Ellis Island, in Upper New York Bay, was the gateway for over 12 million immigrants to the U.S. as the United States’ busiest immigrant inspection station for over 60 years from 1892 until 1954. Ellis Island was opened January 1, 1892. The island was greatly expanded with land reclamation between 1892 and 1934. Before that, the much smaller original island was the site of Fort Gibson and later a naval magazine. The island was made part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument in 1965 and has hosted a museum of immigration since 1990.
It was long considered part of New York, but a 1998 United States Supreme Court decision found that most of the island is in New Jersey. The south side of the island, home to the Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital, is closed to the general public and the object of restoration efforts spearheaded by Save Ellis Island.
Originally much of the west shore of Upper New York Bay consisted of large tidal flats which hosted vast oyster banks, a major source of food for the Lenape population who lived in the area prior to the arrival of Dutch settlers. There were several islands which were not completely submerged at high tide. Three of them (later to be known as Liberty Island, Black Tom Island and Ellis Island) were given the name Oyster Islands by the settlers of New Netherland, the first European colony in the region. The oyster beds remained a major source of food for nearly three centuries. Landfilling to build the railyards of the Lehigh Valley Railroad and the Central Railroad of New Jersey eventually obliterated the oyster beds, engulfed one island, and brought the shoreline much closer to the others. During the colonial period, Little Oyster Island was known as Dyre’s, then Bucking Island. In the 1760s, after some pirates were hanged from one of the island’s scrubby trees, it became known as Gibbet Island. It was acquired by Samuel Ellis, a colonial New Yorker and merchant possibly from Wales, around the time of the American Revolution. In 1785, he unsuccessfully attempted to sell the island:
TO BE SOLD
By Samuel Ellis, no. 1, Greenwich Street, at the north river near the Bear Market, That pleasant situated Island called Oyster Island, lying in New York Bay, near Powle’s Hook, together with all its improvements which are considerable;…
— Samuel Ellis advertising in Loudon’s New York-Packet, January 20, 1785
The State of New York leased the island in 1794 and started to fortify it in 1795. Ownership was in question and legislation was passed for acquisition by condemnation in 1807 and then ceded to the United States in 1808. Shortly thereafter the War Department established a circular stone 14-gun battery, a mortar battery (possibly of six mortars), magazine, and barracks. This was part of what was later called the second system of U.S. fortifications. From 1808 until 1814 it was a federal arsenal. The fort was initially called Crown Fort, but by the end of the War of 1812 the battery was named Fort Gibson, after Colonel James Gibson of the 4th Regiment of Riflemen, killed in the Siege of Fort Erie during the war. Parts of the wall foundations of the fort were uncovered while excavating for the Immigrant Wall of Honor, and they are preserved with an interpretive plaque. The island remained a military post for nearly 80 years before it was selected to be a federal immigration station.