The Ellis Island Photographer

Italian immigrant photographed by A. Sherman, NYPL file.
From the NYPL file, photograph of Scottish boys taken by Augustus Sherman

It wasn’t an official duty, but Augustus F. Sherman, Ellis Island Registry Clerk in the early part of the 20th century was responsible for many of the iconic photographs of immigrants you’ve seen on web sites and on the covers of books.

Who Was Augustus F. Sherman?

National Park Service photograph.

American-born himself, Augustus F. Sherman was born in Lynn, PA, just as the Civil War was concluding. Most of the information I found online about Augustus Sherman said not much is known about him. But by using Ancestry.com, I found out a little bit more than what appears in most of his biographies.

He was never married and was the second surviving son born to Estella T. and Henry Sherman. He had an older brother named Henry. We know Augustus had a niece who donated his photos to Ellis Island in 1960 and her name was Mary W. Sherman Peters. In 1880 he was living with his parents in Pennsylvania along with some boarders and servants. But by 1900 Estella was a widow and she and Augustus were living in New York City with one boarder. By 1910 Estella and Augustus were boarders in someone else’s home. Augustus’s occupation is given in the census as chief clerk at Immigration Service.

On Ancestry I found a Sons of the American Revolution application that gives Estella’s death date as Jan. 23, 1912, and Henry’s as Nov. 24, 1887. There is a short obituary on Estella quoted from a newspaper on Rootsweb that supports the 1912 date.

The Ellis Island website states that both Augustus and his older brother were clerks at Ellis Island. His brother quit to become a lawyer.

Sherman’s Photographs

Dutch Woman photographed by A. Sherman on Ellis Island,  from the NYPL file.

At any rate, we know immigrants in their native garb fascinated Sherman. His photography was not part of his job, but thankfully he took all those photographs because they are a tremendous historical record of the ancestors of the majority of Americans today.

This little Swedish girl doesn’t look too pleased. Photographed by A. Sherman on Ellis Island, from the NYPL file.

It’s enthralling to see the expressions on these people’s faces. Often they were being detained, that’s why he was able to catch up with them, and sometimes they were even deported after these photographs were taken. The vast majority of immigrants were registered and moved along, but we’ve all heard stories of those who were deported for reasons of illness, mental problems, or because they were deemed likely to become a public charge.

Serbians photographed on Ellis Island by A. Sherman, from the NYPL file.

Sherman took over 200 photographs of immigrants. Once the newcomers got to Battery Park to begin their new lives in America, they shed their native garb, so these photographs might have been the last time they wore these costumes.

Algerian immigrant photographed on Ellis Island by A. Sherman, NYPL file.

They wanted to fit in with Americans. Funny, isn’t it, how now people come together for festivals and celebrations and work hard to recreate those historical outfits.

Russian immigrants on Ellis Island photographed by A. Sherman, from the NYPL file.

Medieval Festival in Virginia
Photo by  Clickr Bee

Augustus Sherman in Grace’s Pictures

In my novel, Grace’s Pictures, Grace McCaffery has her photograph taken on Ellis Island by Augustus Sherman. The photograph captures her fear and discomfort at that moment. Later, when she sees that photograph, she is not pleased to see that in her own face.
Author’s paternal grandparents, Margaret and Lloyd Peters
I cherish the photographs I have of my ancestors. There is one of my grandparents holding up a dollar bill. My father told me it was the first dollar they made in their new store. It was a special moment for them captured in time before I was born. I’m glad I got to see it. What about you? Any special photographs of your ancestors?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *