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Just gorgeous images -great diversity of immigrants to the USA, photographer at Ellis Island capture a unique time

Ian Harvey

A unique photographic record of people arriving in New York by ship from all corners of the world provides an insight into their great diversity. The photographer was actually an amateur: he took the photos while he was working as a records clerk at an immigration and customs centre on New York’s Ellis Island, where ships carrying hopeful crowds of immigrants docked and their passengers first stepped ashore on US land.

The photographer’s name was Augustus Sherman, and he was one of the many clerks recording the names and nationalities of new arrivals in great registers that were maintained at Ellis Island. Sherman worked there between 1892 and 1925. His photographic portraits were accepted for publication by a well-known US-based general-interest magazine, the National Geographic, and saw print in 1907. Framed copies of the prints were put on display for a time at the premises of the USA government immigration department in New York. These portraits were later presented to the public library in New York.

Dutch woman on Ellis Island in the early 20th century. Sherman, who worked as the chief registry clerk on Ellis Island from 1892 to 1925, was fascinated by immigrants' background and culture and most his subjects are dressed in elaborate national costumes or folk dress

Dutch woman on Ellis Island in the early 20th century. Sherman, who worked as the chief registry clerk on Ellis Island from 1892 to 1925, was fascinated by immigrants’ background and culture and most his subjects are dressed in elaborate national costumes or folk dress

 

The historic photographs of immigrants were all taken at Ellis Island – known as the ‘Gateway to America’ – which was the country’s largest and most active immigration station processing more than 12 million people from 1892 to 1924

The historic photographs of immigrants were all taken at Ellis Island – known as the ‘Gateway to America’ – which was the country’s largest and most active immigration station processing more than 12 million people from 1892 to 1924

 

Not everyone who came through Ellis Island did so in search of refuge. This trio of Scottish boys were brought by their family seeking their fortune

Not everyone who came through Ellis Island did so in search of refuge. This trio of Scottish boys were brought by their family seeking their fortune

 

A Turkish man featured among hundreds of images of people wearing their folk costumes taken by amateur photographer Augustus Sherman

A Turkish man featured among hundreds of images of people wearing their folk costumes taken by amateur photographer Augustus Sherman

 

 Algerian man featured among hundreds of images of people wearing their folk costumes taken by amateur photographer Augustus Sherman

Algerian man featured among hundreds of images of people wearing their folk costumes taken by amateur photographer Augustus Sherman

 

A group of Russian Cossacks who were most likely detainees who were waiting for money, travel tickets or someone to come and collect them from the island

A group of Russian Cossacks who were most likely detainees who were waiting for money, travel tickets or someone to come and collect them from the island

 

Taken by amateur photographer Augustus Sherman, his portfolio reveals the diverse and unique history of the U.S. as a nation of immigrants including this Ruthenian woman

Taken by amateur photographer Augustus Sherman, his portfolio reveals the diverse and unique history of the U.S. as a nation of immigrants including this Ruthenian woman

 

A Bavarian man is snapped in the early 20th century by Sherman who worked as the Chief Registry Clerk on Ellis Island from 1892 until 1925

A Bavarian man is snapped in the early 20th century by Sherman who worked as the Chief Registry Clerk on Ellis Island from 1892 until 1925

 

A Greek soldier pictured on Ellis Island in the early 20th century

A Greek soldier pictured on Ellis Island in the early 20th century

 

A young Swedish girl in traditional pointed hat and elaborate costume is pictured on Ellis Island while her family wait to be approved to travel to the mainland

A young Swedish girl in traditional pointed hat and elaborate costume is pictured on Ellis Island while her family wait to be approved to travel to the mainland

The government of the USA started to use Ellis Island to process arriving immigrants in 1892. By 1954, well over twelve million new immigrants had alighted at the island quayside. Nowadays, two-fifths of the population of the USA have had at least one of their antecedents pass through Ellis Island.

Although there is much to celebrate about Ellis Island’s historic importance, there is also a darker side to its story. Its records reflect the deep-seated racism and other discriminatory practices that lie at the heart of so much of America’s colonial history. Increasingly after the First World War, the immigration centre took to rejecting immigration requests from an assortment of people deemed undesirable by the USA authorities. People turned away at the very brink of achieving their life’s dream included many from  Mediterranean countries, eastern Europe, illiterate people, orphans, and physically and mentally disabled people.

It is easy to discern the great diversity of nations and cultures represented by those seeking new lives for themselves and their families. They exemplify the great range in statures, features and physiognomies to be found among the earth’s diverse peoples. To add to this fascinating story, a great many of those selected by Augustus Sherman for his photographic record were decked out in their traditional attire. Clothes of nearly every imaginable type can be seen being worn with pride.

A Slovak woman and her son (right) were one of millions of families who fled Hungarian persecution to America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries

A Slovak woman and her son were one of millions of families who fled Hungarian persecution to America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries

 

One man, covered in tattoos, is simply referred to as a German stowaway by the amateur photographer and register clerk

One man, covered in tattoos, is simply referred to as a German stowaway by the amateur photographer and register clerk

 

Three women are pictured from Guadeloupe, a French overseas territory in the southern Caribbean Sea, arrived at Ellis Island on their way to America

Three women are pictured from Guadeloupe, a French overseas territory in the southern Caribbean Sea, arrived at Ellis Island on their way to America

 

A couple of Dutch children, dressed in their traditional clogs and costume, clutch onto their immigration forms in the pictures by photographer Augustus Sherman

A couple of Dutch children, dressed in their traditional clogs and costume, clutch onto their immigration forms in the pictures by photographer Augustus Sherman

 

A Romanian piper is evidence of the diverse costumes and native dress that came through Ellis Island in droves in the early 20th century

A Romanian piper is evidence of the diverse costumes and native dress that came through Ellis Island in droves in the early 20th century

 Bavarian man

Bavarian man

His subjects, dressed in the exotic local garb of mostly Eastern and Southern Europe, would go on to become the founding mothers and fathers of communities across the continent that exist to this day - a Greek woman

His subjects, dressed in the exotic local garb of mostly Eastern and Southern Europe, would go on to become the founding mothers and fathers of communities across the continent that exist to this day – a Greek woman

 

Many of the people featured were families or individuals who were being detained on the island for medical reasons, or as they waited for money, travel tickets or to be collected, such as this woman from Guadeloupe

Many of the people featured were families or individuals who were being detained on the island for medical reasons, or as they waited for money, travel tickets or to be collected, such as this woman from Guadeloupe

 

The pictures, such as this Lapland woman, were also hung on the walls of the headquarters of the Federal Immigration Service in Manhattan

The pictures, such as this Lapland woman, were also hung on the walls of the headquarters of the Federal Immigration Service in Manhattan

 

The pictures, such as this Norweigan lady were also hung on the walls of the headquarters of the Federal Immigration Service in Manhattan

The pictures, such as this Norweigan lady were also hung on the walls of the headquarters of the Federal Immigration Service in Manhattan

 

Romanian shepherds, Russian Cossacks and Greek soldiers were just a few among the millions hoping to make a new life in America

Romanian shepherds, Russian Cossacks and Greek soldiers were just a few among the millions hoping to make a new life in America

 

The pictures also reveal the changing dress over the last hundred or so years, such as Italian women's traditional costumes in the early 20th century

The pictures also reveal the changing dress over the last hundred or so years, such as Italian women’s traditional costumes in the early 20th century

 

Among the many portrayed in the Sherman collection are three women from the Netherlands, possibly a mother and her daughters, and two young children, also noted as Dutch. They are kitted out in simple Dutch clothes and the little girl and boy can be seen wearing wooden clogs. Then there is a soldier from Greece, proudly displaying his grand regalia. Another soldier is wearing the waistcoat and cocked fez typical of Albania. Of equally proud bearing, there are men labelled as from the Russian empire, although their costumes of boots, cloaks and Cossack caps suggest they may equally be from Georgia.

One photograph depicts a young lady from the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe; in another, she is accompanied by two others from that island.  There is a dapper Algerian youth, in headscarf and turban; and from Bavaria, a young man is depicted with big-buttoned jacket, wide belt and wide-brimmed hat askance on his head. The traditional lederhosen are just detectable at the bottom of the image.

The fasciating collection includes a Russian Cossack who is pictured in traditional costume and weapons

The fasciating collection includes a Russian Cossack who is pictured in traditional costume and weapons

 

A young Hindu man is one of millions of immigrants who risked everything to make the perilious journey across the sea to America

A young Hindu man is one of millions of immigrants who risked everything to make the perilious journey across the sea to America

 

The pictures also reveal the changing dress over the last hundred or so years, such as Italian women's traditional costumes in the early 20th century

The pictures also reveal the changing dress over the last hundred or so years, such as Italian women’s traditional costumes in the early 20th century

 

The incredible images, such as this one of two Lapland children, serve as a historic tapestry of America's diverse beginnings

The incredible images, such as this one of two Lapland children, serve as a historic tapestry of America’s diverse beginnings

 

In 1907, the photographs, including this of two Romanian women, were published in National Geographic magazine

In 1907, the photographs, including this of two Romanian women, were published in National Geographic magazine

 

Three unsmiling Dutch women show off their traditional head gear and long skirts while they were detained on Ellis Island

Three unsmiling Dutch women show off their traditional head gear and long skirts while they were detained on Ellis Island

 

The following are also notable among the portraits. There is a young man from Germany, resplendent with tattoos on arms and chest. He is actually recorded on the photograph as a stowaway, and one is left wondering whether he would have been permitted to stay or been sent away, as a penalty for his unsanctioned means of travel. Two photographs show a woman and two young children grandly attired in the Sami dress of the people of Scandinavian Lapland. Also from Scandinavia, there is an elderly bearded gentleman from Denmark, wearing nautical clothes, possibly himself a man of the sea.

There are portraits of young ladies from Italy and Norway, proudly posing with their national costumes, In another, a young Hindu gentleman is shown sitting, with robes, long hair and neat headcap. Several photos show people from parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire: a trio of women from Slovakia, another woman and child from there, a woman from Ruthenia and two shepherds from Romania, one holding a flute to his mouth.

All in all, this is a fantastic record of a particular period in the history of the United States of America, at a time when people dreamed about freedom and were seeking it out as a place where they could find peace and forge new lives for themselves.