Have you ever heard of Ellis Island? Many know it as the gateway of immigration in the early 1900s, but you may not realize how easy it was to become an American at that time. In fact, most immigrants’ citizenship processes only took a few hours. Read onto to learn more about the fascinating history of Ellis Island.

A safe place to land

Established on January 1, 1892, Ellis Island was seen as a safe place to land for countless immigrants. Over 12 million newcomers came to Ellis Island from its founding until 1954. In the year 1907, 1,004,756 settlers came to America in a single year. People came to the United States for various reasons, but the most commons ones were to escape persecution and to take advantage of the economy. For almost all of the travelers, it only took a couple of hours to become an American citizen. According to associate history professor Vincent Cannato, “it varied from person to person, but for 80 percent, the process took a few hours, and then they were out and through,” he said. “But it could also take a couple days, a couple weeks, a couple months or, in some very rare cases, a couple of years,” he stated.

At that time, immigrants only had a hand-written passenger manifest document to denote their name, age, occupation, and destination. This piece of paper was basically all that they needed to confirm their identity. Doctors also needed a way to pre-screen newcomers for health issues. Before the migrant’s ship was allowed into the New York Harbor, it had to be quarantined near Staten Island. Health professional would check for infectious illness like smallpox, yellow fever, and cholera before it was allowed to deliver its passengers. Since there were 2,000 to 3,000 new arrivals per boat, the doctors had their work cut out for them.

City of immigrants

With most immigrants traveling from Italy, the language barrier was extremely thick. Thankfully, the doctor’s knew a few words of every language and had their own code for treating patients. According to historian Barry Moreno, “The doctors also had to know a few words of instruction in many languages. “Most of the immigrants were illiterate even in their own languages. And by 1907, the doctors had already developed a secret code system using a piece of chalk. They would mark the passenger’s clothes with a letter of the alphabet: ‘H’ indicated heart trouble suspected; ‘L’ suspected lameness; ‘X’ suspected feeble-mindedness, and so on,” he said.

If an immigrant didn’t pass the test, they were kept in the “doctor’s pen” to wait for more extensive care. This rare screening process only happened to 10 percent of the travelers. Since doctors’ knew that they couldn’t keep too many people in custody, they kept their numbers small. These passengers would then be interviewed again by officials, and if their answers weren’t up to par, they would be detained until further notice. While this process occurred by a case by case process, the immigrant actually had the option to appeal their detainment as long as they didn’t mind waiting a few more weeks.

Incomers who were lucky enough to avoid detainment were released as soon as possible. Not only that, but most were released within three to five hours. Although they weren’t allowed to sleep overnight or eat a meal, they did have the option to purchase their own food in the cafeteria. Moreno remarked that “If they wanted a meal, they could go downstairs to the lunchroom where the restaurant keeper sold boxed lunches: a large box for $1, a small box for 50 cents. In the box were a sandwich, pie and an apple. The only free food was given to detainees held forcibly overnight.”

This is America

Once settlers passed the Ellis Island inspection, they were allowed to enter the country but they weren’t given any documents to denote their new status as Americans. Cannato declared that “It’s a hard thing to wrap your mind around because we live in such a bureaucratic world today. We have passports, birth certificates and all sorts of documents. There was no, ‘Welcome to America, here’s your new photo ID.”

By the year 1924, Ellis Island was still operating in full swing. The haven for immigration also served multiple purposes. When World War II hit, it was used to house rival sailors in its baggage claim and its residence hall. It was also utilized by the U.S. Coast Guard to train approximately 60,000 military men. At the end of 1954, the final refugee was released and the immigration gateway closed its prestigious doors.

President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Ellis Island as a branch of the Statue of Liberty National Monument in 1965. It was actually open to the public for the first time from 1974 to 1984. By that time, it was time for the migrant portal to undergo a major facelift. Its renovation was literally the biggest historic remodeling in American history. It took $160 million to complete the project, which was paid for by donations to The Statue of Liberty – Ellis Island Foundation, Inc. in collaboration with the National Park Service.

On September 10, 1990, its main building was reintroduced to the general public and was renamed the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. By May 20, 2015, the construction of the Peopling of America Center was complete and the museum’s name was changed to Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration. Now, two million visitors make the pilgrimage to the museum every year to learn about America’s rich history.