Home / History100-Year-Old Portraits of Immigrants to Ellis Island Show the People Who Helped Shape America

100-Year-Old Portraits of Immigrants to Ellis Island Show the People Who Helped Shape America

To understand our present, we must first have a sense of our past. The historic Ellis Island in the United States is a symbol of the “melting pot” that has come to define the country—it’s a place where many modern families got their start in America. Active between 1892 and 1954, it served as an immigration inspection station for the millions of people arriving into the country. A 17-year-old named Annie Moore from Cork, Ireland was the first of 700 immigrants who arrived on January 1—opening day. At its peak, the site saw 11,747 people arrive in April of 1907.

Those who went through Ellis Island represented low-income passengers trying to immigrate to the United States—first and second class travelers were considered wealthy enough as to not become a burden to the state and were examined on board the ships. The people who were sent to the island underwent medical examinations, interviews, and legal inspections, often with very little in tow. While waiting (for money, travel tickets, or family members), amateur photographer Augustus Sherman snapped portraits of the immigrants in their native dress, from grown men and women to small children. The black and white images are a fascinating look at these cultures throughout history, as well as an important reminder of the people who helped make America what it is today.

The New York Public Library currently houses Sherman’s photographs. In 2005, these images were compiled and published into a book called Augustus F. Sherman: Ellis Island Portraits 1905-1920. The full-page portrait publication is now available through Amazon.

Above: German stowaway


Ruthenian woman


Italian woman


Romanian women


Three Dutch women


Russian Cossacks


Romanian piper


Dutch children


Slovak woman and children


Children from Lapland


Cossack man from the steppes of Russia


Algerian man


Norwegian woman


Hindu boy


Guadeloupean woman


Slovakian women


Three women from Guadeloupe

New York Public Library: Website | Flickr
via [Open Culture, The Public Domain Review]

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