Visiting the Gateway to America

1900s photograph of immigrants looking at Manhattan from Ellis Island

 

I’ve just been to New York City – for the first time in my life! The trip was great despite overwhelming heat and humidity which was taxing for my Scandinavian constitution, and despite Manhattan being almost too big to take in during my stay of a mere 14 days.

Being the historically inclined nerd that I am, I knew I had to visit Ellis Island, America’s once-upon-a-time gateway. The trip took most of our day, but in my opinion was well worth it. Since Ellis Island is, well, an island, you sail from Battery Park on the same ferry that takes you to the Statue of Liberty, should you be so inclined. The musem is technically free, but you pay for admission to the ferry and there is no other way of getting to the islands.

Ellis Island, for those who may not know, was where all 3rd class passengers, immigrants to the USA, must dock before being given admittance to the USA. If they made it through they would become citizens of America but this was not always a given. In any case, it is a fascinating piece of history.

Once you arrive at the Battery Park you may be overwhelmed by the size of the queue. It is huge. We were told there would be an hour wait to get on the ferry, which almost disheartened several of my family members who unlike me are not that interested in history, but once we actually got in the queue it only took about half an hour. You’re in a line overlooking the New York harbour and you’ve got a view of Lady Liberty and the small islands, so it isn’t that bad, in my opinion. Just don’t be an idiot and forget sunscreen like yours truly.

There is an inside airport style security check and once you’re through, you get on the ferry. They run every 15 minutes and there are several so don’t worry about missing one. Your ticket is good for the whole day, so you don’t have to worry about rushing through the museum to reach a ferry back. We didn’t get them online because we didn’t have a printer but they have some sort of time/queue-saving feature if you do that which could be worth looking into if you’re not up for queueing. I’m sure it could be much worse than 30 minutes.

This statue commemorates the unknown millions who perished upon the sea, on commercial and civilian vessels, since the inception of the USA.

 

As you can see we had great weather for the ferry trip. Again, remember to wear sunscreen. I had a mean sunburn by the time we went home, mostly from sitting on the ferry deck on the trip out. The ferry docks at Liberty Island where you can choose to get off, but we stayed on the boat and went from there to Ellis Island.

The ferry docks by the main entrance to the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. It’s a peculiar red and white building, and to me it doesn’t look very austere and foreboding, but I imagine that 3rd class immigrants docking at the same site would experience the sight very differently from me. Of course, my future life doesn’t hinge on whether or not I make it through the building, about which, more later.

Photo from http://www.ellisisland.org/photoalbums/ellis_island_album212.asp as I didn’t take any of the outside of the building.

The entrance hall is very big and at first sight rather confusing. You’ll be offered audio guides which are well worth accepting. Back in the day this hall was both the entrance and exit hall for the immigrants arriving from overseas and hopefully, after they were cleared for entry, for a short ferry ride to the land of their dreams. The large hall is divided in two by a display of old suitcases. A guide told me the entrance hall had been laid out a bit like a ship, but I didn’t see it. On the other side of the display is a chronological exhibition called Journeys: The Peopling of America. This exhibition detailed the reasons why people left home and what happened once they arrived starting with the religious colonies and tying the immigrant history in to the immigrant present of the USA. For those of us who paid attention in history class there was little new to be found and I mostly spent my time “Scandinavia-spotting” that is looking for mentions of my countrymen who left for America. There were a couple mentions of Danish mormons but mostly it was the Swedes who left for America.

The exhibit also spoke about the displacement of the Native Americans in the wake of the European arrival. I snapped this picture of Quanah Parker, the last free Comanche chief, and one of his wives after his surrender. I was especially delighted to see this because only a few days before the visit I finished a book about Quanah’s mother, Cynthia Ann Parker, or Naduah as she was known among the Comanche. Please excuse the horrible quality of the photo.

The exhibition also had these little booths you could lean into. Once you did an audiotrack would play that only you could hear if you leaned in. These were all from diaries and notebooks and speeches and letters written by immigrants, or about immigrants from different periods in time. There was an excerpt from a Puritan woman’s account of crossing the Atlantic while “big with child”, a freed slave’s account of his time spent on the slaveship that brought him to America, an Indian chief’s exasperated account of his people being beat, an Irish child’s story of arriving as an indentured servant, an excerpt from an anti-Chinese and a pro-Chinese immigration speech and so on. This was by far the most interesting aspect of the Journeys: The Peopling of America exhibit because it was so personal. Once we were through this exhibit we went upstairs to the Ellis Island-specific exhibits.

The upstairs hall. My photo does not do it justice. It was so beautiful and I can’t even imagine the relief with which the immigrants must have received this sight.

 

The upstairs is mainly a big hall. When Ellis Island was in use, it was the waiting room which the immigrants would be ushered into upon arrival. Here they would wait for quick medical checks and hopefully they would be ushered through quickly. If you were unhealthy or deemed unfit for entry for other reasons, you might suffer detention on Ellis Island or even be sent home.

The Great Hall as it looked in 1907, courtesy of the National Parks Service. http://www.ellisisland.org/photoalbums/ellis_island_then.asp

 

As you can see above the waiting immigrants would be waiting in long queues until they finally could go up to the clerks at the front of the hall. The clerks would perform brief medical checks, like checking their eyes, whether they had any handicaps and for visible signs of mental illness. If you were suspected of having, say, a mental illness you would be marked with chalk on your clothes and brought into an adjacent, smaller room where you would be expected to assemble a puzzle so the clerks could determine whether you were mentally ill or not. If you had an eye illness that was feared, you might be detained or even sent back to where you came from.

Most of all, the early 20th century state wanted to make sure the immigrant in question would not become a burden of the state. You must be able to provide for yourself and not have to rely on charity for your keep. The most haunting story I heard was of an Italian woman who had arrived with her children and grandchildren, but because of an illness, had been sent back to Italy while the rest of the family was given admittance into the country. Her granddaughter, by the time she told this story (it was an audio-recording) was an old woman who was still torn up by the memory.

Clerks would also ask immigrants to read from a card in their native language, to make sure they were literate, or they would ask them how much money they had, to make sure they would not need to rely on charity to make their way in America. One woman, arriving from Hungary, explained how her mother, a woman in her 30s with several children, had been taken in to a small room and with her daughter acting as the translator, had been asked to put together 2 and 2. The clerk wanted to be certain she would not need help to maange her household. The woman explains how her mother, a housewife and mother of many years, had stared at the clerk in disbelief and then asked her daughter: “He asks me this, whether I know what 2 + 2 is?”

Ellis Island in the early 20th century.

On either side of the Great Hall there is a series of small rooms. In the one end, they lead you through the small rooms that were used for more private examinations, medical and otherwise. They lead you through all the eventualities that might happen to you at Ellis Island as an immigrant. Maybe you coasted right through and were able to meet up with your loved ones at the Kissing Gate downstairs. Maybe you were detained because of an illness, or maybe you had to pass tests designed to determine mental illnesses. Maybe you would be sent to the hospital. Maybe you would be sent back.

Ellis Island had everything. It had dining rooms, and one was kosher for the many Jewish immigrants. It had a hospital with children’s wards, maternity wards, mental illness wards, surgical wards. It employed several thousand people at its most busy and millions of immigrants came through.

This exhibition ended in the last stops for immigrants at Ellis Island. There was money to be exchanged. I indulged in a little Scandinavia-spotting with my sisters and we found these items.

That’s a Danish note from 1918. Today you would need six of these to buy a dollar, but I wonder what the exchange rate was like back then?

There was a cafe after you got through the interview rooms. At one point so many Scandinavian immigrants went through that the middle column is in Danish (possibly Swedish), flanked by Italian and German.

 

This 1913 Bible is in Danish and was presented to Danish immigrants by the American Bible Society. They distributed religious books in 53 different languages to the immigrants arriving at Ellis Island. You can’t see it, but the writing on the cover is in Danish which had me super excited. There’s nothing like seeing a little bit of your home in a faraway place!

 

There were many, many, many different religious societies in America at the time, and they all extended charity towards those of a similar religious persuasion when they arrived at Ellis Island. Jewish charities would sponsor Hebrew and Yiddish religious texts to the Eastern-European Jews when they arrived, and I believe it was also with the help of wealthy Jewish New Yorkers, Ellis Island had a kosher kitchen installed.. Mormon missionaries would sponsor Christmas gifts for Mormon converts. Catholic churches would collect clothes from their members and give them to the Catholic immigrants. With the state at this point very unwilling to provide charity for its citizens, the religous communities took it upon themselves to help where they could.

The grown woman was a “Picture Bride”, that is she arrived, single, at Ellis Island to be married upon arrival. I love the picture because of the JOY (yes, that is all-caps) on their faces. She doesn’t seem apprehensive or scared about her future, even if she doesn’t know her husband. She’s just happy about beginning a new life!

 

On one ship, over 1000 of these picture brides had taken passage. I took this picture because of their fabulous hats. Just because you’re in third class, doesn’t mean you can’t go all out.

 

Since single women were not allowed entry into America without a male relative, women who arrived as picture brides, would often be married on Ellis Island and then leave with their American husbands.

This 1922 photograph captures just such a wedding ceremony. It seems there is some apprehension here, at least on the part of the bride!

 

On the other side of the Great Hall there is another exhibtion. This one deals with the reactions both in in the US and overseas to the mass immigration that took place during Ellis Island’s years of operation. This was really interesting because it showed not only what happened to immigrants before and after immigration, but also official and societal reactions to their arrival, whether good or bad.

Commercial or propaganda?

 

My sister spotted some Danish passports. For all that it was mainly Swedes who left Scandinavia, we found more proof of Danish immigrants at Ellis Island.

 

Commercials advertising Minnesota in, you guessed it, Danish. (Also, Swedish, German and English). This would eventually be where most of the Scandinavian immigrants ended up so I guess they were effective.

 

Ah yes, immigration wasn’t all fun and games. This, of course, was in the good old days when you could be frank about hating people who weren’t exactly like you.

 

This extremely crass drawing, complete with every anti-semitic stereotype you can find, likens the Eastern-European Jewish mass immigration the US to the Exodus when Moses led the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt. 

 

The good old days which weren’t so good if you weren’t white and rich.

I’m taking a break from the racist responses to immigration but believe me, I have more proof. And it ain’t pretty.

A Danish festival in Minnesota, 1926. Can you spot the flag?

 

 

 

Schools would hold classes at night for newly arrived immigrants, where they could learn English and American culture. Which brother here is fresh of the boat and which brother has been in America for a while?

 

This exhibition had much, much more to see. There was so many adverts for transatlantic cruises I couldn’t distinguish one from the other, there were walls covered in passports, and photographs taken in the homes of immigrants, as well as the many responses, good and bad, to their arrival. There was proof of people who flourished and people who, to put it mildly, didn’t. It was a really interesting testament to the immigrants who arrived during these years and probably my favourite part of all of Ellis Island.

There was also a nice referal to Angel Island, located in San Fransisco. This was where the Asian immigrants would arrive, and it served much the same function as Ellis Island did to the European immigrants in New York. If I’m ever in San Fransisco (I live in hope) I really want to visit!

Japanese women arrive at Angel Island sometime during the 1920s or 30s (guessing by the clothes the men are wearing).

 

Korean women in traditional dress at Angel Island.

Sorry about the reflection!

 

The vast majority of immigrants who came through Angel Island were Chinese. Other nationalities were processed quickly but it was common for the Chinese immigrants to be detained for weeks, if not months, before allowing them admission to the US. The Chinese were also the first specific nationality to be targeted by racist laws concerning their admission into the US by the US government.

That was my visit to Ellis Island! I’ve got a few more NYC centric posts planned. In the meantime, enjoy this picture I took over Iceland, with the sun rising, on my way home!

 

 

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The Lady in the Tower

 

Leonora Christina as imagined by an unknown 19th century artist.

Leonora Christina was born on the 8th of July 1621, the daughter of King Christian IV and his noble wife, Kirstine Munk. Kirstine was not the King’s queen, and many doubted that she even was married to him. Kirstine was called The Left Hand’s Wife, the implication being that a queen was married to the right hand. It did not matter that Christian’s wife, Queen Anna Catherine of Brandenburg had died: a prince could not crown a noblewoman queen and Kirstine was the daughter of a countess and a deceased wife. Christian IV is known in Denmark as an entrepeneurial king, and most people realise that it was not only because he built buildings all over Copenhagen, but also because he was quick to make any woman he wanted his. His illegitimate sons born during his marriage were given the surname Goldenlion.

But when Anna Catherine died, leaving him two sons, it did not take long for Christian to notice the beautiful Kirstine, and whether his courtiers believed the validity thereof, he orchestrated a marriage – of sorts. Together they had twelve children, two of which were stillborn. Eight were girls, and two boys. Leonora Christine Christiansdaughter was the third of their children, and together with her siblings she was sent to her grandmother, Kirstine’s mother Ellen Marsvin (literally meaning guinea pig), to be raised until her 6th year. After that she and her sisters were sent to Karen Sehested, one of Kirsten Munk’s ladies, and were raised at Frederiksborg.

1643

 

I became interested in her story around the age of 12, and at that time read a delightful book by Maria Helleberg, a renowned writer of historical fiction here in Denmark. It detailed Leonora Christine’s story from her childhood years until her marriage. The expression the book would always leave me with was that of a girl growing up amongst a plentitude of sisters, fighting for the attention of her elders and the respect of her sisters. It also detailed the sisters’ reactions to their engagements. The three eldest, Anna Catherine, Sophie Elisabeth and Leonora Christine were all engaged at more or less the same time, Leonora Christine being 9 years at the time.

In the immediate years before her wedding, Leonora Christina was moved to the Danish court and proceeded to win the affections for her father. If there is one thing that most people agree on about Christian IV it is that he was a man who loved his children, of whom he had 23, unconditionally, but Leonora Christinia was to win a special place in her father’s heart. Leonora even managed to maneouvre herself into the position of the hostess at the court, since there was trouble between her mother and father, largely due to entirely true accusations of unfaithfulness on Kirsten’s part.

Perhaps Leonora needed the victory of becoming her father’s hostess, for even though her father was fond of her husband-to-be, Corfitz Ulfeldt, her sisters were wont to make fun of him because of a stiff leg. Even though Corfitz was only in his twenties, during their engagement, he already had to use a cane, which Leonora’s sisters would point out to her time and again. After his death Corfitz’ was to become known as Denmark’s biggest traitor.

The painting says "hoffmeister" which means something like Lord Chancellor

 

Leonora Christina and Corfitz Ulfeldt were married on the 9th of October 1636, Leonora being 15 years old, Corfitz 30. Although the marriage saw its share of adultery, on the part of both spouses, it was reported as a happy one with both partners seeking to overcome their differences and work together.

Leonora gave birth to their first child on the 5th of December the next year, a boy they named Christian who would later become a Catholic priest in Rome, although he was born to Protestant parents. Corfitz had been appointed Lord Chancellor (which is really the best translation I can come up with) that same year and he had managed to obtain such power that he could manage to reign for several months after King Christian’s death in 1648.

Christian IV by Pieter Isaacsz ca. 1611-1616

 

Of course, history is full of examples of why one should seek to not cross kings, perhaps especially one like Frederik III, Leonora’s half-brother, who would later go on to sever the ties that had traditionally held the Danish king accountable to his noblemen and declare himself sovereign king like in the French fashion.

Corfitz’, who had grown accustomed to heavy responsibilities, like diplomatic duties that had taken him to Russia, England and so on, was not pleased by his brother-in-law taking into hand the power that was divinely appointed him (as one believed then), and sought to tighten Frederick’s ties during the Royal Election. A Royal Election was the process in which the Danish noblemen worked out a contract which a Danish “Chosen King” (meaning he had been elected by these same noblemen in his childhood to suceed his father) had to sign in order for his noblemen to swear him their allegiance. Frederick reciprocrated by instigating an investigation into Ulfeldt’s financial affairs, and in 1651 the king presented Ulfeldt and his wife with a document accusing Ulfeldt, in his position as Lord Chancellor of having embezzelled the Øresund’s tax, the most profitable of all the king’s incomes. Faced with possibly a death sentence Corfitz Ulfeldt thought it best to take his wife, children and belongings and flee the country.

Meanwhile, Leonora Christina had found herself on worse and worse terms with Frederick III’s queen, Sophie Amalie of Braunschweig-Lüneburg, who had found herself quite perplexed, upon her arrival at the Danish court, to find the dead king’s illegitimate daughter inhabitating the position of hostess and head of the court. Leonora Christina, used to being flattered by the Danish court, was not pleased to give up her position and very reluctantly did so.

Sophie Amalie of Braunschweig-Lüneburg

When things turned for the worse for both spouses, Corfitz Ulfeldt and Leonora Christina fled to Sweden, where Ulfeldt promptly entered the service of the Swedish king Karl X Gustav. As a sidenote I might add that Denmark and Sweden have been mortal enemies, but also brother-countries (it’s a strange sort of relationship), since, oh, always. Ulfeldt spent years and years trying to excite anger in the Swedish consciousness. Finally, in 1657, his labours bore fruit and Karl X Gustav marched towards Denmark with Ulfeldt personally joining the army, and happily lent the Swedish army huge sums, that is believed to have stolen from the Danish coffers. Karl X Gustav managed to conquer back the at the time northern Danish, and now southern Swedish Skåne (about which there are still ownership issues to this day), a huge loss to the Danish king and Karl X Gustav made Ulfeldt governor of the area. Soon enough, however, Ulfeldt and Karl X Gustav began bickering and later fighting, resulting in Ulfeldt being taken prisoner, by the Swedish, and placed in house arrest. He managed to escape, with his wife, to Denmark, where they were promptly seized and moved to Bornholm, the easternmost part of Denmark, a tiny, and at the time, isolated place.

Hammershus, were the couple were imprisoned

The castle in which they were moved was a medieval castle. Above is the picture of the ruins I have visited twice now. Leonora Christina and her husband were placed in different rooms, and were forbidden to speak with one another but since they both knew Latin, French and Italian, which their guards did not, they would communicate by shouting out of windows facing one another over a courtyard, one speaking e.g. Italian and the other Latin, and the guards would be none the wiser of whether they were planning an escape or merely exchanging pleasantries.

Amanzingly, they were later released from their prison, on the condition that they signed a contract with the king stating that they transferred all their posessions to the king. Leonora Christina stayed at home in Denmark, with the children they had not seen for many years, but Ulfeldt decided to travel abroad, more precisely to the home of Frederik Wilhelm, Elector of Brandenburg. Here Ulfeldt revealed, to the horrified elector that he had plans to assasinate the Danish king and that he offered Frederik Wilhelm the Danish crown should he suceed.

He did not, of course, and was in fact revealed in his plans by Frederik Wilhelm. This time there was no pardon from the Danish king and Ulfeldt was sentenced to death, in absentia. Ulfeldt fled further away, having been declared the greatest traitor of the country hence. His wife was seized, and their home in inner Copenhagen torn to the ground. In its place the king erected a pillar to the shame of Corfitz Ulfeldt – to the eternal shame and taunting, as it says on the pillar which still stands today.

It has been moved to the National Museum, however.

A memorial plaque on Gråbrødre Torv today

 

So, what happened to Leonora Christina that I would entitle this post The Lady in the Tower?

She was, as I mentioned, seized and although she begged for her freedom, being an older lady at this point, she was sentenced to prison and imprisoned she was. In Blåtårn (Blue Tower, a tower adjacent to the Castle of Copenhagen, where her half-brother and his wife lived. She was to stay there for 22 years, surviving Sophie Amalie, who many now believe to have been the one keeping her imprisoned despite Leonora Christina repeatedly refusing that she knew nothing of her husband’s traitorous plans.

A later imagining of the interior in Leonora's cell

During her imprisonment Leonora spun and wove cloth, to make clothes from, and she wrote her autobiography, entitled Jammers Minde (Wretchedness’ Memory) which was to be discovered in 1867 causing a veritable scandal.

It was one of her daughter’s who went to the king after the death of Sophie Amalie in 1685, and pleaded for her mother to be released. At this time Leonora had been held in Blue Tower for 22 years. Her freedom was granted her and she was moved to live at a monastery for the remaining, and old, nuns of the St. Birgitte-order. She died and was buried at the monastery now known as Maribo Church, but some time later her body was removed, presumably by sons, and re-buried at the undisclosed location where her husband was already buried.

From the day Leonora Christina was married she refused to adopt the name Ulfeldt, and insisted upon being called Mistress Leonora Christina, daughter of the King of Denmark.

 

At a meeting with, I assume, Queen Sophie Amalie

 

 

Kirstine Munk