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The Landing of the Emigrants on Ellis Island (1897)

Immigrants Landing at Ellis Island in 1902

Immigrants Landing at Ellis Island in 1902

The Main Building on Ellis Island, New York Harbor. the Scene of the Landing and the Inspection of the Emigrants.

The United States maintains forty-two immigrant stations, the number of inspectors stationed at each being determined by the size and importance of the port. There are five immigration commissioners, having their headquarters respectively at New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and San Francisco.

The finest station of this kind in the possession of the government is the national successor to Castle Garden, which is located on Ellis Island, New York harbor. The spot was chosen on account of its seclusion, and since no one is permitted to visit the island except by special permit of the authorities, immigrants are effectually shielded from the land-sharks who used to take advantage of their ignorance and simplicity.

To thoroughly appreciate the experiences and sentiments of an immigrant it would be necessary to take passage with him in the steerage.

A joyous excitement is said to seize the steerage passengers at the first sight of the Statue of Liberty which seems to be the fulfilment of their fondest dreams. Tears are shed and hats are removed in reverence as the ship passes Bedloe's Island. His eagerness is enhanced by the fact that the difficulties of gaining a right to enter the land of freedom have already confronted him.

At the quarantine station the vessel was boarded by the medical inspectors, accompanied by another government officer in uniform, the contract labor inspector, to whose scrutiny the immigrant lists are submitted by the ship's purser. The official has in his notebook the names of certain individuals and corporations whom the trades unions suspect of importing alien labor, also the names of criminals whom the police are expecting to arrive.

Having compared the contents of his information book with the immigrant lists, he notes all suspicious cases, such as a number of workmen of the same trade going to the same town,---a town where probably a strike is expected. He then proceeds to the deck, and walks up and down addressing questions to the steerage passengers touching their destination in the new world, their hopes of obtaining work. and other queries, observing carefully the answers he receives and scrutinizing the manner and appearance of those making them.

If the immigrant has a secret to conceal it is dangerously near disclosure in the presence of this trained detective whose questions are so innocent and suggestive. Without many words be selects those who will have to be taken into his custody, and there are cases on record when with no other clue than his perceptive faculties he has laid his detaining hand upon the offending parties: for example, a number of glass blowers were singled out of the crowd despite their determined reticence con-evening their true occupation and destination.

Each man had a callosity in the palms of his hand, a callosity and protuberance under the eyes caused by the intense heat, and a mark on the lip from the constant use of the blow pipe.

Arriving at the New York dock, where the first and second class passengers are landed, an officer of the immigration bureau segregates all American citizens by birth or naturalization from the immigrants among the steerage passengers. and allows them to go on their way.

The barge sent from Ellis Island Is in waiting, its deck divided by means of a single rope crossing backwards and forwards, into pens lettered A, B, C, etc., and into each of these pens the thirty individuals holding tickets bearing the initial letter are marshalled.

Accommodations in the shape of boats are scanty, and the immigrants are very crowded during the water trip to the island. Those who are sensitive begin to grow nervous regarding their eligibility as the steamer approaches the immigrant wharf, but all possible confusion is instantly allayed by the perfect order and discipline maintained at this splendidly equipped station.

It is impossible for the stranger to make a mistake, so explicit, intelligible and simple are the instructions delivered in distinct tones. The main entrance hall Is ablaze with electric lights, and the sifting Process is conducted in as considerate manner as practicable.

A matron is provided to question the women upon all delicate subjects required to be answered; and then both sexes file one by one through a narrow corridor, for inspection by a marine hospital surgeon, all hats being removed so as to disclose any possible disease of the skin.

From this physical examination an open space is crossed to where eight or ten narrow gangways lead to the desks of the registration clerks, who with the ship's manifests spread before them, sit prepared to ask the same questions which have already been answered on the other side of the ocean, comparing each response with the written testimony and noting all discrepancies.

As the number to be examined by each clerk is limited to thirty, this final sifting work is expeditiously accomplished, only forty minutes being consumed in the process. The clerks are experts at their business, and while no time is lost, the law is administered most accurately; they are also able to speak several languages, and interpreters are at hand to avoid a chance dilemma.

The contract labor inspector is present and throws in an occasional leading query. For example, if, in answer to the question, why this he choose a certain town for his future residence, the Immigrant says he expects to get work there, the next words are. "What kind of work':"

If he incautiously answers in a factory, the Immediate rejoinder will be, how did he know that more hands were needed at the factory. Had he received communications to that careen

If a man appears honest and straightforward in his statements, the officials are happy to make the way easy for him. Hesitation from nervousness or timidity is understood and borne patiently, but a desire to evade is instantly detected and brings down the full rigor of the law. The surly, evasive culprit is removed to one of the detention compartments to re-fleet while his companions are being examined.

Once having passed his ordeal, the newly admitted immigrant finds a welcome ready as he emerges from the gangway It to a large wide hall. A stentorian voice is calling the names of persons whose friends on this side of the water have sent telegrams, or money, or are there in person to meet them.

Representatives of the various church denominations are there to greet those who have no friends in the strange land and give them an introduction to some congregation.

Representatives of the New York Bible Society present a Bible to each new-comer for whatever sum of money he Is willing to pay, or as a free gift to the very poor. Advice is abundant. Placards in a dozen different languages greet the eye along the walls and give various pieces of information.

There are counters where foreign coins are converted into American currency at the most reasonable rates, and the railway companies of the United States have combined in keeping a grand union ticket office which presents every facility for travel. In the basement of the building is one of the largest baggage rooms in the world.

The unsuccessful applicants for admission remain in the detention compartments, which are in fact a succession of comfortable waiting rooms; and in due course of time the wheels of this giant machinery turn in their direction, and they are led to the apartment where four Inspectors conduct their investigations into special cases.

The room is arranged in the style of a court of justice, but the judges are much less formal in examining the suspects brought before them for judgment. Interpreters are near for reference, and the immigrant receives indirect assistance from the agents of the steamship companies which are present from motives of self-interest.

Several nationalities have organized in behalf of their countrymen, and send delegates to watch over their interests at the immigrant stations. The Italian government has even gone so far as to send an official to see that no Italian Is debarred unjustly.

The detention house used at night is clean and comfortable, and managed in the same methodical manner as all the buildings on the island. The hospital, to which immigrants who fall sick within a year after their arrival may be sent, is large enough to contain seventy-five beds.

Other structures in connection with the plant are the dwelling of the resident physician, the power house for lighting the buildings, a laundry, and a fine restaurant. The entire force is organized into a fire department; and during the busy season this force numbers near four hundred people.

Of these only one hundred and fifty are government employees, the rest being charitable persons, waiters at the restaurant, and men engaged in railroad and baggage work.

Dr. D. J. H. Senner, the well-known Milwaukee journalist, is the immigration commissioner in charge of Ellis Island, and has gained a reputation for his ready sympathy with every case brought before him as well as for his patience, kindliness and condescending courtesy to all even the most unprepossessing of foreign birth.

Supervision of the immigrant does not cease upon his admission to the privileges of an American citizen. If., within a year after his arrival be becomes a public charge, his .ease is investigated, and if his physical inability to earn a livelihood is the result of causes existing prior to his landing, he may be returned to his native land at the expense of the steam-slip company which brought him over; but if the immigrant becomes Insane, is a victim of an accident, or Is overtaken by disease, he Is sent to the government hospital at one of the immigrant stations, where he will receive medical treatment free of expense.

No part of the immigration fund is better employed than in this just and humane succor of sick and helpless strangers, who, without home or friends, are often unable to speak or comprehend the English language.

If, within a year, from causes subsequent to landing, it is conclusively demonstrated that the patient is incurable, either mentally or physically, and that he is liable to become a permanent burden upon the community in which he resides, it is provided by statute that he shall be deported at the expense of the immigration fund.

The United States of America is preeminently characterized by generous benevolence. The guiding stars of navigation which Sash along her coast are a free gift to all nations, even to Great Britain, which continues to extort a tax for light dues; the life saving service is directed to assist all who suffer shipwreck, irrespective of nationality; but the United States reserves the right of deciding what class of foreigners shall permanently enjoy the benefits of her free institutions.

The subject of immigration, always interesting, has become to-day a question of vital importance. It is also one which has passed through great differences of opinion. In the infant days of the Republic, when a population was needed for her wide westward stretching plains, every inducement was held out to the inhabitants of the old world to migrate to this new, rich, undeveloped country, and the beneficent promise of liberty and equality with a chance of wealth met with eager response.

Her states have been filled with those of foreign birth, her towns began to be densely populated, till, In recent years, Congress bethought itself that the old adage, "too much of a good thing," was applicable to existing conditions. The first movement checking -immigration was the natural outgrowth of civilization and in the interests of humanity and morality.

The anti-slavery sentiment led to the enactment of laws stopping involuntary immigration; and this was followed in 1875 by prohibiting the lauding of criminals and the importation of women for immoral purposes.

The next grievance brought to the attention of Congress was the claim of American working-men that they were being driven out of employment by cheap alien labor. It was not until 1882, however, that any positively restrictive measures were adopted, when a bill passed imposing upon vessels arriving at our ports a duty of fifty cents to be paid to the Collector of Customs for every passenger not a citizen of the United States.

This "head tax" has recently been increased to one dollar each. The money thus collected constitutes the Immigration Fund, which under the direction of the Secretary of the Treasury, is used to defray the expense of regulating immigration, relieve immigrants in distress and care for their sick and disabled within a year after arrival, leaving a surplus in the treasury to the credit of the fund.

The act of February 26, 1883, followed by amendatory legislation in 1887. strictly forbade the importation of foreigners under contract to perform labor, and imposed a forfeit of $1000. upon the employers who should violate this law an a tine of $500 upon the master of a vessel conniving at the illegal procedure.

It also expressly provided that any immigrant arriving in violation of this prohibition should be promptly returned to the port from whence he came, and the steamship company be compelled to bear the expense of carrying him back.

Castle Garden, New York's famous immigrant station, had been in operation for some time; and the Secretary of the Treasury now entered Into an agreement with the State authorities in charge for the enforcement of the new restrictions.

In 1890, Col. John H. Weber, a federal officer, assumed command at Castle Garden, the preliminary step towards placing the entire management of immigration work under national control. The Immigration Bureau was now recognized as a branch of the Treasury Department and Hon. W. D. Owen, was appointed its superintendent in 1891.

The act of March 3. 1891 (better known as the Owen law), had struck a blow at the tide of foreign elements which the ever Increasing facilities of travel was pouring on our shores; and had discriminated against certain classes of individuals as undesirable additions to our communities.

It excluded from admission to the United States, Idiots, insane persons and beggars, shim all of these would be a burden Upon public charity; all persons afflicted with a loathsome or contagious disease, (consumptives being included in this class), criminals convicted of felony or Infamous crimes, polygamists, and all persons whose passage was paid by some other individual's money, unless It could be satisfactorily proved that they were not laborers under contract, the blind, the deaf, the dumb, cripples, or persons suffering from any defect which would disqualify them from earning a living, and old people of both sexes, unless parents of residents in the United States who would provide for their support. Persons convicted for political crimes were not debarred by this law.

The panic which seized the Republic lest the cholera should be forwarded from across the ocean, the year of the World's Fair, inaugurated the sending of marine hospital officers to the principal foreign ports of embarkation to physically examine all emigrants bound for the United States and enforce strict quarantine precautionary measures.

This dread of the pestilence added to the growing sentiment throughout the land against being flooded with foreigners. In the last hours of the fifty-second Congress, Hon. Herman Stump, member of the House of Representatives from Maryland, and chairman of the Committee on Immigration, effected the passage of the immigration act of March 3, 1893, which has been since known by his name.

At the close of his term of office Mr. Stump was appointed superintendent of immigration by President Cleveland, and in 1895, the title was changed to commissioner general of immigration.

The Stump Law provides for the inspection of immigrants abroad before embarkation. Every master of a vessel bringing over foreigners in the steerage is obliged to furnish to the inspection officers lists, or manifests, of immigrants, each containing not more than thirty names, certified to by oath and signature before the U. S. Consul that he has personally examined each passenger named therein and that the ship's surgeon has made a physical examination of the same.

The questions answered by each immigrant are nineteen in number and appear on the manifests as follows:—

  • Full name;
  • age;
  • sex;
  • whether married or single;
  • calling or occupation;
  • whether able to read or write;
  • nationality;
  • last residence;
  • seaport for landing in the United States;
  • final destination in the United States;
  • whether having a ticket through to such final destination;
  • whether the immigrant has paid his own passage, or whether it has been paid by other persons, or by any corporation, society, municipality, or government;
  • whether in possession of money, and if so, whether upward of $30, and how much, If $30, or less;
  • whether going to join a relative, and if so, what relative, and his name and address;
  • whether ever before in the United States and if so, when and where;
  • whether ever in prison, or almshouse, or supported by charity;
  • whether a polygamist;
  • whether under contract express or implied, to perform labor in the United States; and
  • the immigrant's condition of health, mental and physical, and whether deformed or crippled, and if so, from what cause.

The lists are marked in consecutive order, A, B, etc., and to each Immigrant, or each head of a family is given a ticket bearing the letter of the list to which he belongs and his number upon it, t) facilitate Identification upon arriving.

The Stump Law has been more effective than was anticipated. Since it creates a searching inquiry at the home of the immigrants into their hereditary and personal antecedents, an exact knowledge of the classes of individual who are forbidden to enter the United States is widely diffused, and a number of people are deterred from attempting a fruitless adventure.

From motives of self-interest, the transportation companies are zealous in cooperating with our government in enforcing these regulations, to protect themselves from the penalties of bringing over foreigners who will be deported and the consequent expense of carrying them back. Their ticket agents abroad are carefully notified as to every description of alien that may possibly be challenged, and they now charge to the agent who sold the ticket the price of return passage of any person refused admission.

Their zeal In this direction is enhanced from one fact that Sweden and Italy have recently enacted laws by which an immigrant, if deported, may sue and collect damages from the steamship company that sold him his passage.

An interesting result of this law is the indirect assistance which It has enlisted from other nations. The dense mass of population in the interior of Europe is obliged to cross territory not their native land in order to reach a sea port. The German Empire is one of these countries.

of transit; and it has acted promptly in self-defence lest the German institutions for the poor be over-burdened with alien paupers.

On October 8, 1593, the German minister of the interior, promulgated an order that all emigrants on their way to the sea-board he subjected to examination by police at the frontiers of the empire, and that those liable to rejection by the American authorities be not allowed to proceed.

The cooperation of Italy in carrying out the intents of the Stump Law has been secured. On October 7, 1890, by direction of the secretary of the treasury, and duly accredited by the State Department, the Commissioner General of Immigration went himself to Rome to negotiate with the Kingdom of Italy a modus vivendi in relation to immigration between that country and the United States.

After a conference with the ministers of King Humbert's realm, an understanding was reached, and the Marquis Rudini, prime minister of the kingdom, on November 8, 1806, issued a proclamation instructing the royal prefects to refuse passports to all emigrants who are included in any of the prohibited classes under the mandamus of the immigration law of the United States.

The deterrent effects of this mission upon Italian immigration is already apparent; and the labor of the United States Bureau would be greatly relieved if France, Great Britain, Spain and Portugal would adopt similar precautions and in a friendly manner aid our government in enforcing this law.

It was evident that Immigrants, In order to escape the obstacles of the act of March 3, 1.393, would seek Canadian ports, and enter the United States by land. In anticipation of this evasion, the commissioner general proceeded to Montreal and negotiated an arrangement with the Canadian transportation companies by land and water.

In view of the mutual benefits which would ensue to the steamship and railway companies of both countries by the inauguration of Immigrant Inspection stations at the ports of landing of the Dominion of Canada, it was determined that all immigrants destined for the United States should be landed at Halifax, Quebec, Point Levis, St. John. and Vancouver. and that all accommodations and facilities for keeping immigrants apart from the general public till after inspection should be afforded to the U. S. officials, provided the inspection be conducted rapidly and a passport given to each Immigrant, identifying him by description, which might entitle him to pass the Canadian frontier.

To defray the expense of making these inspections the Canadian steamship companies agreed to pay to the United States officials fifty cents (now one dollar), for every Immigrant landed, the term immigrant to be understood to apply to each person intending to remain in the United States who is not already a resident or a citizen of that country.

The table of statistics furnished by the Treasury department shows an immense decrease in the total number of arrivals since 1890, viz.:—

Immigrant Admitted by Year

Number of

1890 455,302
1891 516,253
1892 579,713
1893 489,730
1894 285,631
1895 258,536
1896 834,846

The public mind is apt to become excited from contemplating these figures and urge more restrictive measures, but apprehension would be greatly allayed by a correct enumeration of those who depart for the old world never to return, and those who come to America for temporary employment during the busy season, and go home each year because living is cheaper in Europe.

It is this latter class of transitory aliens against whom the trades unions are at present violently protesting.

The commissioner general, in his last annual report, states that he knows of no immigrant, landed within the year, who was then a burden upon either a public or private institution.

The total number attiring during the eight months ending February 29, 1897, was 123,510; which. compared with the total number arriving for the same period of time in 1896, 175.751, shows a decrease of 52,241.

The difficulties of effecting a landing in the United States, owing to the strict examination and inspection, is turning the tide of immigration towards Brazil. Argentine Republic and other countries of South America.

Source: Nicholls, Joanna R., "The Landing of the Emigrant." The National Magazine, Vol. VI, No. 4, July 1897.

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