By Maxwell MacMaster
First of all it’s Ellis’s Island, not Ellis Island. Sam Ellis was a New York merchant at the time of the revolution. Through business dealings he had come into possession of a tiny sand bar in New York harbor called, at the time, Gull Island. Gull Island was about 1/4th the size of present-day Ellis Island, losing even more at high tide. It was uninhabited -- shell fisherman reclaimed oysters in its neighborhood -- thus it gained its second name -- Oyster Island. Young New York couples often used Ellis Island as picnic grounds. They would row over from bustling lower Manhattan for a day’s relaxation away from the city.
In 1776 New York was inflamed in the American Revolution. As in all revolutions there were differing opinions as to which side was right. Ironically, Sam Ellis was a loyalist. He sided with King George and was against American independence. The man whose island would someday become a symbol of American freedom had actually sided with the (then) bad guys, England.
Following the revolution, Sam was able to re-enter the mainstream, a difficult task for former loyalists, who were often tarred and feathered for their misplaced political allegiance.
IT became apparent to the authorities after the Battle of Brooklyn Heights (England in a rout) that some sort of defense was necessary to protect New York Harbor. Bedloes Island, Governors Island and, finally, Ellis Island were selected for troop garrisons. Sam, whose politics had apparently changed, gave his full support to the plan, seemingly for free.
Sam died in 1794 and title to the Island passed to his grandson. In time the island became more of an arsenal than a garrison. It was somewhat of a political hot potato having an arsenal so close to a major population center. In the 1800’s public outcry was heard demanding the closure of the arsenal. Deed to the Island was now confused and further aggravated the situation. Finally, political developments urging the limitation of new immigrants caused the government to develop new policies.
A Changing American Immigration Policy
The earliest Zadick immigrants became Americans by simply hopping off the boat (and perhaps ducking if the local natives were unfriendly). In fact, little is known for sure about the earliest, colonial-type Zadick immigrants. The records have gotten very, very dusty.
Following the American Revolution in 1776, the pace of immigration quickened but still, there was little government regulation. From 1776 right up to the Civil War, nearly 100 years later, all any self-respecting Zadick had to do to become an American was show up on our shores. The actual legal citizenship came 5 years later, but there were no restrictions on American immigration for nearly the first 100 years of our nationhood.
Immigration was actually encouraged for a period during and after the Civil War. The Homestead Act of 1962 guaranteed payment of the prospective immigrants boat fare on a sort of government loan program. This landmark legislation also promised the would be Zadick citizen that he couldn’t be drafted until or unless he became a US citizen. (There was some concern on theses matters to our ongoing Civil War; a cause the prospective Zadick immigrant had no interest).
These enticements led to a huge exodus of the poor, the downtrodden, etc. from Europe. What did they face on arrival?
From Barbara Benton’s Ellis Island:
“Landing was chaotic. Before 1847 boardinghouse runners, tavern keepers, and peddlers were allowed on board to make bargains directly with the newcomers. Once on the dock it was worse, with no interference form the police. Immigrants might be cheated while exchanging money, sold tickets to wrong destinations at inflated prices, bilked by all manner of merchants, and enticed to flea-bitten boarding houses where they were further taken advantage of. Young women were tempted into moral danger . . . .”
In 1855, New York’s Castle Garden became the first American immigrant receiving station. Ironically, its original purpose (Ft. Clinton) had been to defend New York from the British. Arriving immigrants would sop at State Island for a medical, and then pass through Castle Garden where there were translators, ticket booths, a hospital, information booths, etc. Originally, Castle Garden had been an island but numerous landfills made it into an appendage of lower Manhattan. Today, I believe the actual land location of old Castle Garden is in Battery Park.
For Zadick genealogists looking for records of an ancestor who may have passed through Castle Garden -- forget it. All the records were lost in the great Ellis Island fire of 1897.
Attempts to regulate immigration began shortly after the “big numbers” started showing up in NY Harbor late in the 1800’s. As it is today, the driving force to stop the influx was the established workingman worried about “cheap foreign labor.” The unions lobbied the congressmen and the congressmen acted.
In 1882 a head tax came into effect.
In 1885 immigrant contract labor was barred.
Ellis Island born
Years Day 1892 a fifteen year old girl form County Cork Island, Annie Moore, became the first immigrant to set foot on Ellis Island.
It was a huge processing plan (the dining room alone seated 1,000 folks). Immigrants would get about a three-minute medical inspection. The next sop was the “shrink” who was looking for the “stupid looking” immigrants. (My relatives got caught on that one every time.) They were required to “state their names, ages, do simple multiplications, etc.” Finally the immigrant passed on to “Social Service” which was manned by missionaries, aid societies, moneychangers, ticket offices, etc.
If you were a prospective Zadick immigrant in 1891 and you were “an idiot, insane, a pauper, likely to become a public charge, suffering from dangerous, contagious, or loathsome diseases, had bee convicted of a felony or other infamous crimes, or a polygamist,” (conditions not totally unheard of in the Zadick family), you were barred from entering the country by the immigration Act of 1891.
IN 1897, the original Ellis Island tinderbox (a firetrap according to the days newspapers) burned to the ground. Not to worry, it was immediately rebuilt of brick.
The swarms of immigrants continued and the politicians, egged on by the labor unions, continued to try to slow down the avalanche.
In 1903 they even banned “Anarchists” (and raised the head tax again)
In 1907 over 1,150,000 passed through.
If you have ancestors of the Zadick persuasion (or any other persuasion) that may have passed through Ellis Island (and there were lots of them) the easiest way to check the post 1897 records is through your local LDS library system as they have it all on microfilm.
But the party was coming to an end. In 1907, they raised the head tax again and added imbeciles, feeble minded, and prostitutes to the “not welcome” list.
In 1910 they declared immoral aliens as “persona non grata.”
Finally in 1917, Congress overrode a Presidential veto, and a bill requiring literacy (in at least one language) became law.
The final “slamming of the door” happened in 1921 with an immigration law that set up the current percentage system that allows in only certain numbers per nationality per year.
In the 1930’s Ellis Island was given a complete face-lift both in the remodeling and staffing areas. A national scandal involving forged immigration documents brought 250 Ellis Island employees to justice. But the immigration numbers were way down.
Ellis Island became a Coast Guard training station during WWII. 63,000 guardsmen trained there and were shipped out to naval fronts around the world. The Coast Guard quickly decommissioned Ellis Island after the war.
From 1945 to 1954 Ellis Island became a holding port for political detainees. On November 29, 1954 the Ferryboat Ellis Island made its last run. The times had changed. Ellis Island, the island that had borne the footsteps of millions, had shut down.
What to do with Ellis Island -- a white elephant of our past. After closing down, it was turned over to the General Services Administration. Initially the government tried to sell it to the highest bidder. Developers and dreamers came in with a plethora of project proposals but none of them bid a high enough price.
In 1962 a Senate subcommittee, headed by Maine Senator Edmund Muskie7, was set up to figure out what to do with Ellis Island. Nothing ever came of it.
In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson added Ellis Island to the Statue of Liberty National Monument. It would become part of Liberty State Park. A restoration plan was developed, partially carried out, but not completed.
Finally in 1976, President Gerald Ford approved a Congressional Appropriation of a millions bucks for restoration and an additional $500,000 annual budget for operations. The Island opened for business once again in 1976. This time it was not for “the poor and the downtrodden” but rather for their children and their children’s children, who had “made it” in America.
In the first year that Ellis was opened for viewing, 50,000 Americans, some of them named Zadick, proudly returned to pay homage to the site of their parents and grandparent’s entrance to America.