Monday, October 3, 2011

New York City: First Stop Ellis Island

The Statue of Liberty sits in New York Harbor. It is the most recognizable symbol of democracy in the world. Its official name is Liberty Enlightening the World.
A trip to New York City would not be complete without a focus on immigration. While the Native Americans were here first, we are mostly a nation of immigrants, and we arrived on the shores of the United States from a multitude of countries around the world. The huge wave of immigrants that poured into the United States after 1800 represent the largest mass migration in the history of the world.

When did your family first come to America? Unless you are a full-blooded Native American, someone in your family made the decision to come to the United States, often called The Land of Opportunity. Do you know where your ancestors came from and when they emigrated? If they arrived from Europe, it is likely that they came by ship. And if they came in the great influx of immigrants in the late 1800s or early 1900s, as your forbears sailed into New York Harbor they would have been welcomed by two important structures: The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Why are they sitting in New York Harbor and what was their purpose? What is their purpose today?

To demonstrate friendship, the people of France created and donated the Statue of Liberty to the United States in the latter half of the 19th century. Commissioned to design the sculpture was Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi, who modeled the statue's face on his mother's. When Bartholdi sailed into New York, he passed Bedloe's Island and decided it would be a good location for the statue. The work, finished in 1884, has a copper skin attached to a skeleton framework. The statue was taken apart and shipped to the United States in pieces. It took four months to reassemble it. An agreement with the French resulted in the United States being responsible for building a base for the statue. By late 1886, it was installed on its base and has sat in New York Harbor ever since. After the destruction of the World Trade Centers on 9/11, Liberty Island was closed for one hundred days. The statue remained closed until 2004 when it reopened to the public.

This building housed the First Federal Immigration Station at Ellis Island in New York Harbor. More than 12,000,000 immigrants passed through this building between 1892 and 1954.
Immigrants flooded into our great country for many reasons, but all were seeking a better life. Most steamship companies transporting those in search of a new beginning arrived in New York Harbor. Before their passengers could be admitted to the United States, they had to be processed through an immigration station. First and second class passengers were allowed off at New York City piers where they easily passed through Customs. But those in steerage--the poorest immigrants--had to go to Ellis Island for medical and legal inspections. Processing took several hours if the passenger was healthy and had his or her papers in order. Only 2% of immigrants were not permitted entry into the United States. Two main reasons resulted in their being sent back to their country of origin: contagious diseases or the likelihood of becoming a public charge (on welfare). In one year, 1907, 1,250,000 newcomers passed through Ellis Island on their way to a new life in a new country.

Ellis Island closed in the fall of 1954, but in 1965 President Lyndon Johnson named Ellis Island part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument. Nineteen years later, major restoration of the facility took place. Since 1990, the Ellis Island Immigration Museum has been in operation. When you visit the main building and stand in the great hall, you can almost hear the voices of those who came before.

You can find out if your immigrant ancestors came through Ellis Island, and you do not have to go to New York to conduct your investigation. Go to the Ellis Island homepage and search for your family. When I did this, I had exciting results. I learned that family lore was wrong! I had always been told that my great grandmother came here from Germany with her young son and then her husband followed a year or two later. When I found a copy of the original ships' manifests, I discovered that my great grandfather arrived first. It is likely that he worked and saved the money to send for his wife and young son later. Then, when the family were reunited, my great grandmother gave birth to another son, a boy who grew to become my grandfather. What can you find out about your family history? The Internet makes genealogical research fairly easy.

Inscribed on a plaque inside the Statue of Liberty is this oft quoted poem. For emphasis, the last lines are in bold, underlined font. Do Americans still believe these words today?  

The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus, 1883

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

1 comment:

Jess said...

I'll have to show this to Ella tomorrow. I'm looking forward to taking her to see it in person in Nov.!