Hope for the Desperate

In some ways our stop at Ellis Island on our New York trip was the most meaningful for me. In 1748 my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Johann Matheus Hutwohl took his wife and two little girls in search of freedom from religious persecution in Germany, booked voyage on the ship “Two Brothers” and sailed for the “New World”.  Their story can be read on my blog post “A Family Story: Death on the High Seas”.  The Hutwohls (later changed to Heatwoles), along with millions of other desperate immigrants who fled Europe, were driven by hope for a new life as they left behind relatives, friends, a church community, their homeland and all they owned. There was promise not only of religious freedom but freedom from war, poverty and the bonds of an oppressive tyranny government.  The New World beckoned with open arms.

The dock were the cargo ships carrying the immigrants would dock.  The immigrants were ill prepared for the densely packed conditions and lack of food and personal hygiene.

Ellis Island Processing Center

I had gotten myself a little confused when I was at Ellis Island and thought that was the port of entry for Matheus. I kept trying to visualize him in that great hall and seeing the Statue of Liberty as the ship entered the Hudson River. I could almost feel his grief as he walked down the plank alone, a young widow in a strange land with an unknown tongue. He had buried his dear wife and two precious daughters at sea. When I got home and reread his story, I realized he landed on Mud Island at Philadelphia and entered America through that port of entry. But I am sure the process and feelings were the same regardless of which port they entered.

The Registry Room where shiploads of immigrants would come and wait for their name to called so they could be processed. The room has been restored to it’s original beauty. Most immigrants had never seen such magnificent buildings.

I realized as we toured the museum and read the history that immigration was as difficult emotionally, physically, and politically then as it is now. Most days Ellis Island processed 4-5,000 immigrants. There was concern about health, mental stability, crime and whether the immigrants could contribute to the new society to which they had come. The processing facilities, health resources and physical needs were stretched to the limit. They had to have money, the promise of a job, and people waiting for them to help them adjust and find their way. Each immigrant had to go through several screening processes:  legal hearing, and a mental and medical exam.  There was great concern about the many contagious diseases that the immigrants were bringing to the new land. Those who were sick were marked with white chalk on their clothes and taken to the “dorm” on the island for a designated period of time.  At the end of that time if they were not well, they were returned to their native land. Many lived in desperate poverty until they found jobs and could get on their feet financially. There were periods of years when all ports of entry were closed to immigration and for years no Chinese were allowed to enter.

The health dorm.

Cots for the immigrants to sleep on.

View of the New York skyline from Ellis Island on a misty, foggy morning.

Almost all Americans can trace their roots to immigration. Depending on different world crisis and situations, different ethnic groups came at different times. I found myself very grateful that Matheus took the risk and came to the New World.  He paid a heavy price. I realize that immigrates, whether today or in 1748, all have the same desperate hope for a new start. There is something that drives them from their native land, usually with almost no earthly goods, in search of a new home. There is a huge risk and they are willing to sacrifice all to make the journey. America has and still beckons as the land of promise, the land of opportunity, the land of freedom and hope. The big difference today is that illegal caravans are demanding and forcing their way in even when the legal option is there. Our forefathers came legally; their paperwork was in order.

I was especially interested in these to information plaques since my ethnic roots are German and my spiritual heritage is Mennonite.

 

We cruised in on a comfy ferry with a food concession stand and restrooms for the 20-30 minute ride from the mainland. This was much different to the conditions the immigrants endured during the weeks and months as they crossed the Atlantic ocean.

Other New York trip blog posts:

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