Skip to Content

Click here for current COVID-19 updates     Close

What America’s immigrants looked like when they arrived on Ellis Island

24 Oct

October 24
We hear so often that America is “a nation of immigrants” or a “cultural mixing pot” that the phrase has become kind of a tired cliche. But actually seeing that history is a different story. The fascinating photographs below — of people in their native costume passing through Ellis Island in the early 20th century — hint at just how incredible and unique America’s history is as a nation of immigrants.

These photos were taken by Augustus Sherman, an amateur photographer who worked as the chief registry clerk on Ellis Island from 1892 until 1925. Sherman snapped these photographs of people passing through customs in their native costume. They were published in National Geographic in 1907 and once hung on the walls in the headquarters of the federal Immigration Service in Manhattan, according to the Public Domain Review. They are now housed by the New York Public Library.

New York began using Ellis Island as a way station for immigrants on Jan. 1, 1892, and between then and 1954, more than 12 million immigrants used the island to enter the United StatesThe National Park Service estimates that more than 40 percent of Americans can trace their ancestry back through Ellis Island.

The history of the island is not always a happy one: It also reflects deep racism and ethnic divisions. After World War I, thousands of suspected “alien radicals” were detained on the island, and in the 1920s, it began to turn away immigrants from certain countries or ethnicities, including Southern and Eastern Europe. People with mental and physical disabilities were excluded, as well as the illiterate, and children arriving without parents.

Here is a young German man, who the notes classify as a “stowaway”:

Children and women from the Netherlands:

A Greek soldier in national costume:

Men from the Russian Empire:

An Algerian man:

A Bavarian man, from southern Germany:

A soldier from Albania:

Children and a woman from Lapland, the northernmost region of Finland:

A man from Denmark:

Women from Guadeloupe, an island in the Caribbean colonized by France:

A young Hindu man:

Several Italian women in national costume:

A woman from Norway:

Several men from Romania:

A Ruthenian woman, one of the East Slavic minorities under the Austro-Hungarian Empire:

Some women and families from Slovakia: