Angel Island, known as the “Ellis Island of the West,” is in San Francisco Bay and was the first stop for many immigrants between 1910-1940. The immigration station is particularly remembered for many Asian immigrants who arrived in America through Angel Island and were often treated differently because of their nationality. Before the immigration station closed in 1940, it processed nearly a million immigrants from 80 countries.  

Contra Costa Gazette: October 15, 1864

The island, just six miles from San Francisco, was initially used for ranching, quarrying rock, and even mining precious metals. It also became an important defense post, with artillery batteries built to guard the San Francisco harbor. In 1891, Angel Island served as a quarantine station. Immigrant passengers were detained and screened for diseases like smallpox. In 1900, the post became Fort McDowell, and thousands of soldiers were processed there during their military service. The post was decommissioned in 1945.

Angel Island Immigration Center dormitory

In the mid-1800s, many immigrants began arriving from China. They were seeking a better life amid economic strife back home. However, in 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which put a 10-year ban on Chinese laborers immigrating to America. However, non-laborers, such as diplomats, teachers, and students, were still allowed to come. Some Chinese immigrants “sold” immigration spaces reserved for their family members to other Chinese citizens who were not related. These newest immigrants became “paper” sons and daughters – meaning there were no paper records to prove or disprove they were related. To further muddy the waters, the 1906 earthquake and resulting fire in San Francisco destroyed most birth records, making it impossible to prove if someone was born inside or outside of the United States.

Poetry carved into the wall at Angel Island Immigration Station

In 1910, the Angel Island Immigration Center opened, and the government used this facility to crack down on the practice of paperless immigrants. Immigrants were interrogated for hours, with officials asking detailed questions about their lives and homes. Their answers had to be corroborated by their families here, many of whom had moved on to different states. Thus, the process took a long time. Immigrants could appeal decisions to send them back home, and sometimes detention turned into months or even years. While they waited, immigrants passed the time in crowded bunk halls that were unsafe and unsanitary. Women and children could walk around, but male immigrants were confined to their barracks and a small, fenced area. Some carved messages of sadness, frustration, and anger on the walls. Many of those carvings are still visible today.

The situation for Japanese immigrants was a little different. They also faced hostility and discrimination, but their government provided them with documents, allowing the immigration process to move more quickly. Consequently, most immigrants who had to endure long detentions on Angel Island were Chinese.

Chinese women and children detained at Angel Island: Oakland Tribune – June 3, 1924

Angel Island operated as an immigration center for 30 years, but in 1940, the administration building caught fire and burned to the ground. Though no immigrants were injured, all were relocated to the mainland.

Do you have ancestors that immigrated through Angel Island? To learn more about Angel Island Immigration Center, search™ today!

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7 thoughts on “Angel Island Immigration Station

  1. I’m very interested in knowing more about the government’s distinction between Chinese and Japanese imigrants and the reasons for allowing Japanese to come into the US, but not Chinese. It would make a good follow-up to the above article.

    1. For a very informative history of Angel Island, visit the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation’s website at I’d also suggest reading Erika Lee and the late Judy Yung’s Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America. It provides an excellent history of the immigration station and detailed information about the main groups that came through the island: Chinese, Japanese, South Asian, Korean, Filipino, Russian, Jews from throughout Europe, and Mexican. You’ll learn the difference in laws and foreign relations between the different groups and the U.S., which affected how their citizens were treated in the U.S.

    2. Asian immigration, more so than immigration from Europe, was more likely to be dictated by international politics. In this case, Japan had informally negotiated a “Gentleman’s Agreement” that was more lenient in order to appease the Japanese government which was offended by growing racism against Japanese immigrants. Immigration policies gradually excluded anyone of Asian descent (with the boundaries of “Asia” becoming ever more expansive) so that by 1924, all Asians were effectively barred. It’s a bit more complicated than that, but you can find out more about Japanese immigration at the website

    3. My grandfather was imprisoned on Angel Island in 1919 or 1920. He was from Russia now Poland. He was arrested for protesting against WWI. He was a vegetarian and chose to be with the Chinese since they ate more vegetables. During the time he was there he learned Chinese. He was part of a landmark free speech case which went to the Supreme Court. It was one of the very few times it ruled against free speech.

  2. While immigration sounds wonderful, for us American Indians it is not. Foreigners have been very violent towards us. The foreign governments are all too willing to “ship” their people here. That way their governments can declare their “estate” as “abandoned” and claim the rewards, but since most people don’t comprehend how real wealth is generated, they don’t know. Once in the “states united,” the immigrants, who have no actual “nativity” here, on this land, they are deemed Wards, negotiorum gestio, declared NON COMPOS MENTIS, and “subjects” under Maritime Admiralty jurisdiction, in layman’s terms, “a serf.” Them, and their heirs will never have organic standing, they can never, under law, be considered, “We the people.” That title is for pre colonials, of the land and their posterity or heirs of this land, not what is considered under “immigration” a shipwrecked cargo. They all should go home, they are mostly tools of foreign “dum diversas” conquest who murdered so many people in this hemisphere that it altered the earths temperature. See, “Earth system impacts of the European arrival and Great Dying in the Americas after 1492.”
    The Chinese helped with the California genocide of the American Indian. Who was the “gold rush” funding? Who bought the gold and silver mostly? Who controls California politics? These are pragmatic questions that society as a whole is not ready to face.
    Its easier to live in fantasy land.

  3. Which papers in the database would offer info about Angel Island pre 1950?

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