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Political and economic instability, as well as religious persecution in Europe in the late 1800s brought about the largest mass migration of humans in the history of the world. And a large number of them headed in the direction of the United States. While previously the process of immigration had been handled on a state level, it became abundantly clear that the New York immigration center would not be capable of handling the load. 

In 1891, rules were changed to make immigration a federal process, and the Ellis Island Immigration Center was created in New York Harbor to meet the mass numbers of people coming into the port on ships. This center became an iconic place that, for some people, was representative of the “Island of Hope” as they moved into a new land of opportunity and experience. For others, however, it was known as the “Island of Tears” as they were denied entry and turned away for illness or other reasons.

Ellis Island, located near the Statue of Liberty, continues to be a symbol of the new lives offered to millions of people in the early 20th century. And Ellis Island Day is set aside to celebrate this symbol of the USA’s heritage of immigration!

History of Ellis Island Day

Previously used for somewhat gritty purposes, such as an execution site for pirates or as a military ammunition post for the US Navy during the War of 1812, Ellis Island has been through a number of purposes. In the 1770s, it was owned by a man named Samuel Ellis, who built a tavern on it and called it Oyster Island, just like the previous Dutch settlers had. The island was eventually sold to New York State, and then to the US government in the 1800s.

With the federal immigration center on Ellis Island opening on the 1st of January in 1892, this day certainly has a great deal of meaning for a wide range of people who have immigrated to the United States. In its 62 year history of use, Ellis Island processed more than twelve million immigrants who were moving into the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In fact, so many people came through during those years that close to 40% of current US citizens can trace one of their relatives back to Ellis Island.

By 1954, the immigration center was considered too expensive to run and it finally closed on November 12 of that year. By the 1980s, the buildings had been turned into the National Immigration Museum and came into operation. The iconic great hall was carefully restored to its originally look from a century prior.

In late December 1991, just prior to the 100th anniversary of Ellis Island, US President George H. W. Bush made a proclamation for the founding of National Ellis Island Day!

Ellis Island Day Timeline

1620s

Ellis Island is part of “New Netherland” 

This island is referred to by Dutch settlers as one of three “Oyster Islands” in New York Harbor.[1]

1891

Immigration Act changes the process 

Where individual states were previously responsible for immigration, this act makes it a task of the federal government, creating the need for a central hub.[2]

January 1, 1892

Ellis Island Immigration Center is opened 

The first person to pass through this New York immigration center is a 15-year-old girl named Annie Moore.[3]

1954

Ellis Island closes 

In the middle of November of this year, a Norwegian detainee is the last to leave, and Ellis Island closes for financial reasons.[4]

1992

National Ellis Island Day is declared

US President George H. W. Bush proclaims the day in honor of the 100th anniversary of Ellis Island.[5]

How to Celebrate Ellis Island Day

Get involved with Ellis Island Day by celebrating and honoring the day with some of these plans and ideas:

Plan a Visit to Ellis Island and New York

One excellent way to pay homage to Ellis Island Day might be to plan a trip to New York City and visit the island in person. The island can only be accessed by ferry, with tickets and tours that can be arranged online through the official website of the National Park Service. Also, the American Family History Immigration Center, which is located at the museum on Ellis Island, offers access to families who want to conduct family history research and discovery. 

While visiting the National Immigration Museum, why not add in a little visit to Liberty Island to get up close and personal with Lady Liberty herself? It’s only a short ferry ride away.

Learn Interesting Facts About Ellis Island

Have loads of fun celebrating and raising awareness about Ellis Island Day by learning some interesting facts and then sharing them with friends or family members. Check out and share some of these fascinating bits of trivia that go along with the topic of Ellis Island:

  • Ellis Island is more than 800% larger than its original size. Originally 3.3 acres, it was expanded with dirt to keep up with the demand and now sits at around 27.5 acres.

  • About 2% of people trying to immigrate were denied entry into the US, due to concerns about illness, declining mental health or other reasons. They were detained and then the shipping company was required to return them to their original port.

  • In 1897, just five years after Ellis Island began accepting immigrants, a fire destroyed the buildings as well as records. The island was rebuilt and usage continued in 1900.

  • While Ellis Island is usually associated with New York, a dispute has gone on for years because it sits in water that is technically owned by New Jersey. In 1998, the Supreme Court gave part of the island (the filled in part) to New Jersey and the other original few acres to New York.

Trace Your Family History

Since a big chunk of Americans can trace their ancestors back to this island, Ellis Island Day might be a fun time to do a bit of research on family history and ancestry. Of course, it can be done right there on Ellis Island, but those who can’t make a trip to do the research can still certainly find out all kinds of interesting things about their family tree from the past.

Through online sites, whether free or paid, people can plug in the information they already have and then find access to all sorts of related information through census records, government documents and much more. Once this information has been compiled, it can be shared with other family members who can collaborate on finding a complete family history. It’s an exciting way to delve into the past and also share this history with future generations to come! 

Ellis Island Day FAQs

What is Ellis Island?

Ellis Island was the main immigration center for the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Now it houses the National Museum of Immigration.

Where is Ellis Island?

Ellis Island is located in New York Harbor, as part of New York City.[1]

Is the Statue of Liberty on Ellis Island?

The Statue of Liberty is on Liberty Island, a short ferry ride from Ellis Island in New York Harbor.[2]

When did Ellis Island open?

Ellis Island was opened on January 1, 1892.[3]

Can you drive to Ellis Island?

No, Ellis Island can only be reached by ferry.[4]

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