The Evolution of Ellis Island


Ellis Island has many stories, most about 12 million immigrants landing on its soil during a mere 62 year period in its long history.

No more than a sand bar in the 1600s, it was named Kioshk (Gull Island) by Mohegan Indians camping there. Discovering its rich oyster beds in the 1620s, the Dutch renamed it Oyster Island. The British called it Gull Island in the late 1600s, but this three acre patch saw little activity during early colonization days.

Following the 1765 hangings of pirates and convicts, it was named Gibbet Island after the hanging device. That’s what colonial entrepreneur Samuel Ellis purchased and turned into a tavern to serve sailors and local fishermen.

In 1778, Ellis put an ad in The New York Packet to sell several lower Manhattan lots, some ship spars and bowsprits, a quantity of twine, “a few thousand of herring” which he cured and guaranteed “to keep good in carrying to any part of the world,” and “a large Pleasure Sleigh, almost new.”

Ellis Sold Oyster Island

Included in his for sale list was “That pleasant situated Island called Oyster Island, lying in New Bay near Powle’s Hook, together with all its improvements, which are considerable.”

Ellis Island eventually came under New York State ownership, was bought by the federal government in 1808, and became part of the defense network erected before the War of 1812. Its parapet for three tiers of circular guns was named Fort Gibson. The island wasn’t called Ellis Island until 1861 when Fort Gibson was dismantled.

The island then faded into a functionless background. What has faded into our contemporary background is Castle Garden Immigration Depot in southern Manhattan, which processed almost as many immigrants as Ellis Island. That’s another story.

Acres of Landfill Needed

Plans to shift immigrant processing to Ellis Island began by enlarging with landfill this new gateway to America. The process continued until the island was 27.5 acres. Early fill may have come from ship ballast. Later fill came from New York subway system construction and other sources.

The new immigration stationed opened Jan. 1, 1892. On June 14, 1897, it burned to the ground. Federal and state immigration records dating back to 1855 were the major casualty. An architectural treasure which earned architects Edward Tilton and William Boring a gold medal at the 1900 Parish Exposition replaced it.

12 Million Immigrants

The Ellis Island facility closed Nov. 12, 1954, having processed some 12 million immigrants. Among them were Irving Berlin, Knute Rockne, Claudette Colbert, Max Factor, Bela Lugosi, the singing Von Trapps of Sound of Music fame, Xavier Cugat, Ezio Pinza, Arthur Murray, Bob Hope and Rudolph Valentino.

It had also served as a detention center and collection point for deportees, housing 7,000 enemy aliens at one time.

Many Ellis Island buildings remained empty for decades; some are still being rehabilitated. Today Ellis Island and nearby Liberty Island—its population being one very large green lady—are operated as national historic landmarks by the National Park Service.

Popular Tourist Attraction

After a six-year restoration project costing $156 million, the Main Arrivals Building was reopened to the public in 1990. This museum, reached by ferry, is a popular attraction. There are both self-guided and ranger-guided tours and an excellent movie. It also has appeal for family researchers who comb the database of immigrant manifests and look for ancestors at the American Family Immigration History Center. The National Archives even offers a live family history game show.


  1. B. Moreno’s Encyclopedia of Ellis Island (2004: Westport, CT); T. M. Pitkin, Keepers of the Gate (1975: New York); National Park Service website for Ellis Island.