To reduce the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) in New York City, all NYPL locations are temporarily closed until further notice. Learn more and find out about remote access for Library services.


Ellis Island Photographs from the Collection of William Williams, Commissioner of Immigration, 1902-1913

Collection History

William Williams (1862-1947) collected these photographs while he was Commissioner of Immigration for the Port of New York at Ellis Island, 1902-5 and 1909-13; they came to the Library with the bequest of his papers, which are now held by the Manuscripts and Archives Division.

This digital presentation is in two parts:

(1) Photographs of immigrants: exhibition-quality mounted prints by Augustus Francis Sherman (1865-1925), Chief Registry Clerk at Ellis Island until his retirement in 1917
(2) Photographs of Ellis Island: prints, 1902-13, including views of New York harbor and skyline; 33 are by commercial photographer Edwin Levick (1869-1929), and the remainder by unknown photographer(s).


Under construction for a decade, the Ellis Island immigration station opened in New York harbor in 1900, just in time for the huge upswing in immigration to the United States that took place in the years leading up to World War I. In 1907, the peak year of immigration, 3,000 to 5,000 newcomers a day were examined at Ellis Island as they sought permanent entry to the country.

Many photographers, such as Edwin Levick, who specialized in maritime subjects, were drawn to Ellis Island by the general human interest and newsworthiness of the scene; others, such as pioneering social photographer Lewis Wickes Hine (1874-1940), responded to the individual humanity of the immigrants' raw eagerness, symbolized for Hine by their humble possessions and their stoicism.

One amateur photographer, Augustus Sherman, the Ellis Island Chief Registry Clerk, had special access to potential subjects for his camera. It is possible, for example, that Commissioner Williams requested that he photograph specific individuals and groups. It is also likely that Sherman's elaborately costumed subjects were detainees, new immigrants held at Ellis Island for one reason or another. While waiting for what they needed to leave the island (an escort, or money, or travel tickets), some of these immigrants may have been persuaded to pose for Sherman's camera, donning their best holiday finery or national dress, which they had brought with them from home. Sherman's pictures were published in National Geographic in 1907 and for decades hung anonymously in the lower Manhattan headquarters of the federal Immigration Service. Incoming correspondence in the William Williams Papers suggests that the Commissioner gave copies of Sherman's haunting photographs to official Ellis Island visitors as mementoes.

Related Resources

American Park Network. "Statue of Liberty National Monument: Photography." (c2001) <>

Coan, Peter M. Ellis Island Interviews: In Their Own Words. (c1997)

Temple, Andrea and June F. Tyler. "Ellis Island: A Historical Perspective." <>

United States. National Park Service "Ellis Island." (2004) <>

Yans-McLaughlin, Virginia and the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation. Ellis Island and the Peopling of America: the Official Guide. (c1997)

52 results found