Why was Ellis Island seen as both an Island of Hope and an Island of Tears?

by Therese Olsson

When the tired but enduring immigrants arrived they saw a huge crowd of people. It was overwhelming! They had come to Ellis Island, the main processing station for immigrants arriving in New York, America between 1892 and 1954.

The people, who came to this place and had left their home-countries and their lives, as they knew them, were brave and strong people. They trusted in their faith and prayers.

Between 3000 and 5000 immigrants arrived here on a busy day. It is fascinating to learn about their feelings and thoughts after long and difficult journeys and with Ellis Island in front of them. In this essay I will tell part of their stories and what they had to face and go through when they arrived. Ellis Island would give them reasons to laugh and hope and reasons to cry in despair. I will present facts about what could happen and did happened on this Island of Hope and Island of Tears. I would like to do it with the thought of the immigrants as individuals, not just numbers of people and statistics. Each of the immigrants arrived in different circumstances and had their own stories to tell and they were affected by what they experienced on Ellis Island in different ways.

It is hot! The room is overcrowded. Most people wear several layers of clothes because it is easier than having to carry them in bundles. It smells musty and the stench of dirt is overwhelming. In this room there is a stunning loud noise of people chatting. Most people can’t understand what the other one is saying. Children are crying. Instructions are being given out. The people are trying to stay with people they know and together comprehend what is happening to them and why.

"Vad sager han?" (What is he saying? in Swedish)

"Minne me olemme menossa?" (Where are we going? In Finnish)

"Werden sie mich hereinlassen?" (Will they let me in? In German)

"Donde esta mi hija?" (Where is my daughter? In Spanish)

If you look around you will see very tired faces. Some with joy, others with confusion. Some of these people will be allowed to start new lives, others will have to go back to their old and miserable ones.

This was Ellis Island.

These people were the immigrants who left their home-countries where they had to struggle every day with poverty, starvation, oppression, hard work and unpromising futures. But on Ellis Island they had to face other struggles, maybe their hardest one. Some people were let in without problems; others were detained for shorter or longer periods for a number of different reasons. Some had to go back to where they came from. Many immigrants had happy moments on this Island; they were let in and reunited with family and relatives. Others were separated from their loved ones and were forced to face the realisation that they were rejected.

Most immigrants met America for the first time on Ellis Island. The first immigrant to arrive on Ellis Island in 1892 was 15-year-old Annie Moore from Ireland. Over 12 million immigrants passed through over the years. 20 percent were detained and 2 percent were sent back. This might not sound like a huge number but when one realize that this happened to 250 000 individuals one understand that this dreadful event became a reality for many immigrants:

Let no one believe that landing on the shores of ‘The land of the free, and the home of the brave’ is a pleasant experience; it is a hard, harsh fact, surrounded by the grinding machinery of the law, which sifts, picks and chooses; admitting the fit and excluding the weak and helpless.7
This was the harsh reality.

The immigrants were more or less, as one can imagine, in bad shape when they arrived in New York after having to endure the bad conditions on board vessels for everything from 10 days up to three weeks in the early 1900s. The journeys were often very difficult and forced the passengers to live in dirt and overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. They had no privacy, no fresh food, water or air. Most passengers had to cope with seasickness. Diseases spread easily in those unhygienic surroundings. This went on for days. Of course these experiences onboard the ships affected the immigrant’s reactions to their reception on Ellis Island. They were probably happy they had gotten so far and had survived the journey at sea but they were most certainly very tired and wearied upon arrival. I am sure many of the rejected immigrants had a very hard time on the returning ship having to go through that journey again. I believe for many this was an impossible thought.

Most immigrants also arrived with the distress and knowledge and awareness of the fact that they had put all their hard earned money, expectations, hopes and future in this little piece of paper, the ticket that took them across the great Atlantic. Everything they owned in this world they either wore or carried in bundles. People had been saving money for years to be able to go.

One immigrant woman explained her fear of being sent back by saying:

…I was frightened to be sent back where I came from, where I did not have a job, I did not have a family. I did not have a home, I had spent every last cent of my money…

The process the newly arrived immigrants had to go through was a sifting process. America was very determined not to let anybody in who would become a burden on the society and take advantage of their welfare. In 1875 federal regulations started to exclude undesirable people. In the Immigration Act of that year it was stated that no convicted felons or prostitutes were given permission to enter. In the Immigration Act of 1891 paupers were added to the list of excludable people. Even though the poorest people in Europe couldn’t afford to buy a ticket many immigrants who came were poor by American standards, the Act of 1891 must have made it harder for these poor people to convince the officials they would not become a burden. This of course must have added to their agony.

From 1819 passenger lists with information about the passengers were required to help select the ones who would be turned down. New information, which the passengers had to state, was added during the years since the authorities excluded more and more people. A passenger had to state for example marital status, occupation, final destination in America, mental and physical health. These manifests were given to the immigration officials upon arrival. By 1917 the list of undesirable people consisted of 33 different classes, epileptics, idiots, children under 16 unaccompanied by a parent, illiterates for example.

It was the steerage passengers who had to board barges and continue to Ellis Island wearing number tags that would link them to the ship’s manifests. There they were carefully scrutinized. I am sure they must have felt like cattle.

First the immigrants had to go through the medical examination and this experience was frightful for many. If a woman had children and they were over two years of age they were required to walk by themselves12. This caused of course great distress to both mother and the frightened child. Ellis Island must have seemed even more unpleasant seen from the eyes of a child.

You were not allowed in if you had any contagious diseases or if you had a condition that would prevent you from taking care of yourself.

Most people passed the medical examination easily. Still, many got a chalk mark placed on their clothes and had to go for further medical examinations, for example X stood for mental illness. There were 17 different chalk marks to use if needed.

One very unpleasant experience for many women happened during the medical experience when they had to strip in front of each other. I believe many women found this humiliating. Not until 1914 could one find female doctors, which made it a little less frightening for the women. Also, women alone were observed more closely than men by a matron who wanted to single out all pregnant women, it was important to make sure these women had somebody who would take care of them. Many women, I believe, were not used to this kind of treatment and it definitely added fear to the whole experience.

In 1917 the medical inspector had to observe 60 different medical conditions. I found an interesting story about a woman who was detained for some mental tests and was asked by an examiner "If you would use a broom to clean stairs, would you clean from the bottom up or the top down?" She replied, "I didn’t come to America to sweep stairs". She was allowed to enter and could start her new life.

The British author Stephen Graham wrote in the early 1900s about Ellis island:

"The nearest earthly likeness to the final Day of judgement, when we have to prove our fitness to enter heaven"

If an immigrant didn’t pass the medical examination he or she would have to go through further examinations and then it was decided if the immigrant would have to be detained, deported or let in through the gates. Everybody looked at the detention room with dread. Usually nobody understood why he or she had to go to the detention room because nobody had time to explain the reasons properly. I think many immigrants went through Ellis Island with little or no understanding at all of what had happened. Even if they had interpreters to translate what was being said I still think that officials didn’t have time to explain things since they had to see between 400 and 500 immigrants a day. This feeling of not having any control of the situation must have been terrifying for the immigrants.

After the medical inspection there were the legal examination. The immigrants were being questioned about their fitness to enter America. The more restrictions that came about the more questions needed to be asked. Usually the immigrants had interpreters for this cross-examination. In 1917 literacy tests were given and also intelligence tests. This made it hard for older immigrants who many times couldn’t read and might be sent back because of that. This could be one reason for separations of families if the immigrant didn’t manage to hide it.

There were many unnecessary deportations and separations of families. This made Ellis Island "…one of the most tragic places on earth" . If one was detained one had to stay in overcrowded and unsanitary quarters until the problem was resolved. Sometimes it took just a few hours and sometimes weeks. It depended on the problem, maybe the immigrant was sick and had to stay at the hospital or maybe a family member or a relative needed to be found who could care for the one who just arrived. This long wait caused great agony!

There were of course dishonest officials working there who easily took advantage of the newly arrived and their vulnerability. For example I can tell the story of a young girl who were promised entrance if she met the inspector at a hotel. She was heartbroken when she asked another passenger: "Do I look like that?".

Many immigrants needed comfort and help and they didn’t always have family or friends to turn to. Several charity or religious organizations offered help. Maybe the handing out of a Bible would comfort a confused soul.


Ellis Island started the process of an immigrant’s new life. This must have been the happiest day for many. They were given a chance of a new life. Not to forget "Ellis Island was a place of choice and of opportunity, but it was also a place of exclusion, rejection and deportation". It could go either way, blissful joy or overwhelming disaster. Families were forced to make difficult decisions.

Even though Ellis Island was known as Heartbreak Island there were reasons to celebrate. Many people were reunited with family and relatives. The kissing post was the name of the spot were immigrants who were allowed entrance would meet the ones they had been separated from, maybe for years.

I also think that sometimes it was difficult for an inspector to give an immigrant a negative answer. They were people too and they had feelings even if they tried not to let them get in the way for the final decision. I am sure they shed tears too.

I believe immigrants experienced the Island differently even though they were there for the same reasons. Some were chocked by the treatment they received, others were used to struggle and fight for their rights. I believe people who emigrated were very determined to find better opportunities to build better lives. The answer they received on Ellis Island would affect not only their own future but also their children’s future. It is understandable that immigrants reacted strongly to the final answer they received. Some immigrants would remember this place as an Island of Hope, others as an Island of Tears.


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