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A Child’s Journey Through Ellis Island From Dream to Reality: 2nd Place – Cavan McIntyre-Brewer, Home Schooled

Fifteen year old Annie Moore must have been nervous, excited, and scared all at the same time. She was selected as the first person to step foot on Ellis Island in order to be processed as an immigrant so that she could finally be reunited with her parents after three long years. Getting through Ellis Island was long and stressful, but the promise of becoming an American was worth all of the anxiety. Annie’s story is one of hundreds of thousands of children who came to America for a chance at a new life and as soon as I heard about it, I was hooked on learning about how kids experienced the journey to America.

Ellis Island opened its doors on New Year’s Day in 1892. 445,987 immigrants passed through its gates in the first year and, of those, a large amount were children. (Faria 18) Some of the children came with their families, while others came alone meeting family members already living in the United States. When they landed, they were treated fairly on Ellis Island, receiving medical exams, proper meals, and were often spoken to by people who worked for the government in their own languages. Although this did not always happen, the majority of workers on Ellis Island tried to make things easier for kids. Still, for a child to come to another country, often not being able to speak the same language, this new place must have been terrifying.

Even before a child stepped on to Ellis Island, the journey to get there was frightening enough. Most traveled in steerage, the lowest paying class on a ship, packed together like cattle. Access to fresh water, food, and other necessities was very limited. Rats and other pests swarmed the passengers, often ruining what little they were able to bring with them. Seasickness was also very common and many people would try to go up to the decks for fresh air. If a child was lucky, passengers from second or first class might throw candy down to them. (Burgan 29) Even then, they spent most of their time tired, hungry, dirty, seasick, and missing home.

Once steamships reached the New York Harbor, first and second class passengers were asked screening questions and then allowed to go straight to New York City. The steerage class was required to stay on the boat, often for several days because there were so many immigrants trying to enter through Ellis Island, before they were put on a barge to be taken to the processing center. (Quiri 19) There they began the screening process to see if they could enter the United States. Considering most of the parents had no idea what was happening, children must have been even more stressed and terrified.

Once on Ellis Island, the men were separated from the women and children, leaving their luggage in the baggage area. Everyone was instructed to get into lines where they would be screened to see if they needed more testing. Most of the instructions were given to the parents, while children paid close attention to follow their direction. However, older children like Annie Moore and her two brothers had no parents to walk them through Ellis Island so they were on their own to go through the testing process.

The medical exams were some of the most frightening experiences for children passing through Ellis Island. Known as the ‘Six Second Physical’, examiners were specifically looking for diseases that could easily be spread. Some of these included tuberculosis, cholera, favus, and trachoma. They were also looking for physical or mental issues and if the doctor checking the immigrants saw something he believed was a health issue, he would mark a letter on the person with chalk in a specific area so the person could be examined further. Medical instruments were used to help with the exam, including metal eye probes that propped the eye open in order to see more clearly into the immigrants’ eyes. (Bial 27-29) Even the bravest child must have dreaded these examinations.

Immigrants were then taken to see if they could pass a legal exam. They were asked if they had money for a train ticket, where they came from, and where they planned to go. Later, they were also asked if they could read and write. Once again, younger children were not expected to answer these questions, but older children had to prove that they would be good citizens and able to care for themselves. Unfortunately, out of every ten immigrants who attempted these tests, two failed and were sent back to their home country. (Faria 11) Sometimes, only part of the family passed the examinations and the other family members were forced to return to their native country. Right then and there, families had to decide if they would be split up or return home together. Some children were sent back without family.

If families passed all of the screenings, they were given landing cards so they could stay in the United States. Getting those cards must have been a proud and exciting moment for the entire family. Now they could really begin a new life in America. Children would have a chance to live where they could practice their own religion, escaping war and poverty, but it wasn’t always easy for the families. Many times people who were already living in America did not want immigrants to come to their country and so these new people were treated poorly. Immigrants had to fight for good jobs, often living in tenement housing, and living hard lives.

For many children, it paid off. Arthur Murray, Walt Disney, and Bob Hope all started their American journeys at Ellis Island as children and later became famous millionaires. Lots of other people may not have become famous, but they still were able to live the American dream they imagined as they journeyed through Ellis Island as children. Knowing what children endured to be American was amazing and inspirational.


  • Bial, Raymond. Ellis Island: Coming to the Land of Liberty. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009. Print.
  • Burgan, Michael. Ellis Island: An Interactive History Adventure. North Mankato: Capstone, 2014. Print. You Choose Books.
  • Ellis Island Immigration Museum: Face of America. Dir. Marc Doyle. PBS, 2012. DVD.
  • “Famous Ellis Island Immigrants.” RSS. THA New Media LLC, 31 Aug. 2010. Web. 20 Nov. 2014. .
  • Faria, Joseph D. The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Berkeley Heights: Enslow, 2005. Print. Virtual Field Trips.
  • Immigration to the U. S. Dir. Rhonda Fabian. Perf. Irene Bedard. Schlessinger Media, 2004. DVD.
  • Quiri, Patricia R. Ellis Island. New York: Grolier, 1998. Print. A True Book.
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