Friday, December 27, 2013

Cephalopod Coffeehouse: American Passage: The History of Ellis Island

Immigration in the U.S. is complicated. This is a fact. And, from what I've read in Vincent J. Cannato's non-fiction account of Ellis Island's history, it's always been complicated.

Welcome to December's round of the Cephalopod Coffeehouse! I hope everyone is having a lovely holiday season! If you're not busy socializing with family, watching football, or taking in the season's festivities, then might I interest you in a discussion on U.S. immigration? Sounds fun, doesn't it?

This past month I dove into a non-fiction account of Ellis Island -- American Passage: The History of Ellis Island -- that little island in New York Harbor that initially threw its doors open to foreigners from all over Europe. Your first question might be why I felt the need to delve into such an extensive history on immigration, and I'll clear the confusion up right away. I'm researching a new book I plan on writing come the new year and the majority of it takes place on Ellis Island around the turn of the twentieth century-- a time when hundreds of thousands of immigrants were spilling into the United States. I found it all so very fascinating!

Vincent J. Cannato's book takes the reader on a journey that right away makes one see exactly where the growing pains of immigration began. His book is primarily about straightforward facts when it came to laws and regulations concerning immigrants and how to handle the rising tide. This is what Cannato says about it in his Introduction:
"Americans need a history that does not glorify the place in some kind of gauzy, self-congratulatory nostalgia, nor mindlessly condemn what occurred there as the vicious bigotry of ugly nativists. Instead, this book seeks to understand what happened at Ellis Island and why it happened."
And that's exactly what I was looking for when I cracked this book open. Cannato details the history of Ellis Island from it's early days as Gibbet Island, an execution ground for pirates (I know!), through the tumultuous and insanely busy days at the turn of the century, to its waning days as a detention center for Communist sympathizers in the 1950s. Ellis Island was officially closed as an immigration/detention center in 1954. By then, most buildings on the island had been shuttered and the main building had fallen into disrepair with some of the detainees commenting that the place was "a disgusting place," "a prison," met with "bitter disappointment," and "dirty, dingy, and grey with age."

In its heyday, Ellis Island (but initially Castle Garden before Ellis Island's main building was built) was the main immigration station in the United States, handling and processing some 12 million immigrants from 1892 to 1924. No immigrant could fully say he/she had entered the U.S. until they passed through those final doors and took the ferry into New York City. In many ways, Ellis Island also became a lightening rod for controversy. With the rise of eugenics, many stalwart Americans opposed the idea of letting just anyone into the country, especially the dirty, unwanted foreigners from over seas. On the flipside, immigrant societies and newspapers ripped Ellis Island's administration apart on many occasions, saying that not enough was being done to keep immigrants safe and free from deportation.

"The Stranger at Our Gate"
A popular depiction of immigrants first
published by the magazine Our Day
 in 1896.

With the 1891 Immigration Act the list of "undesirables" not to be admitted rose. It included "idiots, insane persons, paupers or persons likely to become public charges, persons suffering from a loathsome or a dangerous disease, persons who have been convicted of a felony or other infamous crime or misdemeanor involving moral turpitude, polygamists." As horrifying as it may sound to include immigrants in these categories, this is exactly what they did during the majority of early immigration. The idea was to sift the incoming immigrants and this was the best plan the government could come up with.

I think at times we tend to think of immigration pains as in the here and now. The truth is that the U.S.'s immigration predicament started long before now. Theodore Roosevelt had a lot on his plate at one time and, unfortunately, the passing of the immigration buck just went from president to president, hoping that in some way a solution would finally be found. We still grapple with that indecisiveness today.

Cannato does a thorough job with the historical aspects of Ellis Island, and I was happy to find such a well thought-out source. I will say that there were a few times I was put off by the way Cannato produced his facts. It was obvious he was interjecting his opinion at times. For instance, in an interview given by Vera, Countess of Cathcart in 1926, when detained for adultery (yes, that did happen under the moral turpitude clause) after her love interest the Earl of Craven fled to Canada when issued an arrest warrant for the same charge, said the following: "I am not a coward and have not run away, like the Earl of Craven. He has proved himself a coward in many ways." After this, Cannato puts into parentheses: "This was a man who had lost a leg in combat as a young officer during World War I." (Page 262) Cannato saying that when a man loses a leg in war he is no longer a coward? Or that if the man gives the authorities the slip for an arrest warrant that him losing his leg cancels out his present cowardly actions? I'm not sure, but I came across little tidbits like this from time to time. In all, though, I'd say I enjoyed reading Cannato's dissection of such a complicated piece of American history.

So, there you have it. A little breakdown on the U.S.'s history of immigration through Ellis Island. A few years ago I had the privilege to visit what is now the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. The main building has been overhauled and is fascinating to visit. What I loved most is the Registry Room where once upon a time incoming immigrants were asked a variety of questions before given or denied entry. It's large, nicely reconstructed and quiet. It's good to just sit there and maybe see if you can hear a conversation or two among the voices of the past.

Ellis Island in 1905.

Ellis Island today.
Make sure to check out other reviews in this month's Cephalopod Coffeehouse.


  1. The story of immigration is deeply ingrained in our national culture and yet so many seem unwilling to see past the current controversies to remember that most of our ancestors came over on one boat or another. 12 million came through Ellis Island in 12 years? Wow! Cannato's book sounds like a relatively balanced assessment - much needed.

  2. 12 million is a crazy number. At the height of immigration over 1 million people a year were passing through Ellis Island. Contrary to what many people believe, only about 2% of that 12 million were denied entry and later deported. Immigration in America has a very long history indeed!

  3. oh this is yet another book that I must have because I like history and am fascinated by Ellis Is as my ancestors mostly came through there. I have so many great books awaiting to be read so I shall make a note of this one.

  4. ps now have marked your blog to follow on my book review blog too.

    1. Thanks for following along, Pat! It's also good to meet another as fascinated as I am by history. It's great to have you here!

  5. I don't read much non-fiction but this could be intriguing. I like the subject matter...I'm not entirely sure of the journey my family took to get here and it is just about too late to find out...

    1. I don't think it's ever too late to find out your family's history. Actually, tracing genealogy has grown a lot in the past 10-20 years, thanks to the Internet. It seems like every time I turn around someone is wondering one thing or another about their family's roots. The cool thing about going to Ellis Island is that my mother was able to find her family's name on the memorial wall they have there. It was kind of a cool moment to experience!

  6. This does look interesting! It reminds me of that Indigo Girls song, "Shame on You." "They say we be looking for illegal immigrants / can we check your car / I say you know it's funny I think we were on the same boat / back in 1694." It seems every generation of immigrants wants the door shut firmly behind them: after us, nobody else is allowed in. WE were the good immigrants who strengthened the melting pot, but THEY are a dirty rabble.

    Can't wait to hear more about your new project!

    1. I don't think I know that song of the Indigo Girls, but you're right in saying that "every generation of immigrants wants the door shut firmly behind them." That was very apparent in Cannato's book. Those who rallied against the incoming tide of immigrants were those from former immigrants at one time. Funny how we tend to forget about our roots. I think the one thing that was clear throughout this whole book is that there have always been laws in place concerning immigration, but it's the interpretation and enforcement of those laws that get muddled and either over done or ignored, thus creating confusion.

      Can't wait to share my new idea with you!

  7. What an interesting setting for a novel! I'm very curious to see what you come up with.

    I'm also very intrigued by stories about immigrants, not only in the US but all over the world. In fact, my WIP (also set in the early 20th century) is about a Spanish woman who immigrates to South America. :)

    1. I think it's pretty cool that you're also doing a book involving immigration! Great minds think alike, right?

  8. Immigration has been an issue in the US since day one. The only thing that changes is the scapegoat ethnicity/nationality. I don't know much about Ellis Island, but I'm sure its history makes for great reading.

    Good luck with the your WIP.

  9. I have visited NYC but haven't been to Ellis Island. It sounds like a fascinating place - and I have no doubt your story will be fascinating as well.

    Immigration is an issue in many countries - in Australia we are very fond of locking up people in desert prisons (really, there is barbed wire around these compounds) who are fleeing from genocide.

  10. I would love to visit Ellis Island, having seen so much footage and it appears in so many stories: this book does appeal.


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