44 Poignant Photos Of Ellis Island Immigrants That Convey The Hope And Hardship Of Coming To America

Published May 11, 2017
Updated August 10, 2018

These turn-of-the-century photos of Ellis Island immigrants capture the diverse cultures and people that came to the United States in the search of something more.

Ellis Island Immigrants Look At The Statue Of Liberty
Ellis Island Immigrants Arrive In America
Ellis Island Immigrants
Great Hall At Ellis Island
44 Poignant Photos Of Ellis Island Immigrants That Convey The Hope And Hardship Of Coming To America
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After scraping together whatever money they could, packing their entire lives into bags and trunks, and spending as much as two weeks in the third class accommodations of massive transatlantic steamships, poor immigrants largely from southern and eastern Europe but ultimately from all over the world would converge en masse at the inspection station on New York's Ellis Island.

For each individual, it was an arduous journey the likes of which hardly even exists today. For the entire 12 million Ellis Island immigrants that became Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a whole, it was the largest overseas migration in human history.

Yet, as grueling and immense as this unprecedented wave of immigration was, the processing at Ellis Island was largely anything but. On the contrary, for the 98 percent of immigrants that made it in, the experience of passing through the Ellis Island gateway was surprisingly painless and quick.

In the vast majority of cases, you'd be in and out in three-to-five hours, during which time you'd answer a series of basic legal questions about you and your past, prove that you had just enough money (approximately 20 dollars, or about 500 dollars today) to set yourself up, and undergo a "six-second physical" in which a doctor would simply glance at you and make sure that you had no obvious, chronic ailments.

Essentially, if you could convince officials that you were neither criminal, insane, nor gravely ill, your passage through Ellis Island was almost perfunctory.

But as mundane and anticlimactic as the act of passing through the proverbial gate may have been, the underlying significance of that passage was truly momentous. You entered Ellis Island as an Italian, Hungarian, or Guadeloupean and left it as an American, part of an immense tide that helped make that country the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world and thus changed global history immeasurably to this day.

And it all centered on a small, largely manmade patch of land in Upper New York Bay. See what life was like for those who passed through that patch in the photo gallery of Ellis Island immigrants above.

Next, take a look at portraits of immigrants just after they arrived on Ellis Island that capture the spirit of American diversity. Then, see what life was like after Ellis Island in this photographic tour of turn-of-the-century New York immigrant slums.

John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
Savannah Cox
Savannah Cox holds a Master's in International Affairs from The New School as well as a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and now serves as an Assistant Professor at the University of Sheffield. Her work as a writer has also appeared on DNAinfo.
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Kuroski, John. "44 Poignant Photos Of Ellis Island Immigrants That Convey The Hope And Hardship Of Coming To America." AllThatsInteresting.com, May 11, 2017, https://allthatsinteresting.com/ellis-island-immigrants. Accessed June 23, 2024.