Had Columbus landed at Ellis Island on a summer day he would have Found the braves of the Manhattan Indians fishing from its Shores, with their squaws and papooses around the tepees and camp fires in the background. And only the Chief of the Manhattans and his favored braves would have been there, for in those days, and for years to follow, it was a retreat of the privileged.
In the days of Peter Stuyvesant, and through the tenure of the second Dutch Governor, Wouter van Twiller, Ellis Island, then called Oyster Island, was a gay and exclusive resort.
At this time, early in the seventeenth century, rollicking young Dutch boys with gleaming shoe buckles, blue pantaloons and bright doublets, took their buxom and tightly-laced Dutch sweethearts to Oyster Island in small boats. There all drank ale and ate roasted oysters, feasting, singing and dancing until the sun went down.
For almost one hundred and fifty years Oyster Island continued to be New Amsterdam's favorite resort for picnics, oyster roasts, clam bakes, and fishing parties. It passed finally into the hands of Samuel Ellis, a farmer of Bergen County, New Jersey.
His strange will, recorded in Abstracts of Wills, New York, says among other things: I give to the child to be born to Catherine Westervelt, if it be a son, Oyster Island, commonly known by the name of Ellis Island, with all the buildings thereon. The Island became known as Bucking Island and passed a few years later into the hands of the state.
In 1808, however, New York ceded the island to the Federal government. It was then used as a powder magazine and arsenal, doubtless because of the recent experience of the colonies with the British.
The government employees in those days lived on the island, and because of the great stores of powder and munitions kept there it was a fearsome, forbidding place, shunned by all who sailed pleasure craft in the harbor and the residents of the nearby Jersey shore.
But once again the island of changing destinies was due for a new name. In the early spring of 1831, the notorious pirate, Gibbs, was captured and brought to justice. After his trial and conviction, he was taken to Bucking Island with the three associates convicted with him, and there plunged through the trap door of a rudely constructed hangman's gibbet. After that, Ellis Island was called Gibbet's Island.
In 1841 the Federal government commenced the erection of Fort Gibson upon Ellis Island. This harbor defence took three years to build and cost Uncle Sam $5,096. It mounted fifteen guns and required a garrison of eighty men.
Originally the Island comprised an area of but three and threetenths acres, but the Federal government has increased the area throughout the years by filling in the shallow waters which surround it. The Island, which to-day contains twenty-one acres, is built of soil from all parts of the world, since much of it was formerly the ballast dumped from foreign ships.
Other nicknames, "Gull" Island, "Kiosk" Island, and "Government" Island have been applied to it at various times, but because it appears reasonable to believe, from the papers of Governor Tompkins, that Samuel Ellis actually conveyed the Island to the state of New York, it must be assumed that the name Ellis was chosen in legal manner for that reason.
In 1890, after the celebrated Supreme Court case in which the Federal government assumed jurisdiction over immigration, Ellis Island was designated as an immigrant station. This caused great satisfaction to the citizens who resided near the Jersey shore, for they had for years feared an explosion of the government powder magazine there. At first there was a demand that the immigrant station be established on Bedloe's Island, but because thousands of American citizens had donated funds for the erection of the Statue of Liberty, following its presentation to the United States by France, the reaction of the donors thwarted that plan.
So it was that on May 25, 1890, the Federal government, having removed all guns, powder and other munitions, formally placed the Island under the supervision of the United States Treasury Department.