Archaeology of Ellis Island

Ellis Island is one of the most important sites in the history of New York and in the history of immigration in the United States.  According to some estimations, close to 40% of current U.S. citizens can trace at least one of their ancestors to one of the millions of immigrants that came through the island.

When Ellis Island was established as a federal immigration station in 1892, patterns of immigration to the United States were shifting away from Northern and Western Europeans toward Southern and Eastern Europeans.  This included Jewish people escaping oppression and Italians escaping widespread poverty.  Generally, the immigrants that came through Ellis Island left their countries of origin to escape war, drought, famine, oppression, religious persecution, or inescapable poverty and search for new opportunities provided by the United States.

Immigrants waiting to be processed on Ellis Island

However, as the archaeological record helps to reveal, any depictions of Ellis Island as a gateway to a new world and a haven for immigrants are severely romanticized and inaccurate.  The island earned the nickname “Island of Tears” for the harrowing experience it provided for exhausted immigrants coming off long boat journeys.  Also, as well as being a center for immigration, the island was an important cite of deportation.  Archaeological excavations in the 1980s found the IDs of many suspected communists that were deported for being “politically subversive”.  Excavations also found a jigsaw puzzle used as part of an “intelligence test” in the 1910s.  According to the physician who developed the puzzle and the accompanying “Feature Profile Test”, Howard A. Knox, “The purpose of our mental measuring scale at Ellis Island is the sorting out of those immigrants who may, because of their mental make-up, become a burden to the State or who may produce offspring that will require care in prisons, asylums, or other institutions.”  This puzzle replaced a more unfair I.Q. test based on cultural knowledge many immigrants did not have, but it still led to the immediate deportation of 957 people in 1914 who were considered “mentally defective” and tore families apart.  The “Feature Profile Test” also reflected an emerging eugenics and anti-immigrant movement that led to the Immigration Act of 1924.  This act limited immigration based on nationality in an attempt to keep out “undesirable” groups.  These groups included Jewish people who would later attempt to flee the Holocaust.

The jigsaw puzzle used to test the “intelligence” of incoming immigrants

It is important for the United States to learn from its troubled history with immigration in order to fully understand the sanctuary it is capable of providing for people in truly desperate situations.  For this sort of understanding to occur, it is necessary to destroy the persisting nationalistic mentality that immigrants are a burden or pollutant to the United States population.


Further Reading

Image Sources

Phrenology and “Scientific Racism” in the 19th Century

The pseudoscience of phrenology, the study of skull shapes as an indicator of mental  abilities, was founded by German physiologist Franz Joseph Gall in the early 1800s.  Gall claimed that the brain has multiple “organs” that each correspond to different mental traits or abilities. Because the human skull is shaped as it is because of the brain, he claimed that the study of the shape, size and geography of the human skull could yield information about these “organs” and the consequent mental capacity of the person to whom it belonged.  This field of study was based on a faulty science in which evidence that helps prove a researcher’s hypothesis is taken into consideration.  When this pseudoscience spread to the U.S. around the 1830s, it was used to prove prevalent yet baseless hypotheses about the inferiority of non-white races.

1830s image showing sections of the skull corresponding to different mental traits.

The U.S. in the 1830s and 1840s, when phrenology became popular,  was struggling to justify the continuation of slavery in the face of a growing abolitionist movement and was dealing with interactions between white western settlers and existing Native American populations.  In the case of slavery, physicians such as Charles Caldwell used phrenology to attempt to prove that African people were in their rightful place as slaves.  Caldwell studied the skulls of many different peoples, including Africans, at the Musee de Phrenologie in Paris.  In 1837, he concluded that the skulls of African people (a flawed generalization of an entire continent of diverse peoples) indicated a  “tamableness” that made them suited to be slaves, and required them to “have a master”.  This view of people of African descent as inherently mentally inferior contributed to the continuation of slavery and the segregation and racism that still persists in the U.S..

In the case of Native Americans, the work of physiologists including Samuel Morton helped justify their removal  from their land in the 1830s and 40s.  Morton’s 1839 book “Crania Americana” detailed skull configurations and consequent mental capacities of the four “separate species” he defined, including whites and Native Americans.  He saw differences between races as natural and dictated by God, rejecting the view that physical differences were created by environments.  His study of skulls concluded that Native American minds were “different than that of the white man” and was cited in articles targeted at western settlers encountering Native Americans.  One article stated that Native Americans were “adverse to cultivation, slow in acquiring knowledge”.  This view of Native Americans existence in society as not conducive to industrialization and “progress” helped justify Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal policies and allowed western settlers to continue taking the land of Native Americans.

Excerpt from “Crania Americana” showing the supposed differences between the skulls of different races. Morton claimed similarities between the skulls of primates and African people.

The flawed use of “science” to support exploitation of groups of people helped perpetuate racial oppression and distorted future views of the biological basis of race.

Further Reading