Portraits of Ellis Island Immigrants Arriving on America’s Welcoming Shores Circa 1907

Guadalupe Woman

The shib­bo­leths of our polit­i­cal cul­ture have trend­ed late­ly toward the loathe­some, crude, and com­plete­ly spe­cious to such a degree that at least one promi­nent colum­nist has summed up the ongo­ing spec­ta­cle in Cleve­land as “grotes­querie… on a lev­el unique in the his­to­ry of our repub­lic.” It’s impos­si­ble to quan­ti­fy such a thing, but the sen­ti­ment feels accu­rate in the fer­vor of the moment. We’ll hear a tor­rent of well-worn counter-clichés at the oth­er par­ty’s big con­ven­tion, and one of them that’s sure to come up again and again is the phrase “nation of immi­grants.” The U.S., we’re told over and over, is a “nation of immi­grants.” And it is. Or has become so, though the term “immi­grant” is not an uncom­pli­cat­ed one, as we’ve seen in the EU’s strug­gle to parse “refugees” from “eco­nom­ic migrants.”

German Stowaway

The U.S. is also a nation of indige­nous peo­ple and for­mer slaves, inden­tured ser­vants, and set­tler colonists, all very dif­fer­ent histories—and aca­d­e­m­ic his­to­ri­ans are care­ful not to blur the cat­e­gories, even if politi­cians, ordi­nary cit­i­zens, and text­book pub­lish­ers often do. Yet rhetoric about who owns the coun­try, and who gets to “take it back,” clouds every issue—it belongs to every­one and no one, or as Wal­lace Stevens put it, “this is everybody’s world.”

Danish Man

But when we talk about the his­to­ry of immi­gra­tion, we usu­al­ly talk about a spe­cif­ic his­to­ry dat­ing from the mid-19th to ear­ly-20th cen­tu­ry, dur­ing which diverse groups of peo­ple arrived from all over the world, bring­ing with them their lan­guages, cus­toms, food, and cul­tures, and only slow­ly becom­ing “Amer­i­cans” as they nat­u­ral­ized and assim­i­lat­ed to var­i­ous degrees, forcibly or oth­er­wise. We also talk about a legal his­to­ry that pro­scribed cer­tain kinds of peo­ple and cre­at­ed hier­ar­chies of desir­able and unde­sir­able immi­grants with respect to eth­nic and nation­al ori­gin and eco­nom­ic sta­tus.

Algerian Man

Mil­lions of the peo­ple who arrived dur­ing the peak of U.S. immi­gra­tion passed through the immi­gra­tion inspec­tion sta­tion at New York’s Ellis Island, which oper­at­ed between the years 1882 and 1954. The indi­vid­u­als and fam­i­lies who spent any time there were work­ing peo­ple and peas­ants. Among new arrivals, “the first and sec­ond class pas­sen­gers were con­sid­ered wealthy enough,” writes The Pub­lic Domain Review, “not to become a bur­den to the state and were exam­ined onboard the ships while the poor­er pas­sen­gers were sent to the island where they under­went med­ical exam­i­na­tions and legal inspec­tions.”

Italian Woman

Many of these indi­vid­u­als also sat for por­traits tak­en by the Chief Reg­istry Clerk Augus­tus Sher­man while “wait­ing for mon­ey, trav­el tick­ets or some­one to come and col­lect them from the island.” Sherman’s cam­era cap­tured strik­ing images like the poised Guade­lou­pean woman in pro­file at the top, the defi­ant Ger­man stow­away below her, stern Dan­ish man fur­ther down, Alger­ian man and Ital­ian woman above, and severe-look­ing trio of Dutch women and Geor­gian man below.

Dutch Women

These pho­tographs date from before 1907, which was the busiest year for Ellis Island, “with an all-time high of 11,747 immi­grants arriv­ing in April.” About two per­cent of immi­grants at the time were denied entry because of dis­ease, insan­i­ty, or a crim­i­nal back­ground. That per­cent­age of peo­ple turned away rose in the fol­low­ing decade, and the diver­si­ty of peo­ple com­ing to the coun­try nar­rowed sig­nif­i­cant­ly in the 1920s, until the 1924 immi­gra­tion act imposed strict quo­tas, “as immi­grants from South­ern and East­ern Europe were seen as infe­ri­or to the ear­li­er immi­grants from North­ern and West­ern Europe” and those from out­side the Euro­pean con­ti­nent were lim­it­ed to a tiny frac­tion of the almost 165,000 allowed that year.

Russian Cossack

“Fol­low­ing the Red Scare of 1919,” writes the Den­sho Ency­clo­pe­dia, “wide­spread fear of rad­i­cal­ism fueled anti-for­eign sen­ti­ment and exclu­sion­ist demands. Sup­port­ers of immi­gra­tion leg­is­la­tion stressed recur­ring themes: Anglo-Sax­on supe­ri­or­i­ty and for­eign­ers as threats to jobs and wages.” Not coin­ci­den­tal­ly, dur­ing this time the coun­try also saw the resur­gence of the Klu Klux Klan, which—notes PBS—“moved in many states to dom­i­nate local and state pol­i­tics.” It was a time that very much resem­bled our own, sad­ly, as fanat­i­cal nativism and white suprema­cy became dom­i­nant strains in the polit­i­cal dis­course, accom­pa­nied by much fear­mon­ger­ing, dem­a­goguery, and vio­lence. (It was also in the teens and twen­ties that the idea of a supe­ri­or “West­ern Civ­i­liza­tion” was invent­ed.)

Group Portrait Ellis Island

The por­traits above were pub­lished in Nation­al Geo­graph­ic and “hung on the walls of the low­er Man­hat­tan head­quar­ters of the fed­er­al Immi­gra­tion Ser­vice” in 1907, before the hys­te­ria began. They show us the human face of an abstract phe­nom­e­non far too often used as an epi­thet or catch-all scare word rather than a fact of human exis­tence since humans have exist­ed. Becom­ing acquaint­ed with the his­to­ry of immi­gra­tion in the U.S. allows us to see how we have han­dled it well in the past, and how we have han­dled it bad­ly, and the pho­to­graph­ic evi­dence pre­serves the dig­ni­ty of the var­i­ous indi­vid­ual peo­ple from all over the world who were lumped togeth­er collectively—as they are today—with the loaded word “immi­grant.”

Ellis Island 2

These images come from the New York Pub­lic Library’s online archive of Ellis Island Pho­tographs, which con­tains 89 pho­tos in all, includ­ing sev­er­al exte­ri­or and inte­ri­or shots of the island’s facil­i­ties and many more por­traits of arriv­ing peo­ple. We’re grate­ful to the Pub­lic Domain Review (who have a fas­ci­nat­ing new book on Nitrous Oxide com­ing out) for bring­ing these to our atten­tion. For more of the NYPL’s huge repos­i­to­ry of his­tor­i­cal pho­tographs, see their Flickr gallery of over 2,500 pho­tos or full dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy col­lec­tion of over 180,000 images.

Ellis Island 1

via The Pub­lic Domain Review

Relat­ed Con­tent:

1,000+ Haunt­ing & Beau­ti­ful Pho­tos of Native Amer­i­can Peo­ples, Shot by the Ethno­g­ra­ph­er Edward S. Cur­tis (Cir­ca 1905)

478 Dorothea Lange Pho­tographs Poignant­ly Doc­u­ment the Intern­ment of the Japan­ese Dur­ing WWII

The New York Pub­lic Library Lets You Down­load 180,000 Images in High Res­o­lu­tion: His­toric Pho­tographs, Maps, Let­ters & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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