Book Review: American Passage: The History of Ellis Island

American Passage
American Passage

Vincent J. Cannato’s American Passage: The History of Ellis Island aims to cover the whole recorded history of the island. The book starts with the history of the island long before anyone thought of it as a way station for immigrants.

The Dutch named in Little Oyster Island, as it sat among the oyster beds near the Jersey shore. He notes that the ownership of the island is unclear between the late 17th century and 1785, when an advertisement appeared trying to sell the island along with a couple of lots in Manhattan and “a few barrels of excellent shad and herrings…” (Kindle location, 482).

By the time of the War of 1812, the island had been acquired by the War Department as part of the defense of New York harbor.

In 1825, Cannato notes, the Erie Canal was opened, which “secured the city’s position as the country’s dominant commercial outpost. A chain was now formed from the Atlantic Ocean, through the harbor, up the Hudson River, west across the new canal, into the Great Lakes, to the American heartland” (Kindle location, 10430).

For some time, the main immigration station for New York was Castle Garden, which had been the site of a fort that George Washington had visited and of a concert hall where Jenny Lind, the Swedish nightingale, had sung. In 1890, Castle Garden was closed due to intractable issues with the exploitation of immigrants, including price gouging, theft, extortion, and prostitution.

The island become New York’s immigration station in 1892, and between then and when it closed in 1924, 12 million immigrants passed through the island on their way into America. A small percentage of persons was excluded, often approximately 2% of those seeking entry. The island was also used as a way station for non-naturalized legal immigrants who were later determined not to be desirable for the United States.

Cannato writes a clear narrative about the administration of the island and the history of late 19th century and 20th century immigration policies and politics. The administrators of the island often approached the work with an agenda tending toward exclusion or toward inclusion, but despite their rhetoric, the levels of exclusion almost always seemed to remain the same. At various times, immigration policy and Ellis Island itself, were in the forefront of Presidential politics.

At the end of the book, Cannato deftly describes how the island, once a location that immigrants wanted to forget, was transformed in late 20th century into an icon of American multiculturalism, both by the left and the right, and puts the current immigration debate into historical context.

Most genealogists would be well served to learn this history of immigration in general and immigration through Ellis Island in particular. While it is not a genealogical book per se, the history in it is invaluable for genealogists studying immigration during the Ellis Island period.

I read the book in the Kindle edition, which was well put together in many ways, including the creation of a usable e-book table of contents, with hypertext links. However, the publisher, while recognizing that page numbers in an index are not valuable in an e-book, did not make the investment of making the reference in the index into links. Instead, the publisher devotes approximately 11% of the book to a list of “Searchable Terms” that the reader can execute individual searches on. This is simply a waste of the reader’s time. Most likely, in the electronic source of this book, these entries are developed by an electronic query. The amount of tweaking that would probably have been required to make such an index hot-linked in the e-book addition is not great.

While the book is a popular, not scholarly, and not sufficiently sourced book. It is entertaining, insightful, and does not stoop to easy platitudes and boosterism. RECOMMENDED.