Ellis Island Closed Until Further Notice
As of May 2013: Due to the conditions caused by Hurricane Sandy, the Ellis Island Immigration Museum will be closed until further notice. A projected reopening date has not yet been established, follow our twitter account for updates. More »
Colonial and Early American New York
1608 - 1890
Ballou's pictorial, v. 10 (1856 April 12), p. 233.
In 1608, Henry Hudson, an English Captain and navigator, was working for the Dutch East India Company, looking for the "Northwest passage" to Asia through North America. Instead he entered New York Harbor and sailed up the river that would eventually bear his name to what was to become Albany. At this point, he realized this was not the "Northwest Passage" and turned back. However, even though there was no passage to Asia, there were a lot of exploitable assets, especially beaver pelts.
In March 1664, Charles II of England resolved to annex New Netherland and "bring all his Kingdoms under one form of government, both in church and state, and to install the Anglican government as in old England". The directors of the Dutch West India Company concluded that the religious freedom of the colony made military defense against New England unnecessary. They wrote to Director-General Peter Stuyvesant:
" . . . we are in hopes that as the English at the north (in New Netherland) have removed mostly from old England for the causes aforesaid, they will not give us henceforth so much trouble, but prefer to live free under us at peace with their consciences than to risk getting rid of our authority and then falling again under a government from which they had formerly fled."
On August 27, 1664, four English frigates, led by Richard Nicolls, sailed into New Amsterdam's harbor and demanded New Netherland's surrender. They met no resistance because numerous citizens' requests for protection by a suitable Dutch garrison against "the deplorable and tragic massacres" by the natives had gone unheeded. That lack of adequate fortification, ammunition, and manpower as well as the indifference from the West India Company to previous pleas for reinforcement of men and ships against "the continual troubles, threats, encroachments and invasions of the English neighbors" made New Amsterdam defenseless. Stuyvesant negotiated successfully for good terms from his "too powerful enemies." In the Articles of Transfer, he and his council secured the principle of religious tolerance in Article VIII, which assured that New Netherlanders "shall keep and enjoy the liberty of their consciences in religion" under English rule. Although largely observed in New Amsterdam and the Hudson River Valley, the Articles were immediately violated by the English along the Delaware River, where pillaging, looting, and arson were undertaken under the orders of English Colonel Richard Carr who had been dispatched to secure the valley. Many Dutch settlers were sold into slavery in Virginia on Carr's orders and an entire Mennonite settlement led by Pieter Corneliszoon Plockhoy near modern Lewes, Delaware was wiped out. In the 1667 Treaty of Breda ending the Second Anglo-Dutch War, the Dutch did not press their claims on New Netherland and the status quo, with the Dutch occupying Suriname and the nutmeg island of Run, was maintained.
After the English took possession of New Netherland from the Dutch in 1664, they renamed it New York, in honor of the Duke of York. Between 1674 and 1679, Ellis Island (still called one of the three "Oyster Islands" in New York Harbor) was granted to Captain William Dyre (the collector of customs and future mayor of New York) by the Colonial Governor of New York, Sir Edmund Andros. During Dyre's ownership, this Oyster Island was renamed Dyre's Island.
For the next one hundred years, the island went through a succession of owners and names. Some of the more "colorful" names related to the days when the island was used to execute pirates, and it was referred to as "Anderson's Island" or "Gibbet Island", Anderson being a well-known pirate of the time, and the Gibbet being the method of execution for all pirates: a man-sized cage that held the rotting corpse together as a warning to others (http://www.ushistory.org/oddities/gibbet.htm ) . It was also remembered in a short ghost story by Washington Irving The Guests from Gibbet Island. (http://www.havaris.ca/horrorstories/stories07/092.htm )
In 1774 the island was purchased by Samuel Ellis, a New York merchant. "That pleasant situated island,", as Ellis called it in an ad for its sale in 1785, was a favorite spot for those who wanted to dig for oysters or enjoy the view of New York's bustling harbor while visiting the tavern that he built there. Ellis failed to sell his island, which was inherited by his descendants after he passed away in 1794 (see his will, below). In 1808, New York State bought the property, which by that time had several claimants, and then conveyed ownership to the United States government.
The New York Harbor Defense System during the War of 1812
In the early 1800s, the young American government realized that Ellis Island, with its clear view of the entrance to New York Harbor, had strategic value as a defense post. Since the British had easily invaded New York with very little resistance during the American Revolution, the protection of New York became a top priority for the new government. Preceding the War of 1812, the United States War Department constructed Fort Gibson (named after Colonel James Gibson who was fatally wounded in the British Siege of Fort Erie) on Ellis Island. Fort Gibson consisted of a barracks for a small garrison, a powder magazine, and a battery of guns located along the island's eastern edge.
Other newly erected or refurbished forts along New York harbor included: Fort Hamilton in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn; Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island; Fort Wood on Liberty Island; Fort Clinton in Manhattan (now known as Castle Clinton), and Fort Columbus and Fort Williams on Governor's Island. Like its counterparts around New York Bay, Fort Gibson never saw action. During the war, the British blockaded the harbor, but never directly attacked the city.
Did You Know?
Ellis Island's south side contains 25 buildings that are mostly unrestored. These structures included general hospitals, isolation and psychiatric facilities for immigrants needing treatment or isolation. The U.S. Public Health Service staffed these facilities during the station's operation. More...