Ellis Island Chronology

1674 - 1679

Sir Edmund Andros, the English colonial governor of New York, grants “Little Oyster Island” to Captain William Dyre, the collector of customs. Dyre was mayor of New York City between 1680-1682.

April 23, 1686 - October 1, 1691

Captain Dyre sells the island, known as Dyre’s Island, to Thomas and Patience Lloyd. The New York Legislature at the time passes an act that established the boundaries of New York County. This act included the three oyster islands as part of New York City.


The English colonial governor of New York, John Montgomerie, grants a Charter to New York City that includes Dyre’s Island within the city’ boundaries. Dyre Island is renamed Bucking Island.


New York City officials examine Bucking Island as a possible site for a new city pest house; a contagious disease ward where individuals with certain communicable diseases must go.


The notorious pirate Anderson is hanged on the island. Several pirates were additionally hanged during the next several years. The island became known as “Anderson’s” or “Gibbet Island.”

November 18, 1774

Samuel Ellis, residing at 1 Greenwich Street in Manhattan, purchases the island and builds a tavern on the island.

January 20, 1785

Ellis advertises the island for sale in “Loudon’s New York Packet.” The island was not sold.


Samuel Ellis dies. In his will, he bequeathed the island to the unborn son from his daughter Catherine Ellis Westervelt. He stated that Ellis Island would only become the ownership of the unborn son if that son’s name became Samuel Ellis. Samuel Ellis’ daughter Catherine’ first born child was a son, she named him Samuel Ellis, but the child died in infancy. The island is reverted back to his mother Catherine. Control of the island by Catherine is quickly lost, but she maintains ownership of the island. New York City deeds Ellis Island to New York State for purposes of constructing fortifications by the U.S. War Department. Earthwork, which is a large artificial bank of soil made for defense purposes, was designed and added to the island by French engineer Charles Vincent.


Ebenezer Stevens supervises further fortification work on Ellis Island for the U.S. War Department. Realizing that Ellis Island was still owned by the Ellis family, he recommends that New York State purchases the island and cedes it to the Federal government

February 15, 1800

The State of New York passes an act which cedes control of Ellis Island, Governor’s Island, and Bedloe’s Island (later changed to Liberty Island) to the United States Government. However, Ellis Island is still owned by the Ellis family.


Samuel Ellis Ryerson, grandson to Catherine Ellis’ sister, deeds the island to John A. Berry.

June 30, 1808

The United States gains ownership of Ellis Island by condemnation procedures carried out by New York Governor Daniel D. Tompkins. The Governor purchased the island on behalf of the state of New York from the John A. Berry family, and conveyed it to the Federal government at a cost of $10,000.


Colonel Johnathan Williams finishes construction of a land battery on Ellis Island for harbor defense.


A magazine and barracks is completed. A small garrison of troops is stationed on Ellis Island during the War of 1812 with Great Britain. The garrison saw no action.


Governor Tompkins of New York takes command of the battery at Ellis Island, and names it Fort Gibson. The name was in memory of Colonel James Gibson who had been fatally wounded during the Battle of Fort Erie.


The commissioners of New York and New Jersey met in Manhattan, and entered into an inter-state compact to resolve boundary disputes over New York Harbor and the Hudson River.


The compact is ratified by the state's two legislatures, and approved by Congress. The compact established the harbor boundaries between the two states, and confirmed that both Bedloe’s Island (later changed to Liberty Island) and Ellis Island were part of New York State.


The U.S. Navy gains jurisdiction and uses the island as a powder magazine.

June 22, 1839

Pirate and murderer Cornelius Wilhelms is hanged on the island.


Full jurisdiction of Ellis Island is returned to the U.S. Army. However, the Navy is permitted to retain its powder magazine on the island.


The Army re-arms Fort Gibson.


The New York State Commission of Immigration asked the War Department for permission to use Ellis Island for the convalescence of immigrants. The request was denied.


Battery Gibson (Fort Gibson) is dismantled. The army withdraws from Ellis Island. The Navy adds more magazines, and controls all operations on the island.


Local complaints against the Navy appear in the journal “Harper’s Weekly” on the powder magazine dangers of Ellis Island.


The New York newspaper, “The Sun,” publishes alarming reports about the Navy’s explosives on Ellis Island.


Continued stories on the U.S. Navy’s powder magazine, and its risks to Jersey City and New York City, appear in the New York newspaper “World.”


Congress passes a resolution ordering the removal of the U.S. Navy’s powder magazine on Ellis Island. An amendment was attached directing the Secretary of the Treasure to appropriate $75,000 towards improvements for immigration purposes. The Resolution was signed into law by President Benjamin Harrison on April 11. On May 24, by order of Congress, the powder is removed by Navy personnel to Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island.


Congress passes an immigration act which creates a Bureau of Immigration and a Superintendent of Immigration within the Treasury Department. A commissioner was installed at each major port. Colonel John B. Weber of Buffalo was the first “Commissioner of Immigration” on Ellis Island.


The U.S. Immigration Station on Ellis Island formally opens. Annie Moore of Ireland was the first alien to be processed. By the end of the fiscal year, over 400,000 immigrants had been processed through the new station.


Administrative procedures improve at Ellis Island. Colonel Weber requires all steamship companies to ask additional processing questions on their manifests before boarding immigrants destined for America. President Grover Cleveland appoints Dr. Joseph Senner to succeed Colonel Weber as “Commissioner of Immigration” at Ellis Island.


Thomas Fitchie appointed “Commissioner of Immigration” by President William McKinley. On June 14, a fire destroys the wooden buildings on Ellis Island. Consequently, all staff and immigrants are evacuated. All processing of immigrants is temporarily transferred to the Barge Office in Batter Park, Manhattan.

Dec 17, 1900

A new “fire-proof” main immigration processing building opens. 2,251 immigrants are examined on this day.


The Kitchen, Bathhouse, Laundry, and Powder House are constructed on Island 1.


President Theodore Roosevelt launches a reform campaign to end bureaucratic corruption and the mistreatment of aliens. Wall Street lawyer William Williams is appointed as the new “Commissioner of Immigration.”


The Treasury Department transfers all control and responsibility of immigration to the Department of Commerce and Labor.


A railroad ticketing office is added to the main building.


William Williams resigns as commissioner; President Roosevelt appoints career immigration Robert Watchorn to succeed him.

1905 - 1906

Landfill is used to create the five acre "Island 3" where a contagious disease ward is eventually constructed.


1.2 million aliens are examined on Ellis Island; creating a peak year of immigration.


President Taft reappoints William Williams as the Commissioner of Immigration at Ellis Island. Several contagious disease wards are completed on Island 3.


Congress separates the Department of Commerce and Labor into two bureaus. The new Department of Labor is assigned responsibility over immigration.

1913 - 1915

A bakery, greenhouse, and carpenter’s shop is built on Island 1.


President Woodrow Wilson appoints the noted municipal reformer Dr. Frederic Howe as commissioner. During his term, Dr. Howe ameliorated the conditions of detained Aliens.

1914 - 1918

The Great European War causes a sharp decline in immigration.


On the night of July 30th, German saboteurs destroyed the munitions depot on Black Tom Island in New Jersey. The explosion shattered windows at Ellis Island, and damaged the support structure of the arm of the Statue of Liberty. The island was briefly evacuated without injuries.


The United States enters World War 1 with allies of France and Great Britain. Ellis Island is used as a “navy way station;” where ships could pick up supplies. Wounded servicemen were admitted into the hospital on Ellis Island. Enemy aliens were also detained.

December 1919

Anarchist and Bolshevik aliens were arrested during the Palmer raids; deported via Ellis Island.


Doctor Howe resigns as commissioner. President Wilson appoints former New York City deputy police commissioner Frederick A. Wallis as his successor.


President Warren G. Harding replaces Commissioner Wallis with banker and philanthropist Robert E. Tod. An immigrant quota system is introduced.


Tod resigns; President Harding appoints former Manhattan Borough president Henry H. Curran as Commissioner of Immigration, New York District (Ellis Island).


National Origins Act passed. Immigrants are now required to obtain visas in American consulates before embarking for America. Country of Origin quota limits reduced the amount of immigrants that could enter into the United States. As a consequence, immigration to the United States was dramatically reduced.


During the Great Depression, immigration was extremely low.


President Herbert Hoover appoints New York social welfare leader Edward Corsi as Ellis Island’s new “Commissioner of Immigration;” succeeding Henry Curran.


Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins appoints a non-partisan committee to investigate conditions at Ellis Island.


The Ellis Island Committee submits a report to Secretary Perkins that contains many recommendations including the construction of better facilities for immigrants. The Roosevelt Administration acted on many of the recommendations. Through landfill, the island is increased to its present size of 27.5 acres. Commissioner Corsi resigns; President Franklin D. Roosevelt replaces him with Rudolph Reimer.


A Coast Guard training station opens on Ellis Island.

April 11, 1940

Commissioner Reimer presides over the fiftieth anniversary ceremonies that marked Ellis Island’s designation as a federal alien receiving station. On June 14th, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) is shifted to the Justice Department after being under the Department of Labor for 27 years.

May 1942

Approximately 1,000 German, Italian, and Japanese enemy aliens are detained at Ellis Island.


All Immigration and Naturalization Service functions, except for detention, moves from Ellis Island to the Work Projects Administration Headquarters Building at 70 Columbus Circle in Manhattan.


The Displaced Persons Act allows a total of 400,000 refugees to enter the country.


President Harry Truman appoints Edward J. Shaughnessy, Immigration and Naturalization Service district director from New York to succeed Rudolph Reimer. Hearings for detained aliens are returned to Ellis Island.


The passage by Congress of the Internal Security Act over President Truman’s veto causes a flurry of alien detentions at Ellis Island.


The U.S. Public Health Service closes the hospital at Ellis Island. The U.S. Coast Guard temporarily takes over the buildings.


On a visit to Ellis Island, District Director Shaughnessy observes that there are only 237 detainees on the island, but there are 250 employees to handle them!

November 12, 1954

The Immigration and Naturalization Service removes the last detained aliens from Ellis Island.

November 29, 1954

The ferryboat “Ellis Island” makes its last run. The island is vacated.

March 4, 1955

Ellis Island is determined to be surplus government property, and it returns to obscurity. The General Services Administration assumes jurisdiction.

May 11, 1965

President Lyndon Johnson, invoking the Antiquities Act of 1906, proclaims Ellis Island as a part of Statue of Liberty National Monument; changing control to the National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior.

1973 - 1975

Dr. Peter Sammartino, of Fairleigh Dickenson University, initiates an Ellis Island clean-up campaign.

May 1976 – Sept. 1984

Ellis Island opens for public tours.

May 1982

In a White House press conference, President Ronald Reagan announces a plan to restore both the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.

1986 - 1990

The Ellis Island restoration project costs $156 million dollars.

September 10, 1990

Ellis Island opens to the public a day after opening ceremonies. Ceremonies were presided by J. Danforth Quayle, Vice President of the United States, and Lee Iacocca, Chairman of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation.


Following a lawsuit initiated by the State of New Jersey, the U.S. Supreme Court votes 6-3 to divide the sovereignty of Ellis Island between New York and New Jersey. New York retains the original 3.3 acres, and New Jersey wins the other 24 landfilled acres of the island


The National Parks Service begins planning for the stabilization of decaying buildings on the south side (Islands 2 & 3) of Ellis Island.

Spring 2001

The American Family Immigration History Center (AFIHC) opens at Ellis Island.


Last updated: June 29, 2023

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Receiving Office
1 Ellis Island

Jersey City, NJ 07305


212 363-3200

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