16 August, 2012

Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island: some words

I'd visited NY twice before but never managed to get properly off Manhattan. Or indeed above Central Park. No excuse this time.

If you are going to go to the Statue of Liberty you really must also go to the Ellis Island Museum. She has all the landmark status, but the Museum is much more interesting. And leave time. It is a day's outing and we could easily have spent more time at Ellis Island.

Oh, and get the free audio guide - it really won't be the same without. They do a children's version as well as the adult version.

The Statue of Liberty was what you know, only closer. Currently you can't get right up to her as they are doing some restoration but there she is, and there is a detailed talk with clips and quotes and so forth telling you about her history and what she means to people. It isn't as jingoistic as Mount Rushmore thankfully.

Ellis Island is quite another experience. This was the gateway to America for much of the early 20th century. I hadn't realised that operations didn't start until 1892 so my own ancestors, who moved to Texas, didn't travel through here. But Tom has a 3x great uncle who arrived in 1909 (we checked the lists online when we got home) and it was something to imagine him, leaving his family and arriving alone from the West Midlands and climbing the stairs as we did into the great hall above.

The museum itself is short on artifacts but has wonderful photographs, is well laid out, taking you through the immigration process, and the audio is superb. First person accounts abound bringing the whole experience alive. Ellis Island was the busiest port of entry and some 40% of US citizens can trace their family back to the museum.

History is messy and the history of the US is no exception. At the same time that the Lakota Sioux were being driven from their lands in the Black Hills and forced onto spartan reservations, Europeans were arriving in New York, leaving and in some cases fleeing, poverty and oppression. And racism was evident in the process as the Chinese and Japanese were treated very differently, and as the US authorities attempted to engineer the make up of its future population along racial grounds. And sexism too abounded. Women could not enter the US alone until after World War II, the assumption being that they could not support themselves.  Children under 16 travelling alone after 1907, were returned to their home country. There were heartbreaking stories of people being turned away but actually the vast majority of arrivals were allowed entry.

In a sense our travels from west to east have been a journey through time. From the first missionaries of California, in the 17th century, from Spain, via the explorations of Lewis and Clark and the experiences of the Native Americans in the West and further east until we reach New York and the huge rush of immigration of the 20th century. One aspect of our journey which I have loved is the way that everything has linked together, echoes of previous stopping points are found all along our route. While the travellers of the past arrived first at Ellis Island, it was one of our last stopping points, and we have seen some of what they might expect.

There is a staircase out of the hall after you have been processed. The stairs either side are for those let in, the middle for those being sent home. We walked down the middle but willingly, unlike those whose steps we followed.

1 comment:

Soilman said...

I have countless distant Irish relatives who trod those stairs. I get emotional thinking of those vast crowds of people leaving everything they knew behind to head for a strange land on the other side of the world with no guarantee of, well, anything.

I've never been, but I'm definitely going to go. Thanks for the post.