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Ellis Island: The Immigrants’ Experience “We were in that big room on those benches, just sitting and waiting, waiting to go through the examination.” Ursula Koropic Ruppe, Slovenian Immigrant, 1921 “Every so often somebody called out names of immigrants to be questioned. I was so nervous because it was so noisy.... [I] was afraid I would miss mine and remain there forever.” William Chase, Russian Immigrant, 1914 Over 100 million American men, women, and children can trace their heritage to the arrival of immigrants at Ellis Island n New York harbor between 1892 and 1954, the years it acted as a processing center. Located in the shallow waters of the harbor, the island had served as a Dutch oyster fishing site in the seventeenth century and a place for the public hanging of pirates in the eighteenth century. At the end of the eighteenth century a New York merchant, Samuel Ellis, purchased it, giving his name to the site. During the War of 1812 it was fortified and later accommodated a naval powder magazine. Uninhabited in the late nineteenth century, it had come into the possession of the U.S. government and seemed a logical site for a new station to process the increasingly larger numbers of immigrants arriving into the country annually. An 1890 law authorized $75,000 to remove the old powder magazine and another $75,000 to ―improve said Ellis Island for immigration purposes‖ (4). Preparations included dredging and enlarging a channel 1,250 feet long and 200 feet wide, constructing new docks to receive barges delivering immigrants, expanding the island with landfill, and 860 feet of cribwork to hold the landfill in place. The depot opened in 1892 at a cost of $500,000. Made of pine, it was destroyed by fire in 1897 and was replaced by a fireproof building in 1900. Makeshift arrangements on the island sufficed until then. The new building was constructed of brick and limestone and stood three stories high with a large central section and two stout wings on each side. It lasted until Ellis Island closed in 1954. In the late 1980s, on the heels of the hundredth anniversary of the U.S. acceptance of the Statue of Liberty, refurbishment of Ellis Island took place. It reopened in 1990 as a museum to all immigrants to America (6). The historical significance of this island is inestimable. On one day, 17 April 1907, the humanity flooding Ellis Island climbed to 11,747. Between 1900 and 1920, 14.5 million immigrants entered the nation through this point of entry. Overview Immigrants endured an ocean voyage from eight to more than twenty days—generally in cramped, unhealthful steerage—making their arrival at Ellis Island a victory of sorts over the conditions of passage. Some wore tags of identification stating their ultimate point of U.S. destination. All had passports and other papers detailing information about themselves. Second- and third-class passengers were usually processed and on their way before those in steerage. Many of the new arrivals were young adults clutching the hands of children and carrying babies. Most had all their earthly possessions in a ―bundle‖ (a makeshift sack or blanket) or a suitcase. Few expected ever to return to their homelands. Their reasons for coming to the United States were as varied as the people themselves. Having secured passage from places such as Hamburg or Liverpool, immigrants usually booked one-way passage with the expectation of staying. If they were detained or forced to return by authorities at Ellis Island, steamboat companies bore the expense. The percentage of returnees was about 2 percent, or sometimes up to one thousand a month. Detainees with medical problems were chalk-marked ―E‖ for eyes, ―L‖ for lameness, or ―X‖ for mental disability. If not sent back, detainees sometimes remained quarantined for days or weeks at Ellis before moving on to their American destinations. Upon disembarking, immigrants were directed toward a large building where they immediately entered the gigantic, sixty-foot high Registry Room. Here they underwent a quick medical exam followed by a review of their traveling papers and some legal questions, such as age? destination? employment? Most cleared this process in five hours and left for their ultimate destination the same day. Those who were detained were suspected of trachoma, a highly contagious eye disease causing blindness, or ―loathsome and contagious‖ diseases such as tuberculosis, measles, or favus, a scalp and nail fungus. These people went upstairs to the second floor for closer examination by trained medical personnel from the U.S. Public Health Service (10). Breathing difficulties, lameness, or abnormal posture could be observed on stairways by observant health care workers. The medical facilities included a 275-bed hospital, contagious disease wards for 450, X- ray facilities, laboratories, and a morgue. Between 1900 and 1954, 355 births and 3,500 deaths (1,400 of them of children) were recorded. In 1924 alone the record showed nearly fifty surgical procedures performed monthly. Once past medical inspection, immigrants joined one of many lines to answer remaining questions. Here in the span of about two minutes inspectors decided whether to admit the immigrants into the United States. It was not unusual for inspectors to work twelve-hour shifts during the peak immigration period from early spring to late fall. Sometimes immigrants without sufficient money would have to wait for the arrival of a relative or funds before leaving, but generally five days was the maximum stay at Ellis Island. Additionally, circumstances prompted boards of inquiry to ascertain why some immigrants were migrating and to determine whether they should be detained or deported. Alerts about criminals wanted in other countries, suspicion of contract laborers, or simply the fear that extremely poor people would become public charges were common. The processing experience seemed inhumane at times because of the sheer numbers, but most of the commissioners in charge tried to move the people through as quickly as the ever-tightening immigration laws allowed. Beginning with legislation in 1924, more processing took place at the point of departure, making the job less tedious for American inspectors. For the approximate 20 percent who failed immediate clearance and required detention, fourteen dormitories organized by gender were equipped with canvas or wire mesh mattresses for sleeping. The dormitories accommodated up to fifty people and lined the balcony overlooking the registry room. A large dining room served meals on a continual basis to both those passing through and those detained. Over twenty years the island grew to become a miniature city where a staff of seven hundred doctors, nurses, interpreters, matrons, clerks, maintenance workers, and night guards worked up to twelve-hour days, seven days a week. Groups such as the YMCA, Red Cross, and Salvation Army assisted by serving coffee and donuts, providing used clothing, and helping find lost luggage, wandering children, and mainland relatives. Holidays were observed with special events such as parties produced by the welfare groups. Ellis Island served as a transition place for thousands of immigrants. Marking the division between their past and their unknown future, processing at Ellis Island was an experience few ever forgot. Once the experience was complete, a barge took new arrivals to Battery Park at the tip of Manhattan where they were met by relatives, directed to sites within the city, or sent to train stations to connect with points throughout the United States. While many lived out the remainder of their days in New York, many others went to Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, and other cities. Thousands more headed for the farmlands of Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas. Procedure 1. In order to organize the simulation of Ellis Island, it is necessary that a series of pre- planned activities occur, for student role playing is really the culminating activity. Students must examine their own family history, and if possible they choose a family ancestor who migrated to the U.S. between 1892 and 1924, the peak immigration years at Ellis Island. Developing a family tree with the help of parents and relatives can be helpful in choosing someone to role play. For students who are not able to find a relative, choose one of the nations listed below and ―create‖ your a character who might have arrived in the U.S. at the turn of the century. Nations from which to choose include: Germany Ireland Poland Russia Italy Portugal Hungary Spain Rumania Greece France Austria Montenegro/Bosnia/Serbia Holland/Belgium/Luxembourg Czech/Bohemia/Slavic Norway/Sweden/Denmark 2. Once you have determine the role you will play during the simulation, research the ―homeland‖ and become familiar with your role by finding as much information about their experiences as possible (see Document 1). You should determine: Age Gender Lifestyle Family Education Language – Occupation U.S. Destination Reason for immigrating to America 3. You are required to create your own passport (Document 2) using cardboard about four-by-six inches that includes vital information such as your photograph and a thumb print. Copies of the ―papers‖ you are expected to have are attached herein (Documents 3 and 4) and must be filled out based upon researched information and personal creativity. These should be completed by the simulation day. In addition, there is a list of vocabulary words you should familiarize yourself with which is included herein, as well. 4. On the day of the simulation, you must arrive in your own costumes and with your own luggage, either a bundle or a suitcase. You should pack essential and typical items that an immigrant would have taken on their journey. NO LIVE ANIMALS or ANYTHING REMOTELY SIMILAR OR YOU WILL BE DEPORTED AT THE START OF CLASS. You are encouraged to look through old family albums or use internet sources for ideas on dress etc. Generally, women wore long skirts, blouses, shawls, and scarves on their heads or shoulders while men wore bedraggled pants or knickers, collarless shirts, plain jackets, and caps. Luggage should contain what students consider their characters’ most cherished possessions from their homeland. Most had a few changes of clothing and rolled cherished items up in a blanket, burlap bag, or knapsack or placed their things in an old-fashioned suitcase or carpetbag. Be sure you have money, as there was a required amount immigrants needed to have in order to be admitted into the U.S.. Be sure to find out what that amount is by researching it. There will be a money exchange for U.S. currency when you arrive to Ellis Island. 5. Language: You cannot speak English during the immigration because you didn’t know English, only a few basic words can be spoken at best. To accurately portray your character, you are encouraged to research simple words from the language of the nationality you will represent so that you may speak from the native tongue. If you cannot communicate the word in your native language, prepare to use sign language. You must also write your passport in a foreign language, as well. 6. You may use the Ellis Island site http://www.ellisisland.org/ as source of information or to research the family member you will portray. You may arrive on a generic ship name as identified by your instructor or, if you can locate your family member on the ship manifest, you may identify their ship to keep the project as authentic as possible. Should you decide to arrive on the ship of your ancestor, please print the ship manifest so that we may add it to our books. 7. You will need to know your destination after your arrival and processing at Ellis Island. Where will you live and how are you getting there? This should be historically accurate based on your family of origin. 8. You must know the reason that your family member immigrated to America. This may require additional research as to the causes of immigration from your country of origin. To simply say your ancestor immigrated for a better life will not suffice. You will need to research what was happening politically, economically, or otherwise that led immigrants to leave their native lands and immigrate to America. Document 1 Sample Immigrants Olga Parkowski You come from a small town in Poland where you have been earning your living as a seamstress. You are forty-two, u nmarried, and hoping to make more money in America. An American company paid for your passage to New York. You have only fifty-five Polish zlotys with you. You have been in poor health; you often cough. You know that relatives of yours died of tuberculosis. You hope to reside in New York City. Mario Rossini You come from the island of Sicily where you worked in olive groves and wine orchards for starvation wages. You have three children and a wife whom you hope to bring over to America after you have found a good paying job. You expect to connect with an uncle who has been working at a mill in Massachusetts for ten years where you hope also to get a job. It has taken you a year to scrape together enough money to pay your passage to New York, and your uncle has sent a train ticket for your trip north once you arrive. Document 3 Character Chart 1. I am a/an...(immigrant in 19__). 2. My name is: 3. Religion: 4. Date of Birth: 5. Age: 6. Place of birth: 7. These are the members of my immediate family: a. Father: b. Mother: c. Sister(s): d. Brother(s): 8. I have the following disabilities: 9. I am leaving...to live in America because of (war, famine, persecution, etc.). Explain: 10. Money in my country is measured in... 11. The amount of that currency I am bringing to America is... 12. In my country I work as a/an... 13. In my country I do not work because... 14. When I reach America I have (a sponsor, a relative, a friend, someone to employ me, no one to employ me, etc.). Explain: Document 4 United States of America Declaration of Intention State of: District of: In the District Court of the United States I_____________________age _______Occupation________,do declare on oath that my personal description is: Color: Complexion: Height: _________Feet________Inches Weight: _________ pounds Hair Color: Eye Color: Other visible distinctive marks... I was born in_______________on the ___________day of ____________anno Domini. I now live at: State: Route: City/Town: I emigrated to the United States of America from __________________ on the vessel ____________________; my foreign residence was______________________________; I am ____________married; the name of my spouse is___________________; he/she was born at _________________and now resides at___________________. It is my bona fide intention to renounce forever all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, and particularly to_____________________of whom I am now subject. I arrived at the port of_____________________________state of_____________________________, on or about the________of_______________, anno Domini____________. I am not an anarchist; I am not a polygamist nor a believer in the practice of polygamy; and it is my intention in good faith to become a citizen of the United States of America and to permanently reside there SO HELP ME GOD. Signed and sworn to before me in the office of the Clerk at...this...day of...anno Domini 1900. Jay Wood Clark, Clerk of the District Court of the United States By: ______________________________ (your signature) Vocabulary Sheet Americanization: Programs which fostered American patriotism while teaching the English language and American government. Assimilation: The process of being absorbed into the cultural traditions of a population or group. Bundle: A group of items rolled up together for convenient handling. Deportation: The removal from a country of an alien whose presence is unlawful. Detention: The keeping of an alien for a specified period because of illness, lack of money, background check, etc. Emigration: The process of leaving one’s country for residence elsewhere. Ghetto: Originally, a section of a city restricted to Jews; eventually came to mean any section of a city where members of a national or racial group live or are restricted. Immigration: The process of coming into a country of which one is not a native or permanent resident. Literacy Test: An examination of a person’s ability to read or write. Manifest: A list of passengers on a ship. Mutual Aid Societies: Organizations that provided communal support and solidarity for nationalities in times of sorrow and need. Naturalization: The process by which a person is admitted to citizenship of a particular country. Passport: A document issued by an official of a country to a citizen; necessary to enter or leave a country. Pluralism: The condition of a society in which members of diverse ethnic, racial, religious, or social groups maintain an autonomous participation in developing their particular culture. Polyglot: Literally, many-tongued; word often applied to the diversity of languages spoken in American cities during the height of immigration. Prepaid Ticket: A ticket purchased in the U.S. by an immigrant and sent home to a relative or friend for ship passage. ($20.00 was the expense to the U.S. from Hamburg, Germany.) Pull Factors: Incentives for moving to a new country, such as opportunities for economic improvement and advancement, prospect of political and religious freedom. Push Factors: Incentives for leaving one’s homeland, such as European population explosions (1800-1900), changes in landholding and farming patterns that forced peasants off land, religious and political repression. Steerage: The section in a ship for passengers paying the lowest fares and given inferior accommodations.
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