Portraits of Ellis Island Immigrants

ellis island

Between 1892 and 1954, Ellis Island served as an immigration inspection station for millions of immigrants arriving into the United States. The first immigrant to pass though the station was 17-year-old Annie Moore from Cork, Ireland, one of the 700 immigrants arriving on the opening day on January 1, 1892. The first and second class passengers were considered wealthy enough not to become a burden to the state and were examined onboard the ships while the poorer passengers were sent to the island where they underwent medical examinations and legal inspections. These images of people wearing their folk costumes were taken by amateur photographer Augustus Sherman who worked as the Chief Registry Clerk on Ellis Island from 1892 until 1925. 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. In 1907, the photographs were published in National Geographic, and they were also hung on the walls of the lower Manhattan headquarters of the federal Immigration Service. In 2005, Aperture brought out a book of the photographs, containing 97 full-page portraits.

1907 was the busiest year for Ellis Island, with an all-time high of 11,747 immigrants arriving in April. Approved immigrants spent between three to five hours on the island where they underwent medical examinations and were asked questions regarding their occupation and the money they owned, it being preferable for them to have a starting sum when they arrived in the country. Two percent of the immigrants were denied admission on the grounds of suffering from contagious diseases or insanity, or alternatively by virtue of having a criminal background. In the 1920s, restrictions were placed on the percentage of immigrants arriving from various countries or ethnic backgrounds, as immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe were seen as inferior to the earlier immigrants from Northern and Western Europe. The facilities later served as a detention and deportation processing station, and during the Second World War, German, Italian, and Japanese resident aliens were detained on the island.

Housed at: Flickr: The Commons | From: New York Public Library
Underlying Work: PD U.S. | Digital Copy: No Additional Rights
Download: Right click on image or see source for higher res versions

German stowaway.
Three Dutch women.
Georgians, employees of the “Buffalo Bill Wild West Show”.
Ruthenian woman.
Romanian shepherd.
Romanian women.
Romanian piper.
Greek soldier.
Italian woman.
Dutch children.
Bavarian man.
Norwegian woman.
Children from Lapland.
Slovakian women.
Albanian soldier.
Italian woman.
Three women from Guadeloupe (apparently actually en route to Montreal, Canada).
Children from Lapland.
Georgian man, an employee of the “Buffalo Bill Wild West Show”.
Danish man.
Woman from Lapland.
Hindu boy.
Guadeloupean woman (apparently actually en route to Montreal, Canada).
Algerian man.
Slovak woman and children.

  • Paul F. Roper

    Note my picture, I am an employee at Ellis Island since 1990. I have come to know many of the pictures like old friends, and have done much research on them. The biggest mistake in your collection are the pictures labeled “Russian Cossacks”; they are not. They are Georgians and were employees of the “Buffalo Bill Wild West Show”. It is a great story, read more Here:

    • Public Domain Review

      Thank you so much for this! And so sorry for the delay with this. Information (very belatedly) corrected in the post…

      • Sue Tacker

        Is it ok to use these amazing photos in a video of a school play about Ellis Island Immigration. I would like to include some for the introduction and titles. Sue, editor of Meher Schools video

      • Paul Roper

        You are more than welcome PDR, glad to help. BTW: “the Hindoo Boy” has a great backstory: he was part of a sideshow for a circus, he has a symbiant twin growing from his chest, we have a picture of this, perhaps not for public view. He was known as “Piramel, the double bodied boy, and Sammi was his sister, growing from his chest, but no head. I found more photos of him on a sideshow site, but I do not remember the name of it…try searching under his name.

    • María L

      Hi Paul, I found a picture of a Romanian woman just like me, can you help me please to find out who she was? THANK YOU!!

      • Paul F. Roper

        Hello Maria,

        Sadly all we really have are the pictures taken by Mister Sherman. He generally kept the ID to their country of origin, sometimes the family name and destination. Since the Romanian women were in the same group as the 2 male Romanian shepherds, they may have been traveling as a family…and were coming to join others already here. I will check when I am at work again, perhaps I will get lucky…all the best…

        • Paul F. Roper

          Sorry Maria, we have no firther info on those Romanian immigrants…wish I could offer more…


  • Paul F. Roper

    Additionally, the Guadeloupe Women have a great backstory: they are not immigrants to the US, they were held overnight at Ellis Island while awaiting their final transport to Montreal Canada. They were French speaking and were going to jobs as servants in Montreal. We think they were kept at Ellis for safety Need anymore info, contact me.

    • Michael MacBride

      Paul, I’ve been searching for an old photo of my ancestors arriving July 1947, from Malta. According to their memory, it was aboard the Marine Shark, and would have been either July 27 or 28th. They said a photograph was taken, because there was a comment about them being the largest Maltese family to come across. Any chance you have suggestions for where I might look to find this? I’ve been looking, but striking out. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

  • Mixo Kochakidze

    Nice and impressive collection, but the “Russian Cossacks” were Georgian riders in reality and were employed for the Wild West Show. More here:

    • Public Domain Review

      As with Paul below, thanks so much for this correction! Post now ammended…

      • Mixo Kochakidze

        Better late than never, thumbs up! Thanks a lot and all the best!

  • MisterMiscreant

    Thanks for re-running this in January 2017… a poignant response to a particularly dark day for Americans. And a reminder of why it’s so important to support PDR.