and hungry because we needed cheap labor in our factories and we weren’t willing to admit any tired, poor or hungry who were likely to be burdens to the states and cities where they lived but we will get more into that later. The actual name of the statue is, Liberty Enlightening the World and it serves as an enduring symbol of freedom its nickname however, is how most people refer to it.
Ellis Island itself has a very interesting history. It was once privately owned by a merchant by the name of Samuel Ellis in the late 1700s and was purchased by the federal Government in 1808 as a way to better defend the port of NY. This is at a time where conflicts between the US, GB and France are starting to worsen, especially at sea. As the influx of immigrants increased in the late 1880s, the need for a space that could handle a larger number of people led the federal government to build a new processing facility on Ellis Island. The island’s size was increased by a number of acres over the years. The federal government built a number of buildings along with the immigration center such as a hospital and a detention center, and all of them were made of wood. In June of 1897, a fire ravaged the immigration center destroying not only all of the buildings but all of the immigration records as well. The Federal Government quickly set out to rebuild the center at Ellis Island, but this time, the buildings would be fireproof. They also increased the size of Ellis Island. Islands 2 and 3 were built to house additional facilities. A large hospital, contagious disease wards and understand this was a teaching hospital. It was also a place where doctors wanted to work. If you think about it, they had the opportunity to learn first-hand about practically every disease on the planet and learn how to treat those diseases. Treatment was not free in the hospitals. You had to find someone who was willing to pay for your treatment or you were deported. There were even instances of the steamship companies being given hospital bills for patients. This also served as a lesson to those companies not to allow passage to individuals that were carrying diseases. The autopsy room on Ellis Island had observation seating, there was a morgue, there was a ward for those with mental illness, there was a playground for the children, a laundry building, think of what needed to be washed and sanitized daily, you’re talking probably thousands of sheets and linens. Overall, about 30 buildings on this area of Ellis Island were built. Today, the majority of those buildings on islands 2 and 3 have been abandoned and are available for limited hard hat tours. I encourage you to go to saveellisisland.org to learn more, to donate or to plan a visit. Visiting the restored areas of Ellis Island are really something special. Having the opportunity to take a tour of islands 2 and 3 is really a once in a lifetime experience. I would love to tour them again. There is just something about walking around the hallways and seeing this once booming place that’s been forgotten by time and imagining all of the people who were kept there. For some people Ellis Island was a beacon of hope, for others, it was a prison. They could see NY, but they weren’t permitted to step foot out into society. In the 1920s when immigration to the US was limited by the Quota system, Ellis Island became more of a detention center and during WWII it was used by the military. In fact, all of Ellis Island after it closed in the 1950s, was left to rot and it wasn’t until the 1970s that the work to restore and preserve Ellis Island began. The museum as it is now, opened in 1990.