Laying Some History On You: Angel Island

Ellis Island, which processed millions of immigrants in the years it operated as an immigration station, is often viewed a symbol of immigration into the United States. Angel Island, ‘the Ellis Island of the West’ or ‘Guardian of the Western Gateway,’ doesn’t get nearly as much attention, although it operated explicitly as an immigration station for 30 years between 1910 and 1940, and was used prior to that for quarantining immigrants, who were often Asian.

The history of the West in general is not covered as extensively as that of the East; for most people in other parts of the country, California is the Gold Rush, the Missions, and Steinbeck, and that’s about it. The rich cultural history of the West, of the peoples who have lived here for thousands of years, is rarely taught in basic history classes, and while many people know the original 13 colonies, fewer can tell you about the Pomo, about Russian fur stations, about the enslavement of California’s Native American population by the Spanish, about the history of the Asian community in California. And that’s just one Western state.

Angel Island is one of the many islands scattered across the San Francisco bay, and one of the biggest of the Bay’s islands. In California history in particular, Angel Island looms large in some consciousnesses, although for other people, it’s a little-known place and the details of its history are even more hazy. There is a lot of silence about Angel Island and the people who passed through it during its days as an immigration station. Historians attempting to conduct oral interviews and collect documents have encountered many people who are reluctant to talk about it, who want to look to the future instead of the past, who may not acknowledge that they were ever on Angel Island at all, let alone what happened to them there.

Angel Island was originally inhabited by the Miwok Indians. When Spanish colonists arrived and took over the Bay Area, Angel Island was one of the sites they occupied, turning it eventually into a cattle ranch. With California’s entry into the Union, Angel Island was taken over and used as a military base and quarantine station for ships with suspected illnesses among their passengers.

A photo of the quarantine station, a splay of buildings nestled onto the coastline.

It should come as no surprise to learn that ships filled with Asian immigrants were often targeted for quarantine, where people were kept for weeks in less than ideal conditions; many immigrants reported not getting enough food while they were quarantined, for example, and the crowding often contributed to the development of disease. San Francisco was visible, but impossible to reach. In 1910, Angel Island was officially dedicated for use as a quarantine station, and it is estimated that as many as 80% of the immigrants to the United States from Asia during the period Angel Island was open went through Angel Island.

A group of immigrants walking on a causeway on Angel Island.

Some didn’t go through at all. Immigrants were kept for weeks, months, sometimes years and were sometimes deported before ever leaving the island, thanks to racist laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act, and thanks to capricious attitudes on the part of the immigration officials who decided who came and who stayed, who could buy her way to the United States with her body, and who would be put on a boat back to China, Japan, India. Lester Tom Lee was detained for two months over a mixup between the lunar calendar and the Gregorian calendar; luckily, his father was able to hire a lawyer to get him off the island. Other people were not so fortunate, and despite all the promise the United States seemed to hold for them, they were abruptly returned, after having spent their savings on passage to the United States.

Some immigrants expressed their frustration and rage with poetry and other writings, carving directly into the walls of the buildings they were imprisoned in. Many of these authors remained anonymous and there was a great deal of debate over whether the poetry should be preserved when parts of Angel Island were taken down after it was dedicated to public use. The erasure of the history of the Asian community in California is a theme that comes up again and again, from the complete removal of the internment camps in California to the destruction of works of writing and art created by dissidents on Angel Island.

Poems, written in Chinese, on the walls of a building at Angel Island.

One immigrant wrote:

America has power, but not justice.
In prison, we were victimized as if we were guilty.
Given no opportunity to explain, it was really brutal.
I bow my head in reflection but there is
nothing I can do. (not pictured)

Many parts of this ring true to modern ears as well; people talk about this country as a post-racial society, as a place where power is not exerted over other people to create injustice, and neither of these things are true. People continue to be imprisoned in the United States because of the colour of their skin, because they are not offered fair opportunities to defend themselves in court, and they, too, often find that there is nothing they can do.

Today, Angel Island is a recreational spot. People can go on tours, and it’s actually quite lovely. Many people seem surprised to learn about its history as an immigration station and would be shocked, simply shocked, to know about the abuses endured by immigrants on Angel Island less than 100 years ago. You go by ferry and you can take a picnic and wander around the island and look at some historic sites. The Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation has done a lot of work on preserving and presenting the history of the island, providing information for the public as well as collecting oral histories and other memories before it’s too late and the generation of immigrants who passed through Angel Island is gone forever.

(A note on the images used in this post; as far as I know, these pictures are historic and in the public domain. If one or more is not, please contact me.)