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A Present from the Past: An Ellis Island Experience
– E. Wade Hone (Found in Ancestry.com magazine, Vol. 13 #1, Jan/Feb 1995)
The winds had more effect on the water than I might have imagined. Though the Statue of Liberty was visible a short distance offshore, it was Ellis Island that captured our attention as historians and genealogists. The ferry ride from Battery Park replicated earlier times, and since the people around me were speaking in foreign languages, the language barriers seemed almost the same as they must have been a 100 years earlier. My thoughts turned to the thousands of individuals who have been linked to their ancestral origins during my ten plus years of professional research.
Though my own ancestors did not come through Ellis Island, this famous immigration port commanded a sense of historical respect and reverence as I tried to sense the sacrifice, adventure, anticipation, and fear that these people felt as they approached the end of a long and uncertain journey.
From the time Ellis Island opened its doors, it became the gateway for immigrants who entered the United States through the port of New York. During peak periods, Ellis Island processed as many as 5,000 new immigrants a day. Through its hallways, more than 12 million people reached the "land of plenty" by 1954 when Ellis Island closed. The records that were generated have served many descendants and will continue to serve future generations.
Today's monument to the adventuresome nature of mankind was completed in 1990. It represents one of the largest restoration projects in American history, and offers a new opportunity for people to reminisce or seek knowledge about the past and the people who made it. The hard work and generosity of hundreds of thousands of Americans have made this incredible restoration possible. The restoration allows us all, scholars, students, historians, genealogists, and casual tourists, to share in the wonder and mystical quality of Ellis Island. No other place offers a clearer understanding of our ancestors, their struggles and strengths, their heartbreaks, and their hopes and dreams.
Climbing the walkway to the main building, I almost felt the bumps from the people who entered from lands which are still foreign to many Americans. In the past, relatives and friends who came to meet the immigrants faced hours of fear that they or their loved ones would be held for further questioning, or for treatment of a disease (or would be returned home because of it), or for some other unexpected reason might be prohibited from entering the land of plenty.
The process began at the registry hall, which overflowed with people who were foreign to one another but who were bound by a common goal. Mingling shouts, coughs, cries, and curses, they were nonetheless hopeful about what lay ahead. Smells were offensive, and it was too hot in some spots, too cold in others. Families were separated, not knowing if they would be reunited later and unsure whether the people who were to meet them would arrive on time. If not, where would they stay? How would they survive without knowing English?
Most information needed to process an individual came from the ship's passenger list, not, as some myths and movies portray, from the questioning in the registry hall. Mistakes and slovenliness in recording much of the information was erroneously blamed on the individuals who had recorded it earlier rather than the harried workers of Ellis Island. Ship's captains were required to pin a piece of paper to the jacket of each non-English-speaking passenger before they disembarked; it showed the page number and the line on the page where the individual appeared on the passenger list. Upon entering the registry hall, the numbers were matched against the list and additional questions were asked; the "right" answers were necessary to ensure entry into the United States. Rumors spread quickly about how to confirm previous information and answer questions about health and other issues.
What is your age? Have you ever been convicted of a crime? Do you have at least $25 in your possession? What is your destination in the United States? Who is waiting for you there? What is your occupation?
The confusion deepened as families were dispersed in many directions for medical examinations. Currency had to be exchanged, questions had to be clarified and railroad tickets had to be purchased. Men were separated from wives, mothers from children, and everyone was separated for a time from the few precious belongings they had brought from the old country. It is an amazing tribute that so many immigrants succeeded and went on to create the country we are so proud of today.
An estimated two percent of the immigrants were sent back to their homelands. However, getting through the ordeal was foremost in the minds of both the immigrants and the government employees processing them; thus, details were often overlooked. For those who were sent back, there was often no opportunity to talk with friends and family first; they were simply shipped home, where they awaited an opportunity to try again.
As we returned to the mainland, our vision and understanding was different than when we arrived. The past had become the present, and the emotions associated with being an American were stronger. Those who visit Ellis Island will forever have a deeper sense of their origins, and of the people who helped to shape their lives.
– E. Wade Hone