The Burgum family history society is a member of the Guild of one name studies and researches the names

Ellis Island


Ellis Island was not the only point of entry into the United States of America during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. However, it has become the symbol of the mass immigration that took place during those two centuries. It was declared part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument in 1965 and, after a $162 million renovation lasting six years, it was reopened to the public as a museum in 1990. Visitors queuing for the ferry to Ellis Island, standing at the Battery on the southern tip of Manhattan (just a stone's through from Wall Street) think they are about to take a boat trip to the place where "organised" immigration to the USA began. However, in truth, they are already there!

Immigration, of course, is not new. Native Indians moved from north to south over this great continent. Evidence suggests that the Vikings settled here long before Columbus or the Pilgrim Fathers. However, wholesale immigration did not begin until the nineteenth century. Between 1820 and 1860 5.4 million immigrants arrived in the United States, 3.7 million of them through New York. Other ports of arrival included New Orleans (550,000), Boston (380,000), Philadelphia (230,000) and Baltimore (230,000). By the 1890's four-fifths of all immigrants were passing through the port of New York. It was not until 1855 that the haphazard, chaotic free-for-all on the New York docks was finally put aside by the State of New York's Emigration Commission. A proper reception centre was established at Castle Garden, near the Battery at the tip of Manhattan. (Those queuing are, as I said earlier, far closer to the first large-scale emigration landing centre than they realise!). Castle Garden contained a large rotunda with a capacity of up to 4000 people, formerly a place of entertainment. In 1867, an employment exchange was built to offer work to the arriving immigrants. However, Castle Garden could not cope with the volume of immigrants. A new site was needed.

Ellis Island, a former naval powder magazine, was chosen. Landfill doubled the site and new reception buildings were constructed. It was opened on January 1st 1892. The now famous red-brick building was built in 1898, after a fire destroyed the wooden original. More than 12 million immigrants passed through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954. In a single day in 1907, 11,747 immigrants passed through its doors. Ellis Island is sometimes portrayed as an open door to the land of the free. Triumph, opportunity, courage and freedom are all used to describe this romantic image. The truth was less comfortable. In the early years, sailing boats took six weeks to cross the Atlantic Ocean, often in terrible conditions. Disease and squalor, crime and cramped conditions were often the order of the day. Later on, steam-ships reduced the ocean crossing to under two weeks, but the conditions were still poor. Some steamships could accommodate as many as two thousand passengers in steerage, on the lower decks. Long narrow compartments were divided into separate dormitories with berths three bunks high. The air was rank with the heavy odour of spoiled food, sea-sickness, and unwashed bodies. There was little or no privacy and a lack of adequate toilet facilities.

Surviving the ocean crossing, immigrants were now subjected to an ordeal which would last perhaps five hours or more in immigration on Ellis Island. First they had to endure the open barges that carried them across the harbour to Ellis Island, whether in sweltering heat, or bitter cold. Immigrants were sometimes kept "captive" on the barges in the harbour while waiting their turn to go ashore. Twenty thousand people might be waiting at one time! Some, already ill from the ocean crossing, died there on the barges, often from exposure. Those who went ashore had numbered tags pinned to their clothes while they were "processed". Doctors looked for those who coughed, wheezed, shuffled, or limped. The blind and the infirm were rejected. Some of the ill (the lucky ones), were sent to local hospitals to be treated. They retook their place in line if they recovered. About two percent were excluded and sent back to Europe, which could equal over a thousand people a month at times. Idiots, paupers, lunatics, people with certain types of criminal record, those with "loathsome diseases", prostitutes, anarchists and many others would be excluded. In 1917, a literacy test was introduced. Those excluded were sent back to Europe.

At its height, Ellis received thousands of immigrants every day. Over 100 million Americans can trace their ancestry in the United States to a man, woman, or child whose name passed from a steamship manifest sheet to an inspector's record book in the great Registry Room at Ellis Island. Over time, restrictions on immigration increased and the numbers passing through Ellis Island dwindled. "Quota Laws" were passed and, as numbers fell still further, the Island became the temporary home of deportees and detained immigrants. Some Japanese, German, and Italian citizens were detained there during World War II, and later the International Security Act bolstered the detainee population with suspected Communists and Fascists. It finally closed in 1954 and its grand brick and limestone buildings were left to the harsh weather of New York Harbour. In the 1960's concerns were raised about Ellis Island and its part in the history of the United States was realised. This led to it being included as part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument in 1965. In one of the most ambitious restoration projects in American history, Ellis Island's Main Building was restored to its former glory in 1990.

A full list of Ellis Island Records, relating to the Burgums/Burghams, is contained in the BURGUM/BURGHAM REFERENCES section of this website. Click here to go straight to those records

Also click Article 17, to read about the "QQ" family's emigration through Ellis Island.