Ellis Island Employees Instead of Immigrants

As its title implies, Guardians of the Gate is primarily about the people who worked at Ellis Island and the numerous situations they faced while working on the island.  I’ve been asked, though, why I didn’t write this historical novel from the perspective of the immigrants instead.

Certainly, the millions of immigrants who came through Ellis Island offer an abundance of inspiring stories of sacrifice and struggle, of courage and determination.  In fact, a great many of these immigrant experiences, including the processing at Ellis Island, have been preserved in photographs, documentaries, oral histories, nonfiction books, autobiographies, and other written records.

With such a wonderful collection of available material already existing, I wanted to offer something different.  In my own research I soon discovered what that would be: although we can easily obtain information about Ellis Island itself or immigrants who came through there, most of us know little about the first Americans whom these immigrants met—the island employees who processed them and sometimes cared for them in the dormitories, dining hall, and hospital.

Who were these people?  A few administrators gained historical notice, but seldom did the so-called “ordinary” Ellis Island staff become known.  Many were hard-working, dedicated individuals driven by a noble desire to make the immigrants’ first experiences in America positive ones.  Others were scoundrels who intimidated and exploited the greenhorns.  Some simply went through the daily grind without altruistic or sinister motives; for them, it was just a job.

Whatever these employees were, though, they were—in a real sense—the heart and soul of Ellis Island.  They were the ones there every day as boatloads of foreigners came and went.  They were the ones who made the place function. They were the ones who decided people’s fate. They were the ones who gave the immigrants their first “taste” of America.

Many of these 1890s employees were themselves immigrants, often Irish or German; English was not their first language.  Others were the adult children of immigrants with everyday ethnicity still a part of their personal lives, much as it was for the newcomers.  Still others working on the island were non-ethnic whites whose ethnicity was gone or heavily distilled through the generations.  Diversity was as real a presence among all these employees as it was among the new arrivals.

Guardians of the Gate tells their story through a fictionalized historical romance.


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