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.

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