Ellis Island is an island in the upper area of the New York Bay, near the mouth of the Hudson River. The historical uses of this island have been varied, but it is most remembered for the time it served as an immigration processing center, from 1892-1954. It is estimated that over 12 million immigrants went through Ellis Island on their way to the United States, and 40% of Americans can trace ancestors to this island.
Before it was an immigration station, Ellis Island was known as Gull Island to the Native American people who lived in the area. The Dutch used the island to harvest oysters, and sold it to Samuel Ellis in 1785. Ellis gave the island his name and opened a tavern there, and when the island was bought by the State of New York, the name remained the same. In 1808, the state sold the island to the federal government, which initially established a military fort and munitions storage there.
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In 1890, faced with the growing difficulty of processing immigrants at Castle Garden in Manhattan, the government decided to turn Ellis Island into an immigration station. The size of the island was greatly increased with the use of landfill material, and a central hall was built along with dormitories, medical treatment facilities, and other administrative buildings. All new entries to the United States had to go through the island for inspection before being allowed into the country.
Approximately 2% of immigrants were turned back to their countries of origin. This decision was usually made because of outstanding medical or legal problems which seemed likely to become an issue. Others were entered into the registry books and sent on to the mainland. A computerized record of the Ellis Island books is available for genealogy research. In 1917, a literacy test was required for new immigrants, and in the 1920s, quotas began to be instituted, and the bulk of immigration processing was turned over to American consulates in the country of origin. In 1954, the island ceased to be an immigration processing center.
In 1965, Ellis Island was classified as a National Monument, and passed into the care of the National Parks Service. By the 1970s, the island was in poor shape, and the Parks Service worked to restore the grounds and buildings, opening the Ellis Island Immigration Museum in 1990. Modern visitors to the island travel by ferry, and are able to explore the buildings and see historical materials of interest.