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What is Ellis Island?

Mary McMahon
Updated: May 17, 2024

Ellis Island is an island in the upper area of the New York Bay, near the mouth of the Hudson River. The historical uses of this island have been varied, but it is most remembered for the time it served as an immigration processing center, from 1892-1954. It is estimated that over 12 million immigrants went through Ellis Island on their way to the United States, and 40% of Americans can trace ancestors to this island.

Before it was an immigration station, Ellis Island was known as Gull Island to the Native American people who lived in the area. The Dutch used the island to harvest oysters, and sold it to Samuel Ellis in 1785. Ellis gave the island his name and opened a tavern there, and when the island was bought by the State of New York, the name remained the same. In 1808, the state sold the island to the federal government, which initially established a military fort and munitions storage there.

In 1890, faced with the growing difficulty of processing immigrants at Castle Garden in Manhattan, the government decided to turn Ellis Island into an immigration station. The size of the island was greatly increased with the use of landfill material, and a central hall was built along with dormitories, medical treatment facilities, and other administrative buildings. All new entries to the United States had to go through the island for inspection before being allowed into the country.

Approximately 2% of immigrants were turned back to their countries of origin. This decision was usually made because of outstanding medical or legal problems which seemed likely to become an issue. Others were entered into the registry books and sent on to the mainland. A computerized record of the Ellis Island books is available for genealogy research. In 1917, a literacy test was required for new immigrants, and in the 1920s, quotas began to be instituted, and the bulk of immigration processing was turned over to American consulates in the country of origin. In 1954, the island ceased to be an immigration processing center.

In 1965, Ellis Island was classified as a National Monument, and passed into the care of the National Parks Service. By the 1970s, the island was in poor shape, and the Parks Service worked to restore the grounds and buildings, opening the Ellis Island Immigration Museum in 1990. Modern visitors to the island travel by ferry, and are able to explore the buildings and see historical materials of interest.

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 TrogJoe19 — On Jan 30, 2011

The Ellis Island ferry is a popular way to visit both the Island and the Statue of Liberty. Thousands of people flock to this part of New York City each day to experience an important part of America and her history.

By Armas1313 — On Jan 28, 2011

Many Italians were also scrutinized and confined to cities because of anti-Catholic and racist sentiment in the country. Most of the nation only heard about Italian-Americans via channels such as news of Italian terrorists and media about the mafia.

By dbuckley212 — On Jan 27, 2011


This is interesting, because for much of this time period there was a lot of paranoia concerning immigrants and the "threat" of their invasion. While the English felt they had a right to move here and kick the natives out, they were worried that they, the "natives" were being usurped by other immigrants. Irish and Chinese were specifically targeted during the building of the transcontinental railroad, and unfortunately, only the Irish were able to stand up to the intense racial discrimination.

By Renegade — On Jan 26, 2011

Certain people changed their surnames to sound more English when they came to Ellis Island. Among these were a number of Russians and Italians. The Irish had adopted the practice a long time ago under English domination, and had even nearly lost their mother tongue. Today, there are many who have surnames which appear English, but the people who bear them may not have a drop of English blood.

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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