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What is Angel Island?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Angel Island State Park is a natural island located in California's San Francisco Bay. It covers 1.2 square miles (3.1 kilometers). The island is in the northern part of the bay, and is almost entirely in Marin county. Angel Island has had a varied and colorful history, and is accessible by ferries from Vallejo, Tiburon, and San Francisco, as well as by private boat. During the summer, many tours of the island are available, and visitors can also wander most of the island at will, although access is restricted after dark, as it is in most California State Parks.

The human history of Angel Island started with settlement by the Miwok Indians, who were displaced by Spanish explorers. The Spanish used Angel Island as a base of operations for exploring the bay and surrounding regions, and when California became a state, the Americans did likewise. In 1863, the United States army established Camp Reynolds on the Western side of Angel Island, beginning a long settlement by the United States military.

In 1891, part of Angel Island was designated for use as a quarantine station, to prevent infectious diseases from entering California. The first ship to be quarantined at Angel Island was a steamship, China, which had smallpox on board. Quarantined ships could dock in the harbor until they were cleaned and determined to be safe, and quarantined individuals were sheltered on land. In 1898, with the Spanish American War, another section of the island was set aside as a detention center for prisoners of war and other questionable individuals, and it continued to be used for this purpose until after the Second World War.

In 1910, the more sordid part of Angel Island's history began. From 1910 until 1940, part of Angel Island was used as an immigration processing center, almost exclusively with the intent of keeping Chinese immigrants out. Although Angel Island was called the “Ellis Island of the West,” there was a heavy focus on preventing Asian immigration to California, rather than merely processing newcomers to the United States. Chinese in California were already limited by the Asian Exclusion Act and other measures designed to make it impossible for them to own property or businesses. These laws were not struck down in entirety until the 1940s.

Angel Island has been continuously occupied by the United States military since Camp Reynolds was established. Another army installation, Fort McDowell, was built on the eastern part of the island. When the military took over entirely during the Second World War, all of Angel Island was known as Fort McDowell, and it was a major staging center, along with Bay Area bases such as Treasure Island, Alameda, Mare Island, Hamilton Shipyard, and others. Most of the island has been given over to the Parks Department, but the United States Coast Guard continues to maintain a small presence on the island.

America Explained is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a America Explained researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By FrameMaker — On Oct 29, 2010

I always thought it was funny, maybe a little disturbing, that a people who took a land from Native Americans were so intent in keeping other immigrants out. To me this is the same story with the current immigration issue with Mexico. People seem to be under the impression that the only illegal immigrants coming into this country are from Mexico, when in fact there are illegal immigrants of all nationalities. While our borders are not that well protected, this was never a hot button issue until the economy took a dive and people needed someone to blame.

I am no expert in economics, but in my opinion, we need people to work for cheap, while training our native and naturalized citizens to be competitive. Rather than kick everyone out of the country and watch the prices of all of our goods skyrocket, we should look to offer temporary work visas and tax people who are non-felon illegal immigrants. This would be the most humane and economically sustainable method rather than separating families, detaining and processing immigrants, and locking down a border without any financial benefit. History really does repeat itself. All the Asians shipped from San Francisco to Angel Island via ferry are reminiscent of the crackdown on Hispanic immigrants.

By Glasshouse — On Oct 29, 2010

@ GlassAxe- Angel Island Immigrants were not treated nearly as nicely as Western European immigrants were. The ships bringing immigrants across the pacific actually stopped in Angel Island first where the first class and coach passengers of European descent were cleared to debark into America on ship. They were allowed to leisurely stroll of the ships, and begin their new life in the country. Immigrants from the Poor eastern European countries (Mainly Russian), Asia, and Asia Minor, were packed into ferries with the sick and diseased and shipped to Angel Island where they were basically imprisoned with little hope of obtaining the American Dream. Their Journey was a very sad Journey, and is a perfect example of this nation’s history of engineering its "diverse" population. This country is a melting pot, but only to a certain extent.

By GlassAxe — On Oct 29, 2010

Why was Angel Island Immigration so different from the immigration process at Ellis Island? Did all Asians arrive through Angel Island, and were they all treated poorly?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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