American Passage: The History of Ellis Island by Vincent Cannato

I first visited Ellis Island when I was 15; it was my first time in New York, and I will always remember the ferry ride from Manhattan over to the little island in the harbour, with its imposing red brick buildings and sunny promenades. The island was overshadowed by the skyline of the city, then still dominated by the Twin Towers, which were to fall just two weeks later. Most people on my ferry didn’t disembark at Ellis Island, preferring to head straight to Liberty Island and its more famous landmark, but I insisted on dragging my family to the Ellis Island museum, which I assured them would be fascinating. I was right (as always!); it was.  I returned in 2006, when I was 20, and found the Museum further improved, and perhaps because I was older, I got even more from my experience. Looking at the haunting photographs of rows of bewildered looking immigrants, clutching babies, luggage, each other; their expressions a mixture of fearful, excited, apprehensive and relieved, I was taken aback by the sheer bravery and tenacity of these people. How bad must it have been for them in their home countries, that they were prepared to sell up and risk everything they had to board a packed, dirty, disease ridden boat for days, to take them to another country that they had never set eyes upon, and yet that they hoped would offer them everything they had lacked in the land of their births? What did they think America would hold for them and their children? What were their feelings as they left their ships for the dry land of Ellis Island, herded into the lofty central waiting room, and inspected? The museum does a wonderful job at exploring the immigrant experience, and explaining why and how so many millions of people fled to the promised land of America in the 19th and 20th centuries, seeking the peace and prosperity their own countries could not offer them.

Since visiting the Tenement Museum and reading about the experience of immigrants living in Manhattan, I have wanted to find out more about the hordes of people who trooped through Ellis Island’s doors over a century ago. Not particularly wanting to brave the crowds in Battery Park to board a ferry to Ellis Island in the depths of winter, I instead picked up Vincent Cannato’s brilliant, informative and eye opening book. I loved it, and it gave me much to think about when it comes to immigration, identity, racism and nationality. It has been especially interesting to read alongside Little House on the Prairie, which I am currently slowly making my way through, as Vincent explains that many 19th century opponents of immigration were reluctant to allow ‘weaker’ races to populate their country, which they believed needed strong, Anglo Saxon stock like Charles and Caroline Ingalls in order to settle the wild lands that were previously Indian territory. However, as Cannato also raises, the irony of opposing immigration when actually all ‘Americans’ were immigrants, imposing on land that didn’t really belong to them in the first place, was unfortunately lost on the self righteous WASPS who believed that they were the true Americans, despite their own immigrant blood. Plus, today I started reading O, Pioneers!, a beautiful Willa Cather novel about immigrant pioneers in the Nebraska prairie lands, and all I have learned about immigration and the struggles many had to survive and prosper in America, is playing heavily on my mind as I read about the trials of the predominantly Swedish community who left their home country for a climate much harsher than they had at home.

Ellis Island was created as an immigrant processing centre in the 1890s, officially opening its doors in 1892. Previous to using this small island in New York’s harbour, the government had used premises on the Battery, and later, Castle Garden, an old fort, but these temporary measures were no longer fit for purpose. Some days, over 20,000 immigrants were flooding through New York Harbour, causing an administrative nightmare, and a lucrative trade in extortion and vice from hangers on, who were just waiting outside the gates of the immigration processing buildings to take advantage of tired and confused greenhorns, was raising the shackles of immigrant groups. The colossal, unprecedented amount of immigration from impoverished Europeans seeking a better life needed to be regulated, and immigrants given a safe place to land and get sleep, food, advice and support before they were unleashed onto the mean streets of New York. The American government, concerned by the tide of immigration, and pressured by a variety of groups to start weeding out these unwashed masses, decided to use Ellis Island as this place. It was created as a series of buildings designed to process, examine and sift ‘desirable’ from ‘undesirable’ immigrants before they were allowed to enter the country, and consisted of a vast complex of hospital buildings, dormitories, cafeterias, offices and gardens, designed to give immigrants a decent, yet official, welcome to the United States. As immigrants left their boats and trooped up the gangplanks to the main building, doctors were there, watching their every move. Anyone with an obvious defect was marked straight away for further inspection; later on, all immigrants would have a full medical inspection to root out those with infectious or chronic diseases that would prevent them from entry to the US, as well as those who were mentally defective. Anyone unable to work or support themselves would also be barred from entry, due to the risk of them becoming a ‘public charge’. Mentally or physically defective people were not welcome, and neither were those with loose morals; adulterers and bigamists were usually deported when their crimes were found out.

However, the vast majority of immigrants were allowed into the country; it was only in the 1920s that quotas were introduced, massively reducing the amount of European immigrants entering the United States. By the early 1900s, the percentage of foreign born Americans was close to 20%, and this ‘dilution’ of the stock of hardy pioneer settlers was an issue for many of the great and good of the day. Some advocated the cessation of immigration altogether, before the ‘American’ race died out; others recommended that anyone who lacked the physical and mental strength of their pioneer ancestors should be kept out. There was a fear that America was turning into the world’s rubbish heap, accepting the poor and dispossessed, who had failed to make a living in their native lands. These inferior specimens would bring America down, some thought, polluting the good blood stock of America like drops of ink added to a barrel of water, and producing future generations of weak, ineffectual degenerates. Ironically, all of those who were most outspoken against immigrants were children of immigrants themselves; so quickly had they become ‘Americans’, that they had forgotten their roots, and the opportunities their own families had benefited from in being allowed to enter a country whose borders their children now wanted to close. To pacify these increasingly loud protests, Congress passed laws to restrict immigration, but these laws were all open to interpretation by officials at Ellis Island, many of whom were compassionate and were reluctant to deport those who had given up everything to come to America. Faced with the tears and desperate pleas of people just trying to make a better life for themselves, laws and policies became impossible to enforce to the letter. America, land of liberty, its major port of immigration lit by the beacon of hope held in the hands of a statue that was the first thing most immigrants to America would see of their new country, was, in reality, open to the vast majority of the world’s citizens until America clamped down on its borders after WW1.

What I found most interesting about this book was not, as I suspected, the treatment of immigrants at Ellis Island and the conditions there; this wasn’t much mentioned, anyway. Instead, it was the arguments surrounding what made an ‘American’, and who had the right to become one. Having been here for just over four months, I find most people’s reactions to my very English accent amusing. The amount of people who have told me that they too are British is astounding. Their ancestors could have come over on the Mayflower, over 400 years ago, and yet still they insist that they are, really, British. I have also been regaled with tales of Irish Americans, whose great great grandparents came over from Ireland in the 19th century, and yet still, these fourth generation Americans insist that at heart they are Irish, despite never having set foot in their ‘native’ land. The legacy of immigration appears to be a country that, while fiercely patriotic (very much so, compared to the more humble Brits – not that I’m criticising – I LOVE how Americans take pride in their country and its achievements), is also very confused about its identity. What is an American, really, if every single American, apart from American Indians, is descended from someone who came from somewhere else? When do you stop being an immigrant and start being a native? What country do you belong to, if your parents are from India and yet you were born in America? How do you reconcile your ancestor’s cultures and religions and customs with those of your adopted country? And really, what can ever be described as ‘authentically American’, when American culture is built from the amalgamation of the cultures of those who came from other places to make it their own?

So many questions, and not many answers, but fascinating to ponder nonetheless. Being a temporary immigrant myself, I find that these issues are becoming more and more important to me, as I attempt to make a life for myself in a country that is so similar, and yet so fundamentally different from my own. Ellis Island has become the modern American’s Plymouth Rock, the place where a large amount of their histories began, and a place of celebration, where freedom and hope were given to the oppressed of the world. However, how can this be reconciled with the treatment of American Indians, who were herded forcibly from their lands to make way for these White European settlers? And is it right for a country made of immigrants to want to exclude others, such as Mexicans, when really, none of us choose where we are born, and all of us surely deserve the right to the best life we are able to make for ourselves? It’s a fraught issue, and still as pertinent today as it was in 1892. It’s an issue in England, too, of course, with the widening of the EU causing floods of Eastern Europeans to land on our shores. What does it mean to be English today? What does it mean to be American? In an increasingly mobile world, these definitions must become more fluid. But unlike the opponents of immigration in Ellis Island’s early years, I don’t think immigration causes nations to become diluted. I think it makes them richer. For where would America be without its German and Italian immigrants? It certainly wouldn’t be the world’s finest producer of pizza and hamburgers, that’s for sure.

17 comments

    1. Thanks Lisa! I’m glad you enjoyed it, and that you agree!🙂 Immigration is such a fascinating topic and I hope to learn even more about it while I’m here.

  1. What an insightful and provocative review of the book, Rachel, and interesting perspectives from my favorite “immigrant”.

    Being a second generation American, who grew up in a bi-lingual home, I often refer to myself as being of Greek descent. In truth, I’ve quite a bit of German and Swedish, some native American, and some roots that go back pre-Revolution, which have just been discovered. All that to say, I’m immigrant stock. I couldn’t agree with you more in you assessment that it make nations richer.

    Many of the immigrants who came over during the great tide at the turn of the 20th century not only had to endure the difficult passage across the Atlantic (or Pacific). Many of them also had treacherous journeys over mountains and terrain before they boarded boats. Ah, I could go on. Instead, I will thank you for the questions you raise and the excellent review you have given. I will have to read this sometime.

    Stay warm. It is a balmy 7 degrees here right now.

    1. Thank you Penny! I love being your favourite immigrant!😉

      It’s so interesting that so many Americans have such a rich cultural heritage, but have the shared history of being immigrants. I think it adds such a richness to American culture that I don’t see as much of in Britain. I love how you can trace your family roots back so far and find such a fascinating mix of cultures and backgrounds – all of my family, as far back as we can go, on both sides, are just bog standard English farmers. No one seemed to go anywhere! There’s not even any Welsh or Irish or Scottish ancestry, which is quite rare. So I am a true blooded English woman. Which I am proud of, but it would be nice to have some exotic blood in the mix!

      Yes, immigrants went through so much to make a new life for themselves, and it goes to show how brave and tenacious they must have been to make that trip. The dismissive attitude towards immigrants by people in the 19th century completely disregarded the strength of character and determination it must have taken to make such a huge decision to leave everything they knew behind, and to have a dream to make their lives better.

      You are welcome – I hope you do pick this up because I am sure you would find it fascinating!

      I am trying to – the cold is ridiculous here right now!

  2. A beautiful and thoughtful post. My maternal grandmother and her family came to this country via Ellis Island from 1914-1919. It took that many years to bring a dozen family members here from Austria/Hungary. If you have roots at Ellis Island, one of the most fascinating resources is the dedicated website where you can actually view the records of your relatives transport and arrival. Reading the records with a knowledge of the whole story of a particular passenger is a moving experience just as is standing in the midst of the arrival areas.

    1. Thank you, Frances. I’m glad you enjoyed it! What a wonderful family history you have – it’s amazing how easy it is now to find this sort of information out. I’m so glad they had the presence of mind to keep good records at Ellis Island, despite the sheer amount of work it must have been to do so, and that now the ancestors of the hordes of immigrants who came through that hall can find out about their families and the trials they came through to give a good future to their descendants. I will have to go back to the museum soon, though I am sad I have no immigrant ancestors of my own to trace!

  3. You have hit the immigration nail squarely on the head, Rachel. We expect no less! Thanks for this very thoughtful discussion.

    I reflect in the same way about the French. I hear, I’m Italian really – or, “my family is Russian, Hungarian, English, whatever. People are proud of their colourful heritage (especially if it makes them interesting!). So many famous French people came here at the age of 2 or 3 but seem to everyone to be quintessentially French. I love that diversity and pride.

    Warming up for the great Virago experience! I’m reading three titles next week.

    1. Thank you Chrissy, you are kind!

      That’s interesting about France – I’ve only been to quite rural country areas and it seems there that France has never been touched by immigration at all. Of course that’s not the case, and I’m fascinated to hear that so many people come from other places.

      Good good! I have nearly finished my first title and will be starting on my next one very soon! I look forward to hearing about what you read!

  4. Thanks for the great review, Rachel. Your insights into immigration and culture are very interesting. I’m from the States, and I’ve always found American culture to be very strong. When I was in undergrad, I heard a theory that says countries/cultures have a certain moment in their histories in which they form the basis of who they are. I’ve always felt that would be the Revolution for the States; so many American values are derived from the Declaration of Independence, the Revolution, the Constitution, etc. (Secondarily, we also base a lot of our culture on the Pilgrims and the Puritans; I had a part as a pilgrim in a Thanksgiving play when I was 8.)

    I feel immigrants bring new ingredients to the mix, adding pizza or hamburger as American foods. I still feel definite ties to my own German heritage, and when I visited Germany, weirdly, I felt connected to the culture in a lot of ways. Immigrants since the Revolution have definitely influenced the States in a ton of ways. I think they die the river green in Chicago every year to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, and I would expect with the influx of so many Hispanic immigrants that they would substantially influence and have influenced American culture. At the same time, I think we as Americans continually go back to that base in the Revolution to define who we are as a people.

    I’ve spent most of my adult life in Canada, so it’s influenced to a great extent how I see immigration. Canada has experienced huge levels of immigration in recent years; if you ever ride the subway in Toronto, you could sit next to a Polish woman, across from a Nigerian man, and be surrounded by Sikhs, Chinese, Vietnamese, Italians, and a whole number of other recent immigrants. According to Wikipedia, Toronto’s population is 49% non-native born Canadians. It’s been part of government policy to encourage multi-culturalism in Canada since 1971, and now, it’s part of Canada’s identity to be multi-cultural. In Canada, it is thought that you can be both from another culture and also be Canadian. Of course, problems still arise with this policy, and it is debated. I’ve felt, though, that Canada really exhibits a very accepting way to deal with immigration.

    1. Thank you Virginia, and thank you for your fascinating insights! I think you are right about a collective identity coming from the Revolution – something that I think defines America and Americans, coming from the point of view of an outsider – is the sense of patriotism, and allegiance to the essential values of liberty that the Declaration of Independence so advocates. I see the Constitution and the phrase ‘unconstititutional’ so frequently here, and I love the power Americans ascribe to the importance of having their freedom and their rights respected.

      I love how Americans can both celebrate the heritage of their immigrant ancestors and feel ties to their ‘native’ lands, like you, as well as being proud of, and celebrating, their Americanness. It’s hard to strike a balance between the old world and the new, and America, and Americans, seem to do this very well.

      That’s really interesting about Canada. When I stayed with a friend’s relatives a few years ago on the outskirts of Toronto, I was amazed to find that the vast majority of people living there were first or second generation British people, who had come over in the 1960’s when immigration to Canada was ridiculously cheap and encouraged by the British government. They had congregated in the same area and had a great community, and were proud of their Canadian and British roots. It was wonderful! I agree – Canada also seems to strike the balance well. I’m glad that you have found a welcoming home there!

  5. What a thoughtful post. We tend to compartmentalize our thoughts about certain periods of history. It is interesting to look at the perspective of the pioneers as well as the immigrants. You also picked some of my favorite authors to read about pioneers. Willa Cather and Laura Ingalls Wilder both American greats. I grew up in Springfield, Illinois and we had a pretty good mix of humanity. Thirty years ago when I moved to this little community only 40 miles away, I was surprised at how little the children knew about other cultures. They are getting a better, but I often had to explain that just because someone sounded or looked different, it didn’t mean they weren’t “real” Americans, I would remind them that unless they were full blooded Native Americans, they had ancestors from somewhere else too. Then, of course, we would have a lesson on Ellis Island and immigration in general. Sometimes it would be the first time these third graders knew that they were not just from the USA, but also from Ireland, England, Germany, Greece, or wherever. It was always fun to watch that dawn on them. They may have heard it at home, but hadn’t really thought about it. Thank you for your insightful post.

    1. Thank you, Janet, and thank you for your wonderful and interesting comments. Children have such an interesting perspective, don’t they?! One the one hand it’s great that they felt so at home and ‘American’ that they didn’t acknowledge the fact that they were immigrants or descended from immigrants, but on the other hand, it’s important that they’re aware of their heritage and know how to celebrate that too. And also, obviously, that coming from somewhere else doesn’t make you less American – coming from somewhere else is a key aspect of American identity, I think!

  6. What a very interesting post. Heritage and immigration aren’t normally things I think too much about. My personal experience is that it is a “background” thought for most people. That is, you self-identify as American and only consider ethnic heritage when it’s specifically brought up. Could just be me.

    My dad’s side is English and German and did come through Ellis Island. My mom’s side “met the boat” (Spanish and Cherokee).

    Several times I’ve met visitors from Britain and Europe who have asked me what my “nationality” is. Of course, the meant “ethnicity,” but it was an interesting slip.

    Can’t wait for your impressions of Cather.

    1. Hi Nancy, glad you enjoyed my post! Yes I agree – I never really thought of myself in the context of my nationality until I moved to America and it became obvious that I didn’t belong in the country I lived in!

      How exciting that you have relatives who came through Ellis Island. I wish I had the opportunity to discover more about my ancestors.

      You won’t have long to wait! I am typing up a post as I write this!

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