The Museum of Family History
 Education and Research Center
Thinking Exercise

What Was Ellis Island Like?

Immigrant Processing
Ellis Island: Port of Immigration, Main Floor

The majority of our family members who wished to immigrate into the United States did so through Ellis Island. There they had to undergo a rigorous inspection process, as the United States allowed in only those people they felt wouldn't be a burden to the country.

For first- and second-class passengers, the immigration officers would actually come on board the ship and examine the passengers upon arrival. For those in third-class, or steerage, they would often have to wait for days before disembarking. At that time they would have to board a barge-like vessel, neither heated in the winter, nor cooled in summer, which would take them to the Island itself. There they would wait until groups of perhaps thirty at a time would disembark and enter into the main building to begin the inspection process.


Most of those who arrived at Ellis Island made it through the process successfully. As soon as they entered the Great Hall, they began to be inspected by a line of medical examiners. They had a certificate (a "landing card") pinned to their chest before they entered. This would act as a health certificate (they needed to be vaccinated before leaving the ship). The number of the certificate would also be used to cross-reference their names on the ship’s passenger list, or manifest.

In this Thinking Exercise, imagine that you are a young person who is immigrating with your family. All of you are standing in a long line within the Great Hall, waiting to be interviewed by one of the inspectors at Ellis Island.

Are there a lot of immigrants like you waiting online to be interviewed? Look around the Great Hall and say what you see.
How are people dressed? What are they carrying with them?


Is there a lot of noise in the Great Hall? What do you hear? Do you recognize any of the languages that are being spoken?

How are you feeling? Are you nervous? Is your family nervous?

Are you talking with any of your family members or fellow immigrants while you're waiting, or are you quiet and keeping to yourself?

What are you thinking? What do you think your parents are thinking?

Each immigrant had to be met by a "contact," usually a family member or sponsor. Who in your family would you like to be your contact? Who would be waiting for you and your family when you arrived at Ellis Island?

photos courtesy of the U.S. National Park Service.


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