#468) Emigrants Landing at Ellis Island (1903)

#468) Emigrants Landing at Ellis Island (1903)

OR “They’re Coming to America (Today!)”

Directed by Alfred C. Abadie

Class of 2019 

Ellis Island has a long history that a blog post like mine can only oversimplify. To learn more about Ellis Island, check out their official website!

The Plot: From the Edison film catalog:

“Shows a large open barge loaded with people of every nationality, who have just arrived from Europe, disembarking at Ellis Island, N.Y. A most interesting and typical scene.”

Why It Matters: The NFR gives an historical rundown of the film and Ellis Island, calling the film the first “to record the now-mythologized moment” of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island.

But Does It Really?: It’s always tough to justify the inclusion of yet another Edison actuality film on the NFR, but while other Edison films capture mundane moments like a sneeze, “Emigrants” is a rare glimpse at the Immigrant Boom of the early 1900s. In just two minutes of film we can witness more insight into an immigrants long struggle to get to America than we could by any other form of communication. A pass for “Ellis Island”, but mainly for what it represents rather than the film itself.

Everybody Gets One: Alfred C. Abadie was a cameraman for Thomas Edison c. 1898-1904. Although “Emigrants” was filmed stateside, the bulk of Abadie’s 1903 work for Edison was filmed abroad (allegedly because Edison wanted to beat the Lumière Brothers at their own game). Abadie appears on-camera as a sheriff in “The Great Train Robbery“, filmed in part at the Edison Studio in New York, and directed by Edwin S. Porter, who also got his start as one of Edison’s cameramen.

Wow, That’s Dated: Like many films of the early 1900s, “Ellis Island” documents that hats were seemingly required for all public appearances: men with their bowlers, women with their Edwardian garden hats.

Other notes 

  • First off, shout out to the indigenous Lenape people, whose land Ellis Island currently sits on.
  • Ellis Island changed hands a few times before becoming an immigration station. After being run by the Dutch during the 1600s, Little Oyster Island (as it was then known) was purchased by local merchant Samuel Ellis in 1774. After his passing, the island became a military base, being used by the US Army and Navy in the War of 1812 and the Civil War (among others). After the Civil War the magazines and other firearms were slowly dismantled, and the island was eventually controlled by the US Department of Treasury. In response to a call for a national immigration policy, Ellis Island was chosen to host a central immigration station (something that had been previously attempted in 1847). Ellis Island opened to immigrants in 1892 and in its prime took in as many as 4000 immigrants a day.
  • According to the Library of Congress and Edison’s records, “Ellis Island” was filmed on July 9th, 1903, and copyrighted two weeks later on July 24th. Most historians place the first public screening sometime that August.
  • Immediately following what you see in this film, the immigrants would then line up in the main building for further inspection. Each person would be inspected by multiple officials for any obvious physical impairment (At this point they would have already gone through two medical inspections: One in their home country before departure, and another on the boat immediately after docking.) After that, each person would be subjected to hours of basic questioning. If they passed the questioning, they were given a signed affidavit and free to enter America.
  • Anyone who did not pass the physical or medical examinations would be quarantined in the island’s hospital, detained, or even deported. Roughly 1% of all immigrants at Ellis Island were deported.
  • It should also be pointed out that Ellis Island officials considered such characteristics as homosexuality to be “moral defects” that qualified for automatic deportation. This common occurrence makes America guilty of the same eugenic practices we would one day condemn the Nazis for.
  • Sometimes while researching these films I stumble upon information that completely contradicts what I thought I knew about a subject. In this case: the myth that officials at Ellis Island would Americanize the last name of immigrants as they arrived. Turns out no officials did that; they were fluent in a multitude of languages and documented their names accurately, even correcting any spelling errors that had fallen through the cracks. Most immigrants Americanized their own names after the fact to help assimilate.

Legacy 

  • Ellis Island continued to be the epicenter for immigrant activity in the United States for the next 20 years, until the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the Immigration Act of 1924 sharply decreased the number of immigrants allowed in the country (turns out we’ve always had a problem with that). After that, Ellis Island became more of a detention center before finally closing in 1954. In 1965 the island was declared a national monument and reopened in 1976 as a museum dedicated to its former life.
  • After working for Edison, Alfred Abadie became a freelance filmmaker. His most notable post-Edison film is the 1917 educational short “Birth”, allegedly the first film to document an actual birth. God help me if that ever makes the NFR.
  • I actually visited Ellis Island in 2011 on my first trip to New York. Ironically, Ellis Island had an exhibit on Alcatraz at the time, so I flew across the country to learn about an island six miles from my house. Here I am in my younger, skinnier, tanner days using a jail cell as a fun photo op.
I used to look like this every day. Photo credit: Dylan West.

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