New York Statue of Liberty Ellis Island Immigration History

New York Statue of Liberty Ellis Island Immigration History

New York Statue of Liberty
New York Statue of Liberty

Where New York Began: The Immigration Center’s Striking Historical Exhibits

Nearly half of Americans today can trace their ancestry back to the immigrant families that pushed though the port of New York in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Those migrants were coming from somewhere, bringing the world in tow, most hailing from Europe in numbers that would overwhelm modern immigration systems.

It may not look like it now, but New York City’s Lower East Side neighbourhood on the lively island of Manhattan was once replete with such families coming to start new chapters of their lives in the country that has been called the Land of Opportunity. They brought with them their heritage, traditions, and skilled labour, and filled the Lower East Side with the song of their mother tongues. Much of New York’s history and culture was shaped by this world influx and modern-day visitors can walk in the footsteps of those that filled lower Manhattan in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. However, some of the facts and history of that time of mass world immigration might surprise you.

Battery Park and Castle Garden

Before New York became the bustling metropolitan city we know today, it began as a small but fortified Dutch colony called New Amsterdam, located on the tip of what is now Manhattan. Visitors to modern day Battery Park learn that the park takes its name from a battery or weapons stronghold these original Dutch settlers built to protect the settlement from marine attacks. Later, following British ownership and American possession after the American Revolution, this location would become the site of a fort, Castle Clinton, that would become a major nineteenth century immigration port, the first in New York.

Today’s visitors can still visit the remainder of the fort and learn the history of the Castle Garden immigration center that received and processed immigrants to the United States prior to the opening of Ellis Island. The area where once a battery stood to repel incoming ships was transformed into New York’s first major entry point for future citizens. Today it is the launching point for visitors seeking to take the enormously popular Liberty Island and Ellis Island tour, the meeting site from which ferries to these islands depart and return.


Ellis Island

During its time of operation, Ellis Island admitted more than 12 million new U.S. residents emigrating from various countries around the world. In its peak year alone, 1907, over one million immigrants successfully pushed through Ellis Island and into the United States, many of which began their new lives in New York neighbourhoods like the Lower East Side. Germans, Poles, Italians, Jews, Czechs, and many more flocked to the American shores seeking better lives and greater opportunities, and Ellis island was their first experience with this new American life.

Visitors to the museum on the island can learn more about the immigration experiences of those immigrants as they weave through ground floor exhibits and then climb the stairs to learn what immigration processing was like for those who travelled across the sea, and how improvements were implemented throughout the years to make the process easier on both immigrants and officials. The exhibits also feature interviewed immigrants’ stories about their journeys and discuss what temporary detainment was like for those who didn’t pass first inspection.

Liberty Island and The Statue of Liberty

The Statue of Liberty is one of the most recognizable symbols in the world, right up there with the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, and the Great Wall of China, and perhaps even more than these. New York’s Statue of Liberty predates the Eiffel Tower, designed and constructed by French artists and engineers in the 1800s who were hoping to inspire a freer political structure in France by celebrating the liberty of the United States. The statue was also the first thing immigrants saw ahead of them when arriving to the United States.

A little-known fact about the statue is that her path to her perch was not a smooth one.

Originally intended to be a gift for America’s centennial in 1876, only her hand and torch were completed and sent over by this time. The rest of the statue would later follow. After its completion, her head sat on display in Paris for the 1878 World’s Fair. As construction continued, the project lost its main architect in 1879 and Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel, an architectural engineer who had made his name designing bridges, came on to finish the internal design of the statue. What he came up with was a deconstructable metal frame for the statue that could be shipped in parts and reassembled in the U.S and would yet be strong enough to support the her copper exterior. Elements of her frame can also be seen in the tower Eiffel would go on to build in Paris roughly two decades later. The statue was on her way.

Before her arrival, however, America ran out of money to build the pedestal she was to stand on, putting the whole project in jeopardy. Joseph Pulitzer of the now-famous Pulitzer prize took up her plight and began fundraising efforts with his newspapers. He raised enough money to pay for the pedestal and the statue was erected where she now stands on New York’s Liberty Island. The trials and obstacles in her journey reflect what many newcomers to America faced, and indeed represent much of the trials and obstacles faced by the country as a whole on its path to freedom and prominence.

Following her installation, she served as a beacon to those struggling towards freedom. Many people don’t know that when those French idealists designed the statue in the mid 1800s as a message to their own country and countries like them, the statue was installed on her pedestal facing away from America, towards France and the rest of Europe, in order to bear their message to European countries. She could be seen as carrying liberty from the United States to the rest of the world, much of which still lacked many of the liberties Americans enjoyed. Ellis island immigration altered that notion of the statue, however. To those immigrants she was welcoming them to freedom. To immigrants escaping the persecution and poverty waging in home lands, she promised them prosperity and a second chance.

All of this and more is part of the experience of Liberty Island. The statue can be seen from all parts of the island, rising above the buildings and courtyards with a message heard loud and clear. Visiting the island gives you the chance to witness the enormity of the statue, as well as its important role in American history from the time of its construction. Those who reserve their tickets in advance have the opportunity to go up inside the statue, and to see out at the harbour and at New York from the pedestal and from the crown of the Statue of Liberty, to see what she saw as she welcomed millions of newcomers seeking a new start.

New York Skyline
New York Skyline

Lower East Side and the Tenement Museum

After passing through Castle Garden or Ellis Island, a large portion of immigrants began their new lives in New York. New York’s Lower East Side saw waves of immigrants come through its streets, each leaving a piece of their culture behind in and around their cramped tenement living spaces.

Today New York’s Tenement Museum preserves snapshots of their living and working conditions, their sweatshops and their struggles to assimilate and transition into more affluent American lifestyles. The museum’s tours welcome visitors into the trying times for immigrants around the turn of the nineteenth century and leads visitors in and around rooms of a salvaged tenement building furnished in the modest style of the times. If you’ve a desire to step into the past and learn about the lives of those immigrants following their Ellis Island experience, this museum will allow you to learn about those ancestors who have contributed so much history and culture to New York City and the country throughout the generations that followed.


Extensive records exist for both Castle Garden and Ellis Island immigrants onsite and online for any visitors curious about the trip their family members may have made through the New York immigration ports. Together the Liberty and Ellis island tour and the tenement museum share a large part of the country’s history and beginnings and tell the stories of immigrant families who helped shape the U.S., a largely immigrant nation, into what it is today.

If you’re visiting New York, you won’t want to miss that opportunity to take a look at where much of its modern history began and to spend some time with the large coper lady, the symbol of liberty to American and to the world.


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