Sunday, March 29, 2009

Topic of the Month: Immigration History

Every March many Americans celebrate St. Patrick’s Day whether they have Irish ancestry or not. This blending of many cultural traditions from the immigration of various groups to this continent is one of the wonderful qualities I appreciate about the United States. March’s special topic of the month is Immigration History. Immigration history is a broad topic that can begin with the migration of native cultures across the Bering Strait or other means and continues today. This article will not cover it all but will focus on immigration through Ellis and Angel Islands. Picture is Landing at Ellis Island from the Lirbrary of Congress.

In 1840’s the great potato blight struck Ireland driving nearly 1 million Irish to travel to America in just a decade. In this period Castle Garden, one of the first state-run immigration depots, was opened in New York City in 1855 to process these new immigrants. The Homestead Act of 1862 encouraged greater migration as the new law provided any citizen or intended citizen could lay claim to 160 acres.

In 1892 Ellis Island opened with nearly 700 immigrants passing through its doors or the first day and 450,000 coming in during the next year. Prior to WWI immigration reaches all time highs through Ellis Island, but the war severely curbs immigration and new laws are passed such as one preventing children from coming over without adults. However, post WWI immigration surges through Ellis Island and the first Immigration Quota law passed in 1921 restricting immigration by ethnic percentages. Ellis Island officially closed in 1954, became a monument in 1965, and restored until 1990 when it re-opened to the touring public. Visit this site to see if your ancestors’ records are here.

Angel Island provided a similar service on the Pacific coast. However, the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1905 severely limited immigration from Asia and many were housed on this island waiting for entry for nearly two years. The offices closed in 1940 and moved to San Francisco, while the island served as a POW camp during WWII. The island is currently under restoration for an opening sometime this year. You might use this resource to track your geneology.

We are truly a nation of immigrants whose reasons for traveling to this vast land vary but in many ways share similar experiences. The stories of these two islands is not just immigration history but our national history.

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