The millions of Americans are the descendants of immigrants from other nations. As for my own family, the various branches have been traced back to England in the early 1700s and Germany in the late 1800s.
However, my wife’s father, Thorold Mitchinson Watson, was born and educated in the West Indies island paradise of Barbados. His family arrived on Barbados on board the first ship from Scotland in the 1630s. He was the oldest of 12 kids of a sugarcane plantation manager. He was born on July 1, 1903.
After completing high school, which on Barbados in those days required passing an oral exam that was comprehensive of all four years of schooling, including the math. He wanted to receive a college education in the United States and become a doctor. He wrote to an uncle who lived in New York City, informing him of his plans to travel via ship to New York with hopes of staying with the uncle. Two weeks later, in early July 1921, Thorold said goodbye to his family and boarded the ship Avare which made a stop in Cuba on its way to New York City.
On July 7, 1921, 17-year-old Thorold arrived at Ellis Island in New York Harbor where he was processed as a British immigrant. After clearing the immigration at Ellis Island, Thorold made it to Manhattan and waited for his uncle. After several hours of waiting and no uncle, with address in hand, young Thorold set off on foot and finally arrived at his uncle’s house, much to their surprise. Ironically, his letter to his uncle that he mailed two weeks prior to leaving Barbados, arrived nearly a week later. Turns out that it was also on board the same ship bound for New York as it was the only ship to sail from Barbados to New York in the two weeks since he mailed the letter to his uncle.
Millions of Americans have their own stories about ancestors arriving in the United States and being processed through Ellis Island. Chances are some of you reading this will find that a family member passed through Ellis Island when they came to the United States.
The tiny spot of land, consisting of a whole 3.3 acres in the New York Harbor, is located just south of Manhattan has a storied past of its own.
The original inhabitants of the region, the Mohegan Indians referred to the small island as Kioshk, meaning Gull Island.
In the 1630s, Michael Paauw, a Dutchman, purchased Kioshk and renamed it Oyster Island because of the bountiful oyster beds found there.
In the 1700s, Oyster Island became known as Gibbet Island because of the trees that grew there which were used to hang men convicted of piracy.
Around 1775-76, a New York Merchant by the name of Samuel Ellis purchased Oyster Island and built a tavern on it that catered to local fishermen.
In 1785, Ellis tried to sell his island and tavern but was unsuccessful.
In 1794, Ellis died and ownership fell to his family.
In 1808, the State of New York purchased Ellis Island from the Ellis family for the price of $10,000, (approximately $189,000 in today’s value). The United States War Department then leases use of Ellis Island from the State of New York.
During the War of 1812, the War Department built a military fort (Fort Gibson) that was used a military barracks and storage of artillery and ammunition.
In 1855, Castle Garden opens in Lower Manhattan. Castle Garden is the first state run immigration center. The need for an official immigration center was spawned by the 1 million Irish immigrants who fled the devastating potato famine in their homeland and the tens of thousands of German immigrants fleeing the political and economic chaos plaguing Germany.
During the Civil War, Ellis Island was used as a Union Army outpost.
After the 1865 when the Civil War ends, the War department abandons Ellis Island and it stands vacant for nearly 30 years.
In 1890, the Castle Garden immigration station in Lower Manhattan closes.
On January 1, 1892, Ellis Island officially opened to receive and process immigrants. Three ships carrying around 700 immigrants land at Ellis Island, where they are processed and sent on their way.
By the end of 1892, around 450,000 immigrants pass through Ellis Island.
On June 15, 1897, while housing 200 immigrants on Ellis Island, the immigration center catches fire and is nearly destroyed. All the immigration records dating back to 1840 that were being stored on Ellis Island are destroyed in the fire. Temporarily, the immigration center is relocated to a barge moored at Battery Park in Manhattan.
By December 1902, a new immigration center is built on Ellis Island. The new facility is designed to be fireproof.
From 1903 to 1910, landfill is used to expand the 3.3-acre island to over 27 acres in the form of two new adjacent islands. One island contains a hospital with a contagious disease ward. The third island houses a psychiatric center.
In 1915, Ellis Island receives and processes 178,416 immigrants.
In 1917, the US Army uses Ellis Island as a way station for Navy personnel and a detention center for immigrants deemed to be enemy aliens.
In 1918, the number of immigrants processed through Ellis Island drops to only 28,867.
On July 7, 1921, my father-in-law is one of the immigrants that passed through Ellis Island.
By 1932, the Great Depression has caused more people to emigrate from the US than to immigrate to and many of the buildings on Ellis Island begin to fall into neglect and are abandoned.
By 1949, the US Coast Guard uses Ellis Island for offices and storage.
On this day, November 12, 1954, all 33 buildings and structures on Ellis Island are officially closed. During its 62-year operation, over 12 million immigrants were processed through Ellis Island.
In March 1955, US General Services Administration takes possession of Ellis Island as it is declared to be surplus property of the federal government.
In 1965, Ellis Island becomes the property of the National Park Service due to Proclamation 3656 issued by the President Lyndon Johnson. Under the National Park Service, Ellis Island becomes part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument.
Sources for the above includes: About Ellis Island; Ellis Island History -A Brief Look; Ellis Island Closes; History of New York’s Ellis Island; History of Ellis Island; Ellis Island – A Brief History of Events