Ellis Island History -A Brief Look.
From 1892 to 1954, over twelve million immigrants entered the United States through the portal of Ellis Island, a small island in New York Harbor. Ellis Island is located in the upper bay just off the New Jersey coast, within the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. Through the years, this gateway to the new world was enlarged from its original 3.3 acres to 27.5 acres by landfill supposedly obtained from the ballast of ships, excess earth from the construction of the New York City subway system and elsewhere.
Before being designated as the site of one of the first Federal immigration station by President Benjamin Harrison in 1890, Ellis Island had a varied history. The local Indian tribes had called it "Kioshk" or Gull Island. Due to its rich and abundant oyster beds and plentiful and profitable shad runs, it was known as Oyster Island for many generations during the Dutch and English colonial periods. By the time Samuel Ellis became the island's private owner in the 1770's, the island had been called Kioshk, Oyster, Dyre, Bucking and Anderson's Island. In this way, Ellis Island developed from a sandy island that barely rose above the high tide mark, into a hanging site for pirates, a harbor fort, ammunition and ordinance depot named Fort Gibson, and finally into an immigration station.
From 1794 to 1890 (pre-immigration station period), Ellis Island played a mostly uneventful but still important military role in United States history. When the British occupied New York City during the duration of the Revolutionary War, its large and powerful naval fleet was able to sail unimpeded directly into New York Harbor. Therefore, it was deemed critical by the United States Government that a series of coastal fortifications in New York Harbor be constructed just prior to the War of 1812. After much legal haggling over ownership of the island, the Federal government purchased Ellis Island from New York State in 1808. Ellis Island was approved as a site for fortifications and on it was constructed a parapet for three tiers of circular guns, making the island part of the new harbor defense system that included Castle Clinton at the Battery, Castle Williams on Governor's Island, Fort Wood on Bedloe's Island and two earthworks forts at the entrance to New York Harbor at the Verrazano Narrows. The fort at Ellis Island was named Fort Gibson in honor of a brave officer killed during the War of 1812.
Prior to 1890, the individual states (rather than the Federal government) regulated immigration into the United States. Castle Garden in the Battery (originally known as Castle Clinton) served as the New York State immigration station from 1855 to 1890 and approximately eight million immigrants, mostly from Northern and Western Europe, passed through its doors. These early immigrants came from nations such as England, Ireland, Germany and the Scandinavian countries and constituted the first large wave of immigrants that settled and populated the United States. Throughout the 1800's and intensifying in the latter half of the 19th century, ensuing political instability, restrictive religious laws and deteriorating economic conditions in Europe began to fuel the largest mass human migration in the history of the world. It soon became apparent that Castle Garden was ill-equipped and unprepared to handle the growing numbers of immigrants arriving yearly. Unfortunately compounding the problems of the small facility were the corruption and incompetence found to be commonplace at Castle Garden.
The Federal government intervened and constructed a new Federally-operated immigration station on Ellis Island. While the new immigration station on Ellis Island was under construction, the Barge Office at the Battery was used for the processing of immigrants. The new structure on Ellis Island, built of "Georgia pine", opened on January 1, 1892; Annie Moore, a 15 year-old Irish girl, accompanied by her two brothers, entered history and a new country as she was the very first immigrant to be processed at Ellis Island. This day was also Annie's 15th birthday. Under the watchful eyes of Immigration officials, Sup't Col. John B. Weber pressed a $10.00 gold Liberty coin in Annie's hand after Charles M. Handley of the Treasury Department registered her. Over the next 62 years, more than 12 million immigrants follow through this port of entry and although they received no such coin, pomp or circumstance, most were on their way to becoming Americans.
While there were many reasons to emigrate to America, no reason could be found for what would occur only five years after the Ellis Island Immigration Station opened. During the evening of June 14, 1897, a fire on Ellis Island burned the immigration station completely to the ground by the following day. Although no lives were lost, some Federal and State immigration records, dating back to 1855, burned along with the pine buildings that failed to protect them. The United States Treasury quickly ordered the immigration facility be replaced under one very important condition. All future structures built on Ellis Island had to be fireproof. On December 17, 1900, the new Main Building was opened and 2,251 immigrants were received that day.
While most immigrants entered the United States through New York Harbor (the most popular destination of steamship companies), others sailed into many ports such as Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, San Francisco and Savannah, Miami, and New Orleans. The great steamship companies like White Star, Red Star, Cunard and Hamburg-America played a significant role in the history of Ellis Island and immigration in general. First and second class passengers who arrived in New York Harbor were not required to undergo the inspection process at Ellis Island. Instead, these passengers underwent a cursory inspection aboard ship; the theory being that if a person could afford to purchase a first or second class ticket, they were less likely to become a public charge in America due to medical or legal reasons. The Federal government felt that these more affluent passengers would not end up in institutions, hospitals or become a burden to the state. However, first and second class passengers were sent to Ellis Island for further inspection if they were sick or had legal problems.
This scenario was far different for "steerage" or third class passengers. These immigrants traveled in crowded and often unsanitary conditions near the bottom of steamships with few amenities, oftenspending up to two weeks seasick in their bunks during rough Atlantic Ocean crossings. Upon arrival in New York City, ships would dock at the Hudson or East River piers. First and second class passengers would disembark, pass through Customs at the piers and were free to enter the United States. The steerage and third class passengers were transported from the pier by ferry or barge to Ellis Island where everyone would undergo a medical and legal inspection.
If the immigrant's papers were in order and they were in reasonably good health, the Ellis Island inspection process would last approximately three to five hours. The inspections took place in the Registry Room (or Great Hall), where doctors would briefly scan every immigrant for obvious physical ailments. Doctors at Ellis Island soon became very adept at conducting these "six second physicals." By 1916, it was said that a doctor could identify numerous medical conditions (ranging from anemia to goiters to varicose veins) just by glancing at an immigrant. The ship's manifest or passenger list (filled out at the port of embarkation) contained the immigrant's name and his/her answers to numerous questions. This document was used by immigration inspectors at Ellis Island to cross examine the immigrant during the legal (or primary) inspection. The two agencies responsible for processing immigrants at Ellis Island were the United States Public Health Service and the Bureau of Immigration (later known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service - INS). On March 1, 2003, the Immigration and Naturalization Service was re-structured and included into 3 separate bureaus as part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. For more information on these three bureaus and their mission, visit their websites at the following: (Click here or on "Manifest" to view a blank document and fields of information)
Bureau of Citizenship & Immigration Services - www.uscis.gov
Bureau of Immigrations & Customs Enforcement - www.ice.gov
Bureau of Customs & Border Protection - www.cbp.gov
Despite the island's reputation as an "Island of Tears", the vast majority of immigrants were treated courteously and respectfully, and were free to begin their new lives in America after only a few short hours on Ellis Island. Only two percent of the arriving immigrants were excluded from entry. The two main reasons why an immigrant would be excluded were if a doctor diagnosed that the immigrant had a contagious disease that would endanger the public health or if a legal inspector thought the immigrant was likely to become a public charge or an illegal contract laborer.
During the early 1900's, immigration officials mistakenly thought that the peak wave of immigration had already passed. Actually, immigration was on the rise and in 1907, more people immigrated to the United States than any other year; approximately 1.25 million immigrants were processed at Ellis Island in that one year. Consequently, masons and carpenters were constantly struggling to enlarge and build new facilities to accommodate this greater than anticipated influx of new immigrants. Hospital buildings, dormitories, contagious disease wards and kitchens were all were feverishly constructed between 1900 and 1915.
As the United States entered World War I, immigration to the United States decreased. Numerous suspected enemy aliens throughout the United States were brought to Ellis Island undercustody. Between 1918 and 1919, detained suspected enemy aliens were transferred from Ellis Island to other locations in order for the United States Navy with the Army Medical Department to take over the island complex for the duration of the war. During this time, regular inspection of arriving immigrants was conducted on board ship or at the docks. At the end of World War I, a big "Red Scare" spread across America and thousands of suspected alien radicals were interred at Ellis Island. Hundreds were later deported based upon the principal of guilt by association with any organizations advocating revolution against the Federal government. In 1920, Ellis Island reopened as an immigration receiving station and 225,206 immigrants were processed that year.
From the very beginning of the mass migration that spanned the years (roughly) 1880 to 1924, an increasingly vociferous group of politicians and nativists demanded increased restrictions on immigration. Laws and regulations such as the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Alien Contract Labor Law and the institution of a literacy test barely stemmed this flood tide of new immigrants. Actually, the death knell for Ellis Island, as a major entry point for new immigrants, began to toll in 1921. It reached a crescendo between 1921 with the passage of the Quota Laws and 1924 with the passage of the National Origins Act. These restrictions were based upon a percentage system according to the number of ethnic groups already living in the United States as per the 1890 and 1910 Census. It was an attempt to preserve the ethnic flavor of the "old immigrants", those earlier settlers primarily from Northern and Western Europe. The perception existed that the newly arriving immigrants mostly from southern and eastern Europe were somehow inferior to those who arrived earlier.
After World War I, the United States began to emerge as a potential world power. United States embassies were established in countries all over the world, and prospective immigrants now applied for their visas at American consulates in their countries of origin. The necessary paperwork was completed at the consulate and a medical inspection was also conducted there. After 1924, Ellis Island was no longer primarily an inspection station but rather a detention facility, whereby many persons were brought and detained for various periods of time
Although Ellis Island still remained open for many years and served a multitude of purposes, it served primarily as a detention center during World War II, for alien enemies, those considered to be inadmissable and others. By 1946, approximately 7000 German, Italian, and Japanese people (aliens and citizens) were detained at Ellis Island during the War, comprising the largest groups. The United States Coast Guard also trained about 60,000 servicemen there. In November of 1954 the last detainee, a Norwegian merchant seaman named Arne Peterssen was released, and Ellis Island officially closed. Changes in immigration laws and modes of transportation as well as cost effectiveness of operating the island all played a role in its closure.
In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson declared Ellis Island part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument. Ellis Island was opened to the public on a limited basis between 1976 and 1984. Starting in 1984, Ellis Island underwent a major restoration, the largest historic restoration in U.S. history. The $160 million dollar project was funded by donations made to the Statue of Liberty - Ellis Island Foundation, Inc. in partnership with the National Park Service. The Main Building was reopened to the public on September 10, 1990 as the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. Today, the museum receives almost 2 million visitors annually.
Park Hours at Ellis Island and Visitor Activities:
Ellis Island 8:30am - 6:15pm.
Visitor Notice: Visitors to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island pass through screening before boarding the ferry.
Due to the park's security procedures please allow for ample time in your visitation plans. Click below for updated visitor and security information. Updated visitor and security guidelines
As a normal part of closing procedures, areas of the park may close prior to the final boat departure from the island. At this time, all public areas of Ellis Island are opened for visitation.
There is no entrance fee to the park.
Ferry Ticket Prices:
Adult Ticket: $11.50, Senior (62 and over): $9.50, Child (4-12): $4.50, Under 4:Free.
Self-Guided Tours: The three floors of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum were designed as a self-guided museum. The Ellis Island brochure guides visitors through the museum exhibits at their own pace.
Ranger-Guided Tours: The National Park Service provides ranger-guided walking tours of the museum. The tours last approximately 45 minutes and are accessible for handicapped visitors. Tours include museum highlights and are offered on a first come-first served basis, staff levels permitting. Check at the information desk for details. No reservations for tours are accepted.
Ranger-guided tours are offered at Ellis Island with ASL - American Sign Language translation at scheduled intervals. For a schedule of ASL translated tours click here.
Documentary Film: "Island of Hope, Island of Tears": This award winning, 30-minute documentary film is shown at regularly scheduled times in two theaters accompanied by a 15-minute park ranger introductory talk. Each theater seats 140 people. Tickets are required and available for free at the Ellis Island information desk.
Theatrical Program: The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, Inc., in cooperation with the National Park Service is proud to present a theatrical production based on actual immigrant accounts that are part of the Ellis Island oral history project. Professional actors bring to life the experiences that were shared by millions of immigrants who made their way to the New World through Ellis Island. This 30-minute presentation is offered daily Spring through Autumn at regularly scheduled times. Contact the Foundation at: (212) 561-4500 for information and reservations. (nominal fee program) or e-mail at: Theater@ellisisland.org.
Audio Tour: A new audio tour of the museum can be rented through the Ellis Island concessionaire for a nominal fee. Audio tours are available in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Japanese. For more information, call the Aramark Corporation (authorized Ellis island concessionaire) at (212) 344-0996.
Board of Special Inquiry Program: This living history program presents the accounts of actual immigrant hearings conducted during the time of peak immigration at Ellis Island. This program is conducted in the "Hearing Room" which has been carefully restored to the period of 1908-1911. Audience participation decides the fate of the immigrant standing before them. Visitors learn the importance of immigration policy at the turn of the century and current-day immigration law. This free program is offered at regularly scheduled times starting mid-April. For details, check at the information desk.
Genealogy Workshop: The National Park Service, with the collaboration of The National Archives presents a workshop for visitors who wish to research their family immigration history. This workshop is offered on a monthly basis (March - October) and provides instruction about how to gather, interpret and use historical data to trace family histories. The workshop is free to all visitors of the museum. Call (212) 363-3200 for additional information.
New York Public Library: The U.S. History, Local History & Genealogy Division is located in the Center for the Humanities of the New York Public Library. The Division collects materials documenting American History on the national, state and local level, Genealogy, Heraldry, Personal and Family Names and Flags. The Division is one of the largest genealogical and local history collections open to the public in the country. The Library's online computer catalog includes materials acquired and catalogued since 1971.
Volunteers in Parks (VIP) Program:The National Park Service is officially entrusted with preserving more than 385 National Parks in the United States. Thousands of citizens help ensure that the best of America will be protected by assisting the National Park Service when they volunteer their time and talents. Volunteers at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum assist park staff and visitors by providing many types of services, both in public view (helping visitors at the information desk, leading guided tours) and behind the scenes (assisting in cataloging museum objects and assembling temporary exhibits). If you are interested in volunteering at the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, please contact the "Volunteers in Parks" coordinator at (212) 363-3200, ext. 158.
Visiting the Statue of Liberty National Monument and the Ellis Island Immigration Museum can be a rich and rewarding experience for any school group. In order to preserve and protect the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island and ensure visitor safety, we ask that the following rules and regulations be adhered to during your visit.
SMOKING IS NOT PERMITTED ANYWHERE INSIDE THE STATUE OF LIBERTY OR THE ELLIS ISLAND IMMIGRATION MUSEUM.
ANYONE CAUGHT DEFACING, DAMAGING, OR IN ANY WAY VANDALIZING THIS NATIONAL MONUMENT, OR ANY EXHIBIT, OR OTHER PROPERTY THEREIN WILL BE SUBJECT TO FINE AND/OR ARREST UNDER 36 CFR.
Ellis Island Learning Center: "Immigration Game Zone". Have your class experience this 90 minute curriculum-based program by taking a comprehensive look at the many facets of immigration through Ellis Island during its busiest period (1890's - 1924). The 3-tiered program includes a video segment, ranger-guided tour, and an interactive question and answer game show. Programs are offered Monday through Friday and is appropriate for kids, grades 4-8. Maximum capacity is 48. Class preparation, internet access, and completion of pre-visit activities are required before on-site visit. For information & reservations call: (212) 363-3200, ext 134.
Junior Ranger Program: This self-guided program gives children an opportunity to learn about Ellis Island, and our Nation's vast immigration heritage. Use the booklet to complete fun activities that teach children about the National Park Service and this site and why it is important to protect and preserve this National Monument. The booklet takes about 1 hour to complete and is currently available at the Ellis Island information desk . Recommended for ages 7-12 (This is an-site program only). Click here for Ellis Jr. Ranger Booklet
Web Rangers Program: a national on-line junior park ranger program has been unveiled for kids of all ages to participate in. Visit www.nps.gov/webrangers for more information.
Documentary Film: "Island of Hope, Island of Tears" is an award winning 30-minute documentary film that is shown at regularly scheduled times in two theaters. Each theater seats 140 people. Tickets are required and are available free at the Ellis Island information desk. Certain theater shows are reserved for student groups on weekdays only. Contact the reservations coordinator at (212)363-3200 for more information.
Board of Special Inquiry: This living history program presents the accounts of actual immigrant hearings conducted during the time of peak immigration at Ellis Island. This program is conducted in the "Hearing Room" which has been carefully restored to the period of 1908-1911. Audience participation decides the fate of the immigrant standing before them. Visitors learn the importance of immigration policy at the turn of the century and current immigration law. This program is available on a first-come, first-served basis. Check at the information desk for program times. (Availability dependent on staffing levels and season). (Grades 7-12) (Starting mid April)
"The Night that Changed America": This 30 minute curriculum-based program, conducted in our Board of Special Inquiry takes the class through actual events that have changed America and our immigration laws. Your class will participate and explore how history repeats itself and will have an opportunity to discuss the positive impact they can have on our nation through this actual historical case that they will decide. (Grades 9-12). Free.
Park in a Pack: This curriculum-based traveling educational kit is available to educators , for 2 week periods"on loan" for use in the classroom. "Park in a Pack" is free of charge except for return postage. A security deposit is required to obtain the kit. "Park in a Pack" is recommended for grades 4 through 8. It contains a teaching guide, 4 videos, and many educational activites about the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island for your students to enjoy. For further information or to check for availability, please contact the Education Specialist at (212) 363-3200.
National Parks and You !: a 45-minute curriculum-based program for children (grades K-3). Kids learn about the National Park Service and how these special places connect to them and our nation's heritage by meeting "Ranger Sam" (the NPS's only Automated Interactive Education Unit). "Ranger Sam" and group participants see an 8-minute video, build their own national park, and discover why it is important to preserve these special places by looking at Ellis Island in both its restored and un-restored conditions. Class preparation, internet access, and completion of pre-visit activities are required before on-site visit. Contact the reservations coordinator at (212) 363-3200.
Shore to Shore: this curriculum-based educational program focuses on America's immigration history between the years 1892 and 1954. Through pre and post activities, a ranger program and 8 hands-on activity stations, students will explore the nation's mass wave of immigration and the importance of Ellis Island in our nation's immigration story. This 90-minute program is offered Tuesday - Friday. (September through June), and is appropriate for grades 4-6. Maximum class size is 40. Class preparation, internet access, and completion of pre-visit activities are required before on-site visit. Please contact the reservation coordinator at (212) 363-3200. Click here for program guide.
Theatrical Program: The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, Inc., in cooperation with the National Park Service is proud to present a theatrical production based on actual immigrant accounts that are part of the Ellis Island oral history project. Professional actors bring to life the experiences that were shared by millions of immigrants who made their way to the New World through Ellis Island. This 30-minute presentation is offered daily Spring through Autumn at regularly scheduled times. Contact the Foundation at: (212) 561-4500 for information and reservations. (nominal fee program) or e-mail at: Theater@ellisisland.org
Teaching Guide: For educators teaching grades 5 through 8. The Ellis Island Teaching Guide was made possible by the "PARKS AS CLASSROOMS" program of the National Park Foundation and the National Park Service. The guide was developed for teachers and students to heighten their understanding of immigration and to provide information about the Ellis Island. To receive a free copy, call (212) 363-3200 for details.
Activity Sheets: For children who are touring the Museum, these are available at the Ellis Island information desk. Completion of activity sheets will enhance an on-site trip by reinforcing information learned from the exhibits. Pre-visit activity sheets for classroom use are available as well. To obtain these materials click here.
These programs will compliment your school group visit to the Statue of Liberty National Monument and the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. The National Park Service is committed to preserving and protecting America's National Park treasures for future generations to enjoy. Help us bring that experience to our most treasured resource - our children!
Web-based Resources for Kids: This interactive website teaches children about their government, community, and historical facts about America. A must for any educator teaching this important subject matter. Appropriate for grades K-12. Click here for U.S. Government for Kids web-page.
Following the restoration in the 1980's, the Main Building reopened as the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, a symbol of America s immigrant heritage in 1990. The museum exhibits chronicle Ellis Island s role in immigration history, and view it in the context of its time and the still broader context of four centuries of immigration to America.
The exhibits also portray and give voice to the immigrants themselves. Each of their stories is unique and bears witness to the courage and determination that enables men and women to leave their homes and seek new opportunities in an unknown land.
These exhibits occupy over 40,000 sq.ft. on three floors of the Main Building; they include museum objects, photographs, prints, videos, interactive displays and oral histories. The largest exhibit is the building itself; the imposing French Renaissance Revival structure designed by Boring and Tilton, built in 1900 and restored to its 1918-1924 appearance.
American Immigrant Wall of Honor: A popular exhibit at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum is the American Immigrant Wall of Honor. The Wall of Honor is located outdoors, just outside the "Peopling of America" exhibit. The Wall honors America’s immigrants regardless of when they immigrated or through which port they entered. The Wall is currently inscribed with over 600,000 names. If you would like to add a name to the Wall of Honor, support the continuing work of the Statue of Liberty - Ellis Island Foundation, Inc., please contact the Foundation at (212) 561-4500.
American Family Immigration History Center: Opened on April 17, 2001, this new family history research facility contains the ships' passenger records on the over 22 million people who entered through the Port of New York and Ellis Island from 1892-1924, the peak years of immigrant processing at Ellis Island. Visitors will be able to access 11 fields of digitized information, as well as obtain reproductions of original ship manifests and photos of ships of passage. For more information please contact the Statue of Liberty - Ellis Island Foundation, Inc., at (212) 561-4500.
The Baggage Room (restored to 1918-1924): Thousands of immigrants crowded into this room on a daily basis where they could check their baggage before climbing the steps to the Registry Room.
Peopling of America (restored to 1918-1924): Originally the Railroad Ticket Office, where immigrants could make travel arrangements to their final destinations in the United States. Now contains exhibits covering 400 years of immigration history.
Registry Room (restored to 1918-1924): The historic Great Hall, once filled with new arrivals waiting to be inspected and registered by Immigration officers, now contains historic benches and reproduction inspector desks. Visitors can re-live the experience of 12 million people processed through this cavernous space.
Through America's Gate (restored to 1911): Exhibits illustrate the processing of immigrants at Ellis Island, includes the Special Inquiry Room, refurbished to 1911.
Peak Immigration Years: The history of immigration to the United States between 1880-1924.
Dormitory Room (Third floor: restored and refurbished to 1908)
Ellis Island Chronicles: Overview of the island's growth and development from prehistory to the closing of all island facilities in 1954.
Treasures from Home: Cherished personal objects, photographs and papers brought from the homeland are on display.
Silent Voices: The immigrant station closed and abandoned after 1954. Restoring a Landmark Transforming the ruins into a national museum of immigration, 1985-1990.
Hearing Room: Officially known as the Board of Special Inquiry, this room in 2 West has been carefully restored to the years 1908-1911. Immigrants not passing inspection would have a final opportunity to have their case overturned in one of three hearing rooms at Ellis Island. Re-enactments of actual cases are performed in this historic space.
Museum Collection, Archives and Library
Scope of Collection Statement
The National Park Service (NPS) acquires, preserves, and uses objects, documents and specimens as primary sources of cultural and scientific information and as primary resources in and of themselves. By delegation of the Secretary of the Interior, the park superintendent is authorized to accept title to and responsibility for museum collections clearly significant to the Park. In addition, archeological materials and certain natural history specimens retrieved from within the park boundaries are mandated by regulation and policy to be part of the Park's museum collection.
The scope of the Park's museum collection is determined by the mission of the park as stated in the enabling legislation, subsequent legislation, planning documents and its history. NPS policy permits and encourages the acquisition of museum objects through gift, loan, exchange, transfer, purchase or field collection in accordance with established procedures and policies.
The Scope of Collection Statement is the basic curatorial planning document required by NPS Management Policies for all parks. It serves to guide the Park in the acquisition and preservation of museum objects that contribute directly to the museum collection as a whole, the understanding and interpretation of the Park's themes and additional objects that the NPS is legally mandated to preserve.
The Scope of Collection Statement is reviewed and revised whenever changes in conditions or Congressional legislation clearly alter the mission of the Park or the nature of the museum collections.
The Ellis Island Oral History Program
The Ellis Island Oral History Project, based at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, is the oldest and largest oral history project dedicated to preserving the first-hand recollections of immigrants coming to America during the years Ellis Island was in operation: 1892-1954. Begun in 1973 by National Park Service employee Margo Nash, the Project has grown over the years to include nearly 2000 interviews. Each interview includes an extensive examination of everyday life in the country of origin, family history, reasons for coming to America, the journey to the port, experiences on the ship, arrival and processing at the Ellis Island facility and an in-depth look at the adjustment to living in the United States.
The present full-time and volunteer staff adds over one hundred interviews per year to the collection. All interviews are available as tapes and transcripts to researchers and interested members of the public. The exhibits in the museum rely heavily on quoted oral history material, as does the Museum's film created by Charles Guggenheim. Interviews from the Oral History Project have been used extensively in the United States and Europe for television and film documentaries, radio broadcasts, books, creative artworks and theatrical presentations.
Interviewees are chosen by the Project staff in a number of ways. The most common and useful method is called the "Oral History Form," a simple two page questionnaire distributed at the museum and through the mail to interested parties. This form asks for an abbreviated immigration history of the potential interviewee with a space to include any other interesting stories or anecdotes. The Project staff, upon receiving the completed form in the mail, decides if the person would be a good interviewee. Other methods of locating interviewees include the cooperation of ethnic societies and community organizations, newspaper and magazine coverage of the Project, public appearances by the staff and word of mouth.
Once chosen, the interviewee is given the option of coming to the Ellis Island Immigration Museum to be interviewed at the recording studio established by the Hearst Foundation or to have a member of the Project staff visit their home using portable recording equipment. The running time of most interviews is approximately one hour. Each interviewee is given their own copy of the interview on a standard audio cassette as a way of showing our appreciation for their time and effort. The interviews are eventually transcribed. Interviews are now added to a computer database that can be accessed in the Library at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum.
The interviews include people from dozens of countries, as well as former Ellis Island and Statue of Liberty employees, people stationed in the military on both islands and former island residents who were children at the time because a family member was an employee in some capacity. Interviewees presently live in most states in the continental United States as well as several foreign countries. Most interviewees are in their late eighties, the oldest to date being 106 and the youngest being 46.
For further information about the Ellis Island Oral History Project, please write to: Oral History Project, Ellis Island Immigration Museum, New York City, New York, 10004 or call (212) 363-3200, ext. 156. and fax (212) 363-6302.
The library at the Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island is located on the third floor, west wing of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. It is a research library with subject emphasis on the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, immigration, and ethnic groups.
Special Collections: Historic photographs of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island including unique photograph collections by Augustus F. Sherman, and Colonel John B. Weber; the Foxlee Papers, the Maud Mosher Papers, and a sixteen volume collection of periodicals and newspaper articles by Gino Speranza on immigration and related subjects between 1900 and 1927.
Library Services: Photographs and photocopies duplication and general reference services. The reference services includes assisting researchers and answering correspondence regarding the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, including historical inquiries about immigration. The researchers who use the library are teachers, students, writers, publishers, journalists and film makers. All researchers are required to sign a research agreement.
Library materials include books, manuscripts, films, photographs and general reference files which may be used by researchers on site only. The library is open to the public on a walk-in basis; researchers are advised to call ahead for appointments. All services which are described here are available through the library staff. Call (212) 363-3200, ext. 158 or 161 or fax (212) 363-6302 for further information.
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Last Revised June 28, 2006.