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Island of Dreams, Island of Fears: Conflicting Representations of Ellis Island
Rebecca Ewing

"Ellis Island is a reminder of the hope for freedom and prosperity that the United States offered to the poor, tired, hungry, and downtrodden of the world," proclaimed the legislation designating January 1, 1992 as National Ellis Island Day.1 Congress' patriotic view of Ellis Island is just one among a host of opinions which have been expressed about the famous island over its century of identity as an immigration facility. From the opening day of the immigration station's operation on January 1, 1892, through its phases of use and disuse, and finally to its present conception as a National Historic Monument and a museum, the island has been the center of debate over whose meaning should be the official one.

Immigrants, historians of immigration, the general public, immigration officials, and the National Park Service have all viewed the island through different colored glasses, some rosier than others. The debates have been especially heated because of the unique nature of the island. Over 12 million immigrants passed through the station during the sixty-odd years it operated, and about 40 percent of all Americans are connected to Ellis Island by an ancestor or relative, giving a broad base of opinions from which to draw praise and criticism.2 The Ellis Island Immigration Museum, which opened in 1990, is the most recent product of the struggle to give an official meaning to the island and the experiences associated with it. As national opinions change and as new ways of viewing immigration and its effects on society come into vogue, the competition for an official meaning is certainly not yet dead.

Although the most significant portion of Ellis Island's history occurred after the first immigrant station opened in 1897, the island has actually been in use since Colonial times. Under the various names of Bucking, Oyster, and Gibbet Island, through the 1600s and half of the 1700s New Yorkers used the island for various purposes, including oyster catching, oyster


1. Joint Resolution Designating January 1, 1992 as "National Ellis Island Day" (Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1991).
2. Ibid.

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