Everyone’s heard of Ellis Island, the gateway to the United States for Europeans, western Asians and some Africans. Unless you live on the West Coast, you may not have heard of the Angel Island Immigration Station, situated in the bay off San Francisco.
Its purpose was to handle immigrants from eastern Russia, Japan, India and the Pacific islands, but mainly the Chinese. Unlike Ellis Island, where the lady lifted her welcoming golden lamp, Angel Island’s main purpose was to keep Chinese immigrants out. In many respects, the immigration station resembled a prison. Today Angel Island is an official U.S. National Historic Landmark.
While Chinese workers were welcomed to California when there were railroads to build and menial laborer positions to fill, by 1910 Americans were turning a jaundiced eye to the arrival of more Chinese to our shores. In periods of economic downturn, Chinese immigrants were blamed for taking American jobs from whites. Laws were passed severely limiting which Chinese could enter with the exception of those who already had family members in the U.S. The others were sent back or held captive in guarded detention centers while their cases were being vigorously investigated.
This led to the practice of Chinese immigrants buying and selling false documents, so-called paper sons and daughters, which purported to prove the would-be immigrant was related to an established Chinese family in the U.S. Making this possible was the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, where all vital records were destroyed.
Officials caught onto this scheme and soon grilled immigrants on details ranging from information about the family they claimed was theirs to details about the village they purportedly came from. That led to more extensive and informative false papers. Immigrants needed to memorize massive details about their American “family.” Witnesses from the American family had to appear to verify the applicant was a relative. The questioning process could last for months or even years. About 18 percent of all Chinese were sent back to China.
Canada also enacted Chinese exclusion laws at this time.
The Angel Island Immigration Center was closed in 1940 and the island housed prisoners of war during World War II. Eventually, the paper sons and daughters were given amnesty and allowed to come forward and reestablish their true family names. Children and grandchildren of these paper sons and daughters often knew nothing of their ancestral families until that time.
Poems carved into the walls of the detention center on Angel Island survive and are silent voices of those who were detained in what has now been acknowledged to be unhealthy and traumatic conditions. Paper sons and daughters’ records have surfaced, as well, allowing many descendants to learn for the first time their true origins.
You can learn more about Angel Island by visiting its official website, www.aiisf.org, where you can take a virtual tour among other features. Also, check out Wikipedia’s article on the immigration station or you can read National Geographic’s March/April issue’s article on Angel Island.
Columnist Nancy Battick of Dover-Foxcroft has researched genealogy for over 30 years. She is past president of the Maine Genealogical Society, author of several genealogical articles and co-transcribed the Vital Records of Dover-Foxcroft. Nancy holds an MA in History from UM and lives in DF with her husband, Jack, another avid genealogist. Reader emails are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.