On January 1, 1892, seven hundred immigrants from three ships waited in New York Harbor to board barges that would take them to Ellis Island.
These newcomers were the first to be processed at the brand-new, federal government-run facility, where a total of 12 million immigrants over 62 years were registered and then given medical and legal checks before being allowed onto the mainland.
(This was only for third-class passengers, of course—those in first and second class were given a quick inspection on the ship, then allowed to proceed to New York City.)
Two percent, however, were turned back across the pond for a variety of reasons: bad health, mental issues, anti-American sentiment.
Capturing the faces of many of these new arrivals in their native dress was chief registry clerk Augustus Sherman, who was also an amateur photographer.
Sherman took about 250 photos of people he encountered between 1905 and the 1920s.
“The people in the photographs were most likely detainees who were waiting for money, travel tickets or someone to come and collect them from the island,” stated The Public Domain Review.
Sherman took the photos for his own enjoyment. “Augustus Sherman was fascinated by where the immigrants were coming from and their traditional clothing,” states the National Park Service.
“He usually photographed immigrants that were detained briefly and used mostly dull backgrounds so the immigrants themselves were the main focus.”
“Though originally taken for his own personal study, Sherman’s work appeared in the public eye as illustrations for publications with titles such as ‘Alien or American,’ and hung on the walls of the custom offices as cautionary or exemplary models of the new American species,” explained a summary of a book that collected Sherman’s Ellis Islands photos.
Regardless of how they were used a century ago, these photos are incredible portraits of what some of the people who made it to Ellis Island looked like.
Dressed in folk outfits from their native countries, they have unsmiling yet hopeful faces.
For more about what it was like to arrive in New York City as an immigrant in the 19th and early 20th centuries—first at Castle Garden, then at Ellis Island—check out The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910.
[Countries of origin: 1. The Netherlands; 2. Greece; 3. Romania; 4. Italy; 5. “Hindu” is how the boy is described]