Striking photographs of immigrants on Ellis Island

The New York Public Library’s digital collection continues to grow as they digitize their huge collections of photographs, manuscripts, maps. They’re up to 838,384 individual items from The New York Public Library’s collections digitized and uploaded to its website. Many of the scans are in high resolution and while the interface can be a bit clunky (no easy mechanism to move from page to page, for example, in some of the books and pamphlets), they make for riveting browsing.

Arranged in subcollections, there are groups with thousands of items — 2,027 turn of the century posters, 64,243 portraits culled from the library’s Print Collection, 8,915 documents from the Emmet Collection of manuscripts focused on the lead-up and aftermath of the Revolutionary War — and single items like book covers or individual pages.

One striking group of photographs that has recently been uploaded is the William Williams collection. Williams was Commissioner of Immigration for the Port of New York at Ellis Island from 1902-5 and 1909-13, some of the busiest years of immigration to the United States. He left his papers, including the pictures he collected from his days at Ellis Island, to the New York Public Library and now the photographs are online. There are an eminently browsable 100 or so pictures and article clippings in the Williams collection, 41 portraits of immigrants going through the process of being allowed into the United States, 49 focused on Ellis Island itself.

Most of the latter were shot by Edwin Levick, a professional photographer with a particular focus on maritime views, which explains why many of his pictures of Ellis Island are taken from the water. The portraits of the immigrants were mostly taken by an amateur, Augustus Frederick Sherman, Chief Clerk of Ellis Island. In sheer fascination and impact, the amateur puts the professional to shame.

Sherman was born in Pennsylvania and moved to New York City in 1889. In 1892, he got a job as a clerk at Ellis Island. He was competent and dedicated and came up through the ranks, ultimately getting promoted to Chief Clerk in 1905. Part of his job was to deal with appeals by detained immigrants who had been blocked from entering the mainland by one of the Boards of Special Inquiry because of illness, crime, suspect associations, etc. The Ellis Island Commissioner of Immigration adjudicated the appeals and determined whether an immigrant could enter the country or was deported. As Sherman had access to detained immigrants as well as immigrants passing through with comparatively few difficulties, he was able to take about 250 photographs of them between 1905 and 1925.

With his eye for the striking image, Sherman was selective about his subjects. He often asked them to pose in their native costumes and he loved a nice, big family line-up. (The National Parks Service has my favorite photograph along those lines: Mrs. Johanna Dykhof and her 11 children on their way to Minnesota from Holland.) Incidentally, the handsome woman from the French territory of Guadeloupe pictured left was not actually an immigrant to the United States. She was part of a group of Guadeloupean women on their way to Montreal, Canada, where jobs as domestic servants awaited them. They spent one night in Ellis Island — April 6th, 1911 — which was long enough for Sherman to capture beautiful pictures of them.

There are more photographs of people at Ellis Island in this NYPL collection. They were taken by Lewis Hine who was very famous in his day for his compelling images of the working poor. Click on his name in the sidebar to see all of photographs capturing labourers, tenements and a variety of social ills in the NYPL. The Library of Congress has thousands of pictures of poverty-stricken children working in dreadful conditions taken by Hines for the National Child Labor Committee. They will haunt you.

Today Ellis Island is a National Park and has been extensively restored. The main building opened as the Ellis Island Immigration Museum in 1990. In May of this year, the Peopling of America Center® (note to self: trademark the Verbing of Museum Names before someone else beats me to it) opened, expanding the scope of the museum to cover the whole history of immigration before and after Ellis Island was in operation.

7 thoughts on “Striking photographs of immigrants on Ellis Island

  1. My spouse and I went to Ellis Island a few weeks ago; his ancestors had gone through there, although he didn’t have details. Quite a few of their exhibits still have empty spaces due to Hurricane Sandy. I remember seeing that picture of the woman from Guadeloupe.

    The name of the “Peopling of America” exhibit made and makes me angry. Who thought that was a good idea?

  2. After last night’s debate and its insistence on wall-building, while Germany prepares to welcome hundreds of thousands of refugees, this reminder of our roots as an immigrant nation is especially timely. Thank you, Livius, for everything you do.

  3. I’ve never seen those clips that the Dutch lady has on her cap. I don’t know if these are meant to hold her cap back or if they’re side-view mirrors.

  4. I love the portraits. Very moving. I pray for the Syrian refugees, and all who are displaced, hoping to start a new life in a new, strange land.

  5. The so called pipers are Kaval players – – THey probably were from Bulgaria or Macedonia.Interesting to see that they wear normal shoes. I would have expected papoutsi. But as those were quite unconfortable for travelling, I can understand the choice. By the way: what if we would have happened if Western Europe had placed a fence around Hungaria in say 1927, 1956, 1968 and 1989? Diaspora is part of the Hungarian soul. Unbelievable they would one day lock themselves up again behind an iron curtain. Perhaps it is a freudian thing: they must feel safer behind it, because that is what they know.

  6. Went to Ellis Island some years ago. Found the display of suitcases separated from their owners in the main hall unbearably moving. Think it’s wonderful that these photos have been digitised, such a slice of social history.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.