After Castle Garden closed down operations in 1890, immigrants were processed through a makeshift set of buildings near the site until 1892. During this period, a new port of entry for immigrants was being built. It would be the one and only port of entry to the United States, controlled and operated by customs officials, in order to cut down on unscrupulous practices going on at other ports. This new port of entry would become the most famous one of all, and the name of it is the one that comes up the most frequently in discussions about immigrants to America. The name of this new facility? Ellis Island.
Ellis Island opened as an immigration center on New Year’s Day in 1892. The first immigrant that the new facility processed was a seventeen-year-old girl from Cork, Ireland named Annie Moore, who was traveling with her two brothers to meet their parents, who were already in America. The facility processed more than seven hundred immigrants on its opening day alone. Over the next few decades, Ellis Island’s name became synonymous with immigration to America. Anyone who came was processed through that facility. The time that Ellis Island accepted and processed immigrants is known as the time of highest immigration to America in its history.
By 1921, it was clear that the United States was taking in more immigrants than it could reasonably accommodate. The Emergency Quota Act of 1921 greatly reduced the number of immigrants the United States would take in each year, and thus the era of mass immigration to the United States was over. In 1924, the Immigration Act converted Ellis Island from an immigrant processing center to an immigrant detention center, being used only to house those who were being detained for some reason or other before being allowed into America, or to be deported. It operated in this capacity until 1954 when it closed its official operations and became a museum the following decade. It continues to be a museum to this day.
The immigration records for those who were processed through Ellis Island are numerous and are located at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. There is also a free website at heritage.statueofliberty.org where you can search for passenger records of arriving immigrant ships in the comfort of your own home, or wherever you access the internet. The online database has more than sixty-five million records, which shows you just how many people came through Ellis Island when it operated as an immigrant processing center for the US government.
There are a number of different ways to search the site, including by using alternate spellings of the last name, using the last name as the first name, exact matches, close matches, and “sound alike” matches, all designed to help you find your ancestors more easily. Names may have been recorded differently from the way your family spells them, because of clerks there using phonetic spelling for foreign names while processing people who spoke little English. If you have ancestors who came to America during the time period that Ellis Island was in use, it is well worth checking the website or the National Archives for immigration records that are stored there.