Thursday, May 11, 2006

Emigrants at Ellis Island

History and Old Stuff...

Emmigrant children, Ellis Island
Photo courtesy of the National Archives.
Emigrant children at Ellis Island, 1908.

I am fond of old books, and I bought another one at a tag sale last Saturday. It is Volume 5 of The New Student's Reference Work for Teachers Students and Families, and it was published by F.E. Compton and Company of Chicago in 1911. The set of books must have been an ancestor of today's Compton's Encyclopedia.

Much of the book is educational stories about various topics. I enjoyed the description of emigrants arriving at Ellis Island. This contemporary description is informative both in its factual content and in its inadvertent documentation of attitudes of the time. With the current furor over immigration to America, it is interesting to get a glimpse of immigration in a different time.

I believe that my great-grandparents Sees came from Germany through Ellis Island. I am not sure of the year, but I think it would have been between 1900 and 1910, about the time of the photo above and the description that appears below. (Aunt Becky or other family members, you can correct me if you read this.)

Here is an excerpt from the Ellis Island story. The punctuation and spelling are as they appear in the book. (Any obvious typos are mine.)

A child on the top deck of a ship, is observing emigrants arriving in New York City...

...A great ocean steamer is five or six stories deep, you remember. You have lived in the top story, or first cabin. You have never seen the people below you. You can see them now, as they go ashore over the gang plank, if you stand by the deck rail and look down.

A crowd of the strangest looking people pour over the gang plank from the third deck, or steerage. They look like little bits of all the countries you have seen or read about. Few of the women wear hats. They have handkerchiefs or caps or shawls on their heads. They carry babies in their arms, on their hips or their backs. Little childrren cling to their short, wide skirts. The men and boys carry mountains of queer shaped bundles and boxes and bags on their heads and shoulders. They stand by these bundles on the dock, as if they feared to lose them. Men in uniform keep the crowds moving. They shout orders in a dozen languages. The people are weary from the long journey, but oh, so interested in everything, so eager and hopeful. They wait patiently with their babies and their bundles and do everything they are told to do.

They will not be allowed to leave this dock, as do the cabin passengers. Although they are on American soil, they have not been admittted to make their homes here yet. In the old days, every one could come in freely. They cannot do that now. We found that a great many very old people, and orphan children, and blind and crippled and feeble-minded people, came. They did not belong here, but we had to take care of them. Many bad men came, too. They had been in prison in their own land, and they gave us much trouble. So laws were passed to admit only those who were strong and well and good honest workers. Every one who comes must have some money to give him a start. Children and old people must have some one to care for them.

All these people must get on a barge, or open boat, and go back to the emigrant station on Ellis Island. Ellis Island is just inside the harbor. You can buy a ticket and go there to see these people examined and questioned by government officers. Your boat is fast so it passes the barge.

When you leave your boat, hurry across the open space to a big building like a railway station. Go up a side stairway to a gallery that runs around a big white-tiled room and look down. Up the wide central stairway come the people from the barge. There are thousands of them. See if there are any you know.

Oh, there are the Dutch children. They wear wooden shoes just as they did three hundred years ago. That is an Irish family. The children have merry eyes. That is a German family. The children are stout and fair and rosy, You wonder if "dear mother" has a Christmas tree in that beautiful linen chest she sits on. There are some English or Scotch people. The little girls are shy, the boys independent little fellows. And there are such a lot of people who never came to America at all, in the old days.

Those big black-bearded men in long overcoats, caps, and high boots are Russian farmers. They will go out to wide western plains to grow wheat. We need that kind of Americans. The smaller, long-bearded men who are near them, are Russian Jews. They have had trouble about their religion, and come to us for peace and safety. They will work in tailor shops in the big cities. Some will be peddlers. By and by they will have good shops of their own.

Those men in velveteen jackets with nickel buttons and bright red vests, are Hungarians in their Sunday clothes. Some are in sheepskin coats. Their women have short skirts, bare heads, and embroidered aprons. These people will work in mines and packing houses and steel foundries. There are no women with those red-capped Turks who have come to sell us Oriental rugs. Those handsome Greeks will be peddlers of fruit or of plaster casts of old Greek statues. The Italians with dark, rosy faces, have dozens of little ones with them. The men are small but they can do the hardest kind of labor on railroad beds and street sewers. The Norwegians are tall. In their old home they are sailors. They will not be afraid to do iron work on sky-scrapers and bridges. Those fair, very clean, young women are Swedes. With the German and Irish girls, they make the best housemaids in the world. There are very few people among these new-comers who cannot do some useful work.

Men in uniform are at every door and stair landing. They can speak many languages and they know what country every one comes from by his dress and face. They are kind to these strangers. Now, one says to a scared little Italian woman, in her own language:

"Signora (madam), come in out of the draft. The bambino (baby) will catch cold." She smiles happily to hear her own dear tongue in this strange America. So it goes, all along the line. Five thousand strangers are made to feel at home.

On one stair landing stands a government doctor in uniform. He looks closely at every man, woman and child. Now he pulls a man out of line and marks a cross on his sleeve with chalk. The doctor thinks this man has tuberculosis. That is a "catching" disease, and few people get well of it. He must go to a special room and be examined. Another doctor looks at people's eyes. Another looks at their faces to see if they are bright enough to earn a living. People who are a little sick from the journey are sent to a hospital right on the Island and made well. Children with measles or other "catching" disease that they can be cured of, are sent to city hospitals.

Inspectors look at the numbered tag pinned to each emigrant's coat and tell him which wire-screened room to go to. There he finds an officer who speaks his language. The officer has a long paper that tells all about him. It was filled out in the seaport town from which he sailed. Now he must answer all these questions again. What is his name, his age, his birthplace? What useful work can he do? How much money did he bring with him? Has he friends in America? Where does he want to go? Has he ever been in prison; or in an assylum; or dependent on charity? What is his health? If his answers are satisfactory and truthful he pays a fee of $4.00. This is to pay the expenses of the emigrant station.

Then, if he is going farther than New York, an officer goes with him to the ticket office. He buys his ticket and checks his baggage. He finds that, in America, people do not drag heavy bundles about with them, but have them carried safely in trains, for nothing. Then he is put onto a barge with other people going his way, and taken to his railway station. There, another agent puts him on the right train. He is not allowed to go wrong. No one can cheat him or get his money away from him. Many have to wait until friends claim them, or until the sick members of the family come from a hospital. Such people have a big, steam-heated room to sit in. They have good food at low cost. They have white iron and canvas beds to sleep in.

Everyone who is admitted to America leaves the emigrant station through a certain swing door. A smiling man in uniform stands there, looks at the admission ticket and points the way. On the door is a sign that reads:
"Push: to New York."
That is the front door to America.

Once the new-comer is through that door he can go anywhere he likes, in our broad land, to live and work. Some days five thousand emigrants go through that door, and every year a million or more. In a few years they learn to speak English and all other American ways. Their children go to our schools. They all change into Americans so quickly you think there must be some magic in the words on the front door:
"Push: to New York."

Excerpted from Volume 5 of The New Student's Reference Work for Teachers Students and Families, Chapter XIX, "The Front Door of America", pp. 2299-2302. The book was published by F.E. Compton and Company of Chicago and copyrighted in 1909 and 1911.

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Wrkinprogress said...


Thank you for this amazing account! Considering how much immigration has been in the news lately, it's particularly interesting to have a view of it from 100 years ago. Personally, I have a hard time being critical of immigrants, considering that, unless we're 100% Native American, we all come from immigrants ourselves.

Thanks again for taking the time to do this for us all.


Genevieve said...

I'm glad you read the whole thing. I think it is a fascinating description.

I used to type for a living, so I am a virtual typing machine once I get going. It wasn't too bad typing this up. :D

You know, things like this need to be put into digital form and put on the internet as a part of the great body of public domain knowledge that all can access. It's called "adding content to the Web." That's really why I typed and posted it.

LittleOne said...

I believe that one of the reasons that God has blessed our land is because we have opened our doors to the world. I just hope that we continue to encourage and require all new-comers to become legal citizens so that they share in both the freedoms and the responsibilities of being a true American. I would expect the same of myself if I were to leave America and immigrate to another country.

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CONTENTMENT: Keep your heart free from hate, your mind from worry, live simply, expect little, give much, sing often, pray always, forget self, think of others and their feelings, fill your heart with love, scatter sunshine. These are the tried links in the golden chain of contentment.
(Author unknown)

IT IS STILL BEST to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasure; and to be cheerful and have courage when things go wrong.
(Laura Ingalls Wilder, 1867-1957)

Thanks for reading.