Ellis Island served as the United State’s largest immigration station, processing up to 12 million people between 1892 and 1954. These historical photos were taken between 1906 and 1914 by amateur photographer Augustus Sherman.
Sherman was an untrained, yet highly gifted photographer who created hundreds of images documenting the new arrivals to America. Fascinated by the diverse origins and cultural backgrounds of his subjects, Sherman created a riveting series of portraits, offering viewers a compelling perspective on this dynamic period in American history.
According to the New York Public Library, his subjects were most likely asked to wear their best holiday finery or national dress. Many of the portraits in the black and white photographs were captured during detainment and questioning, and their faces show the same fear that all those seeking refuge in a new country continue to feel.
Considering the state of the art of photography in that era, with long exposures and huge box cameras, the fact he was able to capture so many images during his working life is amazing. Over the course of his career at Ellis Island, Sherman took more than 200 pictures.
Sherman’s picture included a Ruthenian woman wearing a sheepskin vest and traditional linen shirt; a Romanian piper posed with his instrument and wearing a traditional sheepskin cloak; and a boy from India whose long hair was brushed back beneath a cap known as a top.
He even provided short captions for some of the photographs that identify the sitters by name, age, occupation, and native country. Sometimes he even added notes like “Vegetarian” or “Belgian Stowaway.”
Originally published in National Geographic in 1907, these stunning historical portraits are now brought back to life through colorization by Jordan Lloyd of Dynamichrome. The team at Dynamichrome managed to put a cultural backstory behind them as part of a book titled The Paper Time Machine.
From 1900 to 1914—the peak years of Ellis Island’s operation—an average of 1,900 people passed through the immigration station every day.
Most successfully passed through in a matter of hours, but others could be detained for days or weeks. In fact, it has been estimated that close to 40 percent of all current U.S. citizens can trace at least one of their ancestors to Ellis Island.
Other black and white portraits of Ellis Island immigrants
(Photo credit: Augustus Francis Sherman / New York Public Library & Jordan Lloyd / Dynamichrome / The captions of colorized photos taken from The Paper Time Machine).