Follow Friday: Government Shutdown & Genealogy

The Great Hall at Ellis Island, where immigrants waited to be inspected before entering the USA. (photo courtesy of Desiree Kurtti)

Among the hundreds of thousands of federal employees who would be affected if the government shuts down tonight for failure to pass a national budget are those that work at National Parks.

I didn’t realize that Ellis Island is operated by our National Park Service until I visited there in February as a chaperone for my daughter’s fifth grade class.  Growing up in New Jersey and living in New York as an adult, I couldn’t believe that February was my first trip to this historic site.  As a school kid, we took frequent field trips to the Statue of Liberty.  Ellis Island was only open on a limited basis from the mid 70s to 80s and after that, closed for a massive renovation- that’s when I would have taken a school trip there.  It reopened in the early 90s when I was living in New York City, but it just didn’t have much appeal to me probably because none of my ancestors entered the country through this famous portal.  My European ancestors have been in the US at least since the early 1700s.  My African ancestors were brought here in chains. But, I imagined my daughter might feel a personal connection to this historic site since her paternal ancestors immigrated here from Ireland and England, two countries that imported many of their citizens through Ellis Island.

Her paternal great, great-grandfather, Martin Quinn was born in England around 1869.  According to census reports, he immigrated to the US around 1886.  Ellis Island didn’t open until 1892. Before then, individual states, not the Federal government, regulated immigration into the US. So, Martin Quinn probably came through Castle Garden in the Battery, New York State’s immigration station from 1855 to 1890.  My daughter’s great-grandmother, Lucille Kurtti (nee Mulchay) was born in  Ireland around 1907.  She immigrated in 1926. It’s possible that her name was misspelled and we’ll have to check the passenger lists for variations.  But with or without a personal connection to the place, it was a stirring experience to walk through the Ellis Island Museum.

In the Great Hall, our class was given pretend physicals like the newly arrived of yore.  My daughter got through with no problem so she would have waited only three to five hours before being allowed onto American soil.  I didn’t fair as well.  I had some kind of terrible eye disease. Inspectors would have detected it when they flipped my eyelid over with a with a metal loop.  (Yikes!)  Highly contagious and untreatable (anyone with this disease went blind), I would have been sent right back to wherever I came from!

16,000 people a day visit the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island this time of year.  Even if the government does shut down, genealogists and history lovers can virtually visit by going to www.ellisisland.org.

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