Category Archives: Ellis Island

Stepping into the Immigrant’s Shoes

This documentary clip does an excellent job of giving you the feeling of having stepped into the immigrant’s shoes as he or she comes through Ellis Island. You can hear their words and see what they would have seen (although in black and white.) I thought it was powerful so I wanted to share it with you. Enjoy!


Ellis Island: A Thin Place

The following video is such a great inside look at Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty that I wanted to share it with you. I felt the same way the visitors interviewed here felt–in awe. Everyone I’ve spoken to who has visited Ellis Island says the same thing. You get a feeling of appreciation, wonder, and respect. You might even sense the same thing by watching videos like this.

Seeing this caused me to contemplate the concept referred to as “a thin place” in Ireland. There are certain places where you can feel God’s presence more than others. Many times these are settings in nature, but not always. Perhaps some places–because they are places of historical significance, because the people who came before us experienced something incredible there–hold a remainder of those experiences that we can still sense today. I’ve heard people say that about Gettysburg, for example. There are cathedrals and places of worship that exude emotion even when empty. Sometimes graveyards are the same way, and I have to wonder if it’s because so many people have been there experiencing grief that still lies heavy on the place when they’ve gone away. In Annie’s Stories there is a brief description of Annie wondering the same thing.

Thin places are often referred to in Celtic spirituality, but I believe it is a common experience with people all over the world where in certain locations, whether we seek them out or stumble upon them, the separation between heaven and earth is particularly thin.

What do you think? Is Ellis Island one of those places?


A Voice From Ireland’s Past offers immigrant interviews to listen to for free. I could spend all day listening! Here is one with a lady named Lillian Doran Cavanaugh from Ballymore, County Westmeath.

 I found this amusing in some spots, such as when she was asked if she knew how her parents met. She says she doesn’t know: “They don’t talk that way over there.”

This may have been Lillian Doran Cavanaugh’s church in Ireland 

Lillian and her sister Peg departed Ireland at Queenstown for America where their uncles awaited them.

At about 27:09 on the recording Lillian talks about her arrival in America.

Experience the Ellis Island Museum Right Here!

This is an excellent video for anyone wishing to experience Ellis Island but can’t get there. It may just make you schedule a trip, though! Did you know over half of Americans can trace their roots through Ellis Island?


These kinds of stories inspired my Ellis Island Series.

Grace McCaffery hopes that the bustling streets of New York hold all the promise that the lush hills of Ireland did not. As her efforts to earn enough money to bring her mother to America fail, she wonders if her new Brownie camera could be the answer. But a casual stroll through a beautiful New York City park turns into a hostile run-in with local gangsters, who are convinced her camera holds the first and only photos of their elusive leader. A policeman with a personal commitment to help those less fortunate finds Grace attractive and longs to help her, but Grace believes such men cannot be trusted. Spread thin between her quest to rescue her mother, do well in a new nanny job, and avoid the gang intent on intimidating her, Grace must put her faith in unlikely sources to learn the true meaning of courage and forgiveness.

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, 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?