Ellis Island is little more than a spit of sand in the Hudson River, located just south of Manhattan. The Mohegan Indians who lived on the nearby shores call the island Kioshk, or Gull Island. In the 1630s, a Dutch man, Michael Paauw, acquires the island and renames it Oyster Island for the plentiful amounts of shellfish on its beaches. During the 1700s, it is known as Gibbet Island, for its gibbet, or gallows tree, used to hang men convicted of piracy.
Around the time of the Revolutionary War, the New York merchant Samuel Ellis purchases the island, and builds a tavern on it that caters to local fisherman.
Ellis dies in 1794, and in 1808 New York State buys the island from his family for $10,000. The U.S. War Department pays the state for the right to use Ellis Island to build military fortifications and store ammunition, beginning during the War of 1812. Half a decade later, Ellis Island is used as a munitions arsenal for the Union army during the Civil War.
Meanwhile, the first federal immigration law, the Naturalization Act, is passed in 1790; it allows all white males living in the U.S. for two years to become citizens. There is little regulation of immigration when the first great wave begins in 1814.
Nearly 5 million people will arrive from northern and western Europe over the next 45 years. Castle Garden, one of the first state-run immigration depots, opens at the Battery in lower Manhattan in 1855. The Potato Famine that strikes Ireland (1845-52) leads to the immigration of over 1 million Irish alone in the next decade.
Concurrently, large numbers of Germans flee political and economic unrest. Rapid settlement of the West begins with the passing of the Homestead Act in 1862. Attracted by the opportunity to own land, more Europeans begin to immigrate.
After the Civil War, Ellis Island stands vacant, until the government decides to replace the New York immigration station at Castle Garden, which closes in 1890. Control of immigration is turned over to the federal government, and $75,000 is appropriated for construction of the first federal immigration station on Ellis Island.
Artesian wells are dug and the island’s size is doubled to over six acres, with landfill created from incoming ships’ ballast and the excavation of subway tunnels in New York.
Beginning in 1875, the United States forbids prostitutes and criminals from entering the country. The Chinese Exclusion Act is passed in 1882. Also restricted are “lunatics” and “idiots.”
The first Ellis Island Immigration Station officially opens on January 1, 1892, as three large ships wait to land. Seven hundred immigrants passed through Ellis Island that day, and nearly 450,000 followed over the course of that first year.
Over the next five decades, more than 12 million people will pass through the island on their way into the United States.
On June 15, 1897, with 200 immigrants on the island, a fire breaks out in one of the towers in the main building and the roof collapses. Though no one is killed, all Ellis Island records dating back to 1840 and the Castle Garden era are destroyed. The immigration station is relocated to the barge office in Manhattan’s Battery Park.
The new fireproof facility is officially opened in December, and 2,251 people pass through on opening day. To prevent a similar situation from occurring again, President Theodore Roosevelt appoints a new commissioner of immigration, William Williams, who cleans house on Ellis Island in 1902.
To eliminate corruption and abuse, Williams awards contracts based on merit and announces contracts will be revoked if any dishonesty is suspected. He imposes penalties for any violation of this rule and posts “Kindness and Consideration” signs as reminders to workers.
To create additional space at Ellis Island, two new islands are created using landfill. Island Two houses the hospital administration and contagious diseases ward, while Island Three holds the psychiatric ward.
By 1906, Ellis Island has grown to more than 27 acres, from an original size of only three acres.
Anarchists are denied admittance into the United States as of 1903. On April 17, 1907, an all-time daily high of 11,747 immigrants received is reached; that year, Ellis Island experiences its highest number of immigrants received in a single year, with 1,004,756 arrivals.
A federal law is passed excluding persons with physical and mental disabilities, as well as children arriving without adults.
World War I begins in 1914, and Ellis Island experiences a sharp decline in receiving immigrants: From 178,416 in 1915, the total drops to 28,867 in 1918.
Anti-immigrant sentiment increases after the U.S. enters the war in 1917; approximately 1,800 German citizens are seized on ships in East Coast ports and interned at Ellis Island before being deported.
Starting in 1917, Ellis Island operates as a hospital for the U.S. Army, a way station for Navy personnel and a detention center for enemy aliens. By 1918, the Army takes over most of Ellis Island and creates a makeshift way station to treat sick and wounded American servicemen.
The literacy test is introduced at this time, and stays on the books until 1952. Those over the age of 16 who cannot read 30 to 40 test words in their native language are no longer admitted through Ellis Island. Nearly all Asian immigrants are banned.
At war’s end, a “Red Scare” grips America, in reaction to the Russian Revolution. Ellis Island is used to intern immigrant radicals accused of subversive activity; many of them are deported.
President Warren G. Harding signs the Emergency Quota Act into law in 1921. According to the new law, annual immigration from any country cannot exceed 3 percent of the total number of U.S. immigrants from that same country, as recorded in the U.S. Census of 1910.
The Immigration Act of 1924 goes even further, limiting total annual immigration to 165,000 and fixing quotas of immigrants from specific countries.
The buildings on Ellis Island begin to fall into neglect and abandonment. America is experiencing the end of mass immigration. By 1932, the Great Depression has taken hold in the U.S., and for the first time more immigrants leave the country than arrive.
By 1949, the U.S. Coast Guard has taken over most of Ellis Island, using it for office and storage space. The passage of the Internal Security Act of 1950 excludes arriving immigrants with previous links to communist and fascist organizations. With this, Ellis Island experiences a brief resurgence in activity. Renovations and repairs are made in an effort to accommodate detainees, who sometimes number 1,500 at a time.
The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1952 (also known as the McCarran–Walter Act), combined with a liberalized detention policy, causes the number of detainees on the island to plummet to fewer than 30 people.
All 33 structures on Ellis Island are officially closed in November 1954.
In March 1955, the federal government declares the island surplus property; it is subsequently placed under the jurisdiction of the General Services Administration.
In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson issues Proclamation 3656, according to which Ellis Island falls under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service as part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument.
Ellis Island opens to the public in 1976, featuring hour-long guided tours of the Main Arrivals Building. During this year, more than 50,000 people visit the island.
Also in 1965, President Johnson signs a the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, also known as the Hart-Celler Act, which abolishes the earlier quota system based on national origin and establishes the foundations for modern U.S. immigration law.
The act allows more individuals from third-world countries to enter the U.S. (including Asians, who have in the past been barred from entry) and establishes a separate quota for refugees.
In 1982, at the request of President Ronald Reagan, Lee Iacocca of the Chrysler Corporation heads the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation to raise funds from private investors for the restoration and preservation of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.
By 1984, when the restoration begins, the annual number of visitors to Ellis Island has reached 70,000. The $156 million dollar restoration of Ellis Island’s Main Arrivals Building is completed and re-opened to the public in 1990, two years ahead of schedule.
The Main Building houses the new Ellis Island Immigration Museum, in which many of the rooms have been restored to the way they appeared during the island’s peak years. Since 1990, some 30 million visitors have visited Ellis Island to trace the steps of their ancestors.
Meanwhile, immigration into the United States continues, mostly by land routes through Canada and Mexico. Illegal immigration becomes a constant source of political debate throughout the 1980s and 1990s. More than 3 million aliens receive amnesty through the Immigration Reform Act in 1986, but an economic recession in the early 1990s is accompanied by a resurgence of anti-immigrant feeling.
In 1998, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that New Jersey has authority over the south side of Ellis Island, or the section composed of the landfill added after 1834. New York retains authority over the island’s original 3.5 acres, which includes the bulk of the Main Arrivals Building.
The policies put into effect by the Immigration Act of 1965 have greatly changed the face of the American population by the end of the 20th century. Whereas in the 1950s, more than half of all immigrants were Europeans and just 6 percent were Asians, by the 1990s only 16 percent are Europeans and 31 percent are Asians, and the percentages of Latino and African immigrants also jump significantly.
Between 1965 and 2000, the highest number of immigrants (4.3 million) to the U.S. comes from Mexico; 1.4 million are from the Philippines. Korea, the Dominican Republic, India, Cuba and Vietnam are also leading sources of immigrants, each sending between 700,000 and 800,000 over this period.
The American Family Immigration History Center (AFIHC) opens on Ellis Island in 2001. The center allows visitors to search through millions of immigrant arrival records for information on individual people who passed through Ellis Island on their way into the United States.
The records include the original manifests, given to passengers onboard ships and showing names and other information, as well as information about the history and background of the ships that arrived in New York Harbor bearing hopeful immigrants to the New World.
Debates continue over how America should confront the effects of soaring immigration rates throughout the 1990s. In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Homeland Security Act of 2002 creates the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which takes over many immigration service and enforcement functions formerly performed by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).
In 2008, plans are announced for an expansion of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum called “The Peopling of America,” which opened to the public on May 20, 2015. The museum’s exploration of the Ellis Island era (1892-1954) was expanded to include the entire American immigration experience up to the present day.
Create a Class Quilt
- 8-inch squares of white or light-colored construction paper
- markers or collage materials (such as photographs or recipes)
- Hole puncher
- Optional: Sheets of cardboard for reinforcing squares
- Large map of the world
- Yarn in multiple colors
- Push pins
- Optional: Double-sided tape or another way to temporarily attach photos to the map display
Hall of Fame and Music From Around the World
- Reference materials from the library or online sources
- Depending on the grade level and maturity level of each class, activities can be facilitated as independent work, collaborative group work, or whole-class instruction.
- If a computer is available for each student, guide students to the activities either through printed URLs on handouts or on the board.
- If you are working in a lab, set up the computers to be on the desired websites as students walk into class. If there are fewer computers than students, group the students by reading level. Assign each student a role: a "driver" who navigates the web, a timer who keeps the group on task, and a note taker. If there are more than three students per computer, you can add roles like a team leader, a team reporter, etc.
- If you are working in a learning station in your classroom, break your class into different groups. Have rotating groups work on the computer(s), read printed background information, hold smaller group discussions, write first drafts of their scrapbook, etc.
- Optional: You may also want to create a special display for your classroom library in honor of Immigration. Check out the Immigration Book List for suggested print materials. Be sure to keep a shelf available for students' oral history scrapbooks!
Activity 1: Ellis Island Interactive Tour (1–2 days)
Step 1: Explain to students that everyone living in the United States has an immigrant past, with the exception of Native Americans. Over the last few centuries, millions of people have made their way to America. Some people, like slaves, came unwillingly. But most immigrants were drawn by the promise of greater freedom and opportunity.
Step 2: Write the word "immigration" on the board or a piece of chart paper, as well as its definition. Give students various examples of immigration. Use personal stories if possible. Invite students to share their own examples, ideas, or questions about immigration. Allow students to share information about their own families' countries of origin and write all responses on the board.
Step 3: Discuss events in U.S. history and world history that are related to immigration. List these on the board.
Step 4: Write "Ellis Island," on the board and explain how it is an important part of the history of American immigration.
Step 5: Find Ellis Island on a map of the New York City area and display the map in the classroom. Hand out the KWL Chart printable and have students fill it out with information they know about Ellis Island and things they want to know about it.
Step 6: Invite students to take the interactive tour of Ellis Island. When they are done with the activity, have them fill out the KWL Chart with information they learned about Ellis Island.
Step 7: Ask students to write down at least two new questions they have about Ellis Island. During classroom discussion, have your students create a list of things that they want to find out. As a class, brainstorm ways students might answer their own questions.
Activity 2: Relive a Boy's Journey (1–2 days)
Step 1: Tell your students that they are going to learn about a young immigrant who came through Ellis Island. Introduce the story of Seymour Rechtzeit and distribute the article "Relive a Boy's Journey to America." Provide time for your students to read Seymour's story on their own or in pairs. You may wish to print out a copy of the story for individual reading.
Step 2: Ask students to recall the reasons Seymour came to the United States. Have students continue with their KWL Chart to gather more information on Ellis Island and the immigrant experience.
Activity 3: Angel Island: Meet Li Keng Wong (1–2 days)
Step 1: As a comparison to Ellis Island, introduce the Angel Island experience of Chinese immigrant, Li Keng Wong.
Step 2: Have students read Li Keng Wong's story, individually or in small groups, and continue to fill out their KWL Chart printable. You may wish to print out a copy of the story for individual reading. Encourage students to think about the questions at the end of each chapter of Li Keng Wong's story.
Step 3: When you come back as a class, see if any of the questions have been answered and if more have been added. Have a compare and contrast session between Angel Island and Ellis Island.
Activity 4: Meet Young Immigrants (1 day)
Step 1: Ask your students to find out the year Ellis Island closed. (Answer: 1954). Point out that although that immigration station is closed, hundreds of thousands of immigrants continue coming into the country each year.
Step 2: Ask students to read the stories of the recent immigrants. As a class, discuss the differences between their stories and the stories of Seymour Rechtzeit and Li Keng Wong. Have them note any important comparisons on their KWL charts.
Activity 5: Explore Immigration Data (2 days)
Step 1: Look over the various charts, graphs, and tables in this section of the activity with your students. Ask volunteers to describe the kind of information each one is showing. Ask them about ways they could use the data.
Step 2: Ask your students to compare a table with a chart or graph that shows the same information. How are they similar and different? Have students state the advantages and disadvantages to using each one.
Step 3: Divide the class into small groups and assign each group one of the questions or projects (listed beneath the tables, charts, and graphs). Have them work independently to answer the question or complete the project. Discuss their findings as a class.
Step 4: Have each small group reform, and then ask each group to compose three questions to challenge another group. Have the groups swap questions and write down their answers. Discuss their findings as a class.
Activity 6: Oral Histories (4–5 days)
Note: You may need additional time to set up interviews.
Ahead of Time: In the first week of immigration studies, tell students that they will be recording and writing the oral history of someone who immigrated to the United States. Encourage them to start thinking about a subject for their oral history. As needed, help students find individuals to interview. Schedule a field trip to a nursing home, literacy center, or other location where students can meet immigrants and conduct their interview, or assign the actual interviewing as out-of-class homework.
Step 1: Listen to the oral histories within the Ellis Island interactive tour. (Click the "audio" tabs within the stops of the tour to access the oral histories). Then have your students watch the videos in the Meet the Young Immigrants section. Ask students to think about what makes a good oral history. Write their responses on the board. This will provide students with a list of things to think about when working on their project.
Oral History Project
- Prewriting. Students should begin working on their interview questions before their interview. Have them look at their filled out KWL Graphic Organizer to help them come up with questions. Have students submit their questions for approval.
- Drafting. Discuss effective ways for students to write their immigrant oral histories. For example, they might use the first-person voice, letting the immigrants tell their own tales. Have them read the stories in the Meet the Young Immigrants section.
- Revising and Editing. Have students share a draft of their oral history with a classmate for feedback. What questions did the reader raise? What information is missing that needs to be included? How could the story be stronger?
Step 2: After all the steps are completed, have the students submit their stories to you. After giving them feedback, allow them time to make final edits.
Step 3: Have students type up their stories and post them on your class homepage or publish them in a printed booklet. Encourage students to read one another's submissions.
Optional: Students can also present their learning to their peers with a PowerPoint presentation, a poster board, or an oral report for the class.
Create a Class Quilt
Celebrate your students' cultural backgrounds with a class quilt. Distribute 8-inch squares of white or light-colored construction paper. Using markers or collage materials, have students create an image on their square that represents their family culture. Encourage students to use diverse materials, such as photographs or recipes. Reinforce the squares with cardboard if necessary. When all the squares are ready, use a hole puncher to make holes around the edges. Lace the quilt panels together with yarn. Display the finished quilt and invite students to explain their panel to the class.
Use this activity to visually identify connections students have to other countries in the world. Display a large map of the world. Have students draw self-portraits or bring in photos of themselves. Place the pictures around the border of the map. Have each student stretch a piece of yarn from his or her picture to a country or region where his or her ancestors lived, and secure it with push pins. You may want to color code the yarn by country, continent, or world region. Take time to discuss the finished map.
Hall of Fame
Invite the class to create a Hall of Fame of immigrants who have made important contributions. Guide students to search for biographies of the individuals using reference materials from the library or from online sources. For their Hall of Fame submission, each student should provide a photograph or other likeness of the person, as well as her birthplace, the date she came to America, and why she came. Another paragraph should explain her accomplishments.
Music From Around the World
Work with students to investigate examples of music and literature from other lands that have influenced American writing and music.
More Discussion Questions:
- What is the definition of immigration? What are some reasons people immigrate?
- Why is America a popular destination for immigrants?
- How has America changed as a result of immigration?
- What are the differences between immigrate, emigrate and migrate?
- What are some of the obstacles that an immigrant faces?
- Who were some famous immigrants that made important contributions to America?
- What were some different experiences for immigrants who came through Ellis Island versus Angel Island?
- What are some of the differences that immigrants faced in the past compared with immigrants today?
Use the Oral History Scrapbook Project Writing Rubric as a way to assess your students' writing skills. This rubric can also serve as a model for a modified version that might include your state's writing standards.