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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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