Ellis Island

Lecture: A Massachusetts Soldier Experiences the Civil War, Sept. 29

CFMorse_FromLettersThe Museum resumes its Civil War lecture series on Saturday, September 29, with a talk presented by Megan Kate Nelson of Harvard University. Join us at 2 PM for “Among the Ruins: Charles F. Morse and Civil War Destruction.” The lecture is free and is sponsored by Ruby W. Linn.

Nelson will share the Civil War experience of one Massachusetts soldier, Charles F. Morse, an officer in the 2nd Massachusetts Regiment Volunteer Infantry. His letters, drawings, and other contemporary images speak eloquently across the years of the world of ruin and destruction that participants in the war found themselves confronting. 

The immense-scale destruction that the Civil War brought to southern farms, cities, and landscapes is no longer part of the world we live in. Unlike other countries, America did not choose to preserve landscapes of ruin as memorials to past wars, opting instead to rebuild or replace what was lost. Because we have forgotten, today we must employ the words and the images recorded by soldiers who saw the Civil War and its consequences if we wish to gain an understanding of the enormity of the ruin they experienced. When we do so, we encounter chaotic and brutal worlds that challenge the coherent narratives of war that popular books and films, reenactments and memorials have given us. For those who lived through the Civil War, as soldiers or as civilians, wartime ruins held vast imaginative significance, powered the emotional reactions they unleashed.

Charles Fessenden Morse was a Massachusetts native and Harvard graduate who led Company B of the 2nd Mass. Rgt. as its captain in the battles of Cedar Mountain, Antietam, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg. A successful company captain in his early twenties, Morse was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel after Gettysburg. The young man corresponded extensively with family members and friends throughout the four years of his war experience, during which he participated in some of the Union Army's most devestatingly successful forays into Confederate territory. Morse shared his thoughts with the likes of close friend and fellow Harvardian Robert Gould Shaw; look for a fictionalized portrayal of Morse in the film Glory. To learn more about Morse, explore this letter posted by the Massachusetts Historical Society. Morse self-published some of his correspondence in Letters Written During the Civil War, 1861-1865 in 1898. You can access the very copy that Morse donated to the Harvard College Library in 1898 at Google Books.

Nelson_MeganKateFor her lecture, Nelson draws on dozens of letters written by Morse, held by the Massachusetts Historical Society. She places Morse's observations in the context of her innovative scholarship on the meaning of the destruction caused by the Civil War, the impact of which on the American landscape is almost unimaginable for us today. Megan Kate Nelson is a lecturer in History and Literature at Harvard University. Her second book, Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War was recently published in May 2012 and has garnered critical acclaim from scholars and Civil War buffs alike. It will be available for purchase after the talk and the author will be on hand to speak with visitors and sign books. You can sample Nelson's work by reading her contribution to the New York Times' Civil War blog Disunion or by exploring the University of Georgia's "Weirding the War" project, to which she was a contributor.

Save the date of the next talk in the series: on October 20, 2012, Pamela Weeks, Curator of the New England Quilt Museum, will speak on "Quilts for Civil War Soldiers: Stories from the Home Front and the Battlefield."

Photo credits:

Charles Fessenden Morse, ca. 1861-1865. Frontispiece of Letters Written During the Civil War, 1861-1865 (1898), available via Google Books.

Megan Kate Nelson. Courtesy of Drew Fritschel Photography

"I See My Own Face Everywhere"

Italian woman Did your family travel through Ellis Island? Has some interesting story about how your ancestors came to America been passed down the generations? We asked questions like these of visitors to “Augustus Frederick Sherman: Ellis Island Portraits, 1905–1920.” Since the exhibition opened in October, visitors have shared a number of funny, thoughtful, and intriguing responses with us. Here is a sampling:

“My husband’s grandmother got on a ship from Europe to Ellis Island with her fiancé. She got off the boat engaged to my husband’s grandfather, NOT the original fiancé. We only wish we knew the stories of what happened on board!”

“My grandfather immigrated to the USA. Bought some land—then back to Ireland. Got married, had 11 children: 10 girls, 1 boy. Never returned to America.”

“My father came from an island in Greece—with no money but full of expectation and hope to build a family and new life in the USA. He did and was successful.”

“My mother’s parents and siblings came to the U.S. via Ellis island around 1910. My uncle took sick on ship and was taken off during a stop in Scotland. My grandmother was hysterical that she would not see him again. She waited at Ellis Island for a week and, sure enough, my uncle arrived on a later ship. As a token of my uncle’s stay in at Scottish hospital, he carried his picture taken at hospital, dressed in kilt! That picture (and the story) is still with our family to this day.”

“I immigrated from the U.S. to Australia in 2004.  It was struggle to figure out the visa application, housing, and even where to shop for certain things…. It struck me at the time and ever since how difficult immigration is for those who don’t speak the right language of who have very few resources. Makes you very vulnerable, to be in that situation.”

The exhibition has also helped our visitors gain new understanding about their ancestors’ lives as they settled in their new country. One commented, “This interesting exhibit clearly show how similar … we are to these brave people who faced adversity, change and the future with courage in their hearts and hope in their eyes. Just as we need to today.” Another observer said simply, “I see my own face everywhere.”

We hope you will tell us about your family’s immigration experience by clicking the Comments link below. Or you can visit the exhibition and leave us your thoughts on a comment card. “Augustus Frederick Sherman: Ellis Island Portraits, 1905–1920” will be on view through April 26, 2009.

Photo: Italian woman. Augustus Frederick Sherman (1865-1925). Courtesy of Aperture Foundation and Statue of Liberty National Monument/Ellis Island Immigration Museum

Revels Repertory Presents "An American Journey" Sunday, March 1 at 2 pm

Revels The Revels Repertory Company presents "An American Journey" in a special performance at the Museum on Sunday, March 1 at 2 pm. The story, told through music, dance, and narrative, takes place in 1907 when more people immigrated to the United States than in any other year.  Although it focuses on the Irish, the Italians and the Eastern European Jews, it honors the struggles of all who left their homelands to journey to America and a new life.

Tickets are  $12.50/adult and $6/child for non-members. For Museum members, and residents of LCC-sponsoring communities (Bedford, Lexington, and Lincoln, MA), tickets are $10/adult; $5/child. Get tickets online, call 781-861-6559, or at the door. The Museum is located at 33 Marrett Road in Lexington, MA.

The Revels touring ensemble, Revels Rep, brings the group's joyful programs to public venues and schools throughout southern New England. Based on historic, seasonal and cultural themes, the ensemble’s original programs include traditional music, drama, dance, storytelling, and audience participation.

January at the Museum! From Antique Valentines to the Politics of Immigration. It's All Here and More!

The New Year brings fresh programming and two new exhibitions opening in the Van Gorden-Williams Library! Here's what's coming up. Remember, the Museum offers free admission and parking!

Cambodian_ElephantPot Cambodian Ceramics Demonstration
Saturday, January 17
12-2 PM

Yari Livan will demonstrate his talents as a Cambodian master ceramicist.  The sole survivor of his generation of artists trained in traditional Khmer ceramics at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh, he came to Massachusetts in 2001. His work is featured in the current exhibition, “Keepers of Tradition.” Free. Snow date: Sunday, January 18.

Borjas George J. Borjas of the Kennedy School on Immigration and Economics
Saturday, January 17
2 pm

George J. Borjas, of the Kennedy School of Government, will speak on immigration policy and economics. Borjas, a Cuban immigrant and preeminent scholar in his field, examines the controversial idea that more job seekers from abroad means fewer opportunities or lower wages for native workers. This issue lies at the heart of national debate over immigration policy. Funded by the Lowell Institute. The lecture is presented in conjunction with the current exhibition "Augustus Frederick Sherman: Ellis Island Portraits, 1905-1920." Free.

 NativeAmerican_TwndBasktry Native American Twined Basketry Demonstration
Saturday, January 24
1-3 pm
Julia Marden will demonstrate the Native American art of twined basketry, or soft-form baskets made out of natural materials such as corn husks and grasses. An Aquinnah Wampanoag who learned her craft while working at Plimoth Plantation, Marden is featured in the current exhibition, "Keepers of Tradition." Free. Snow date: Sunday, January 25.

Valentine Valentines from the Kalman Collection, 1910-1920
January 31 through March 8, 2009
Romantic Valentine greetings have been popular as far back as the Middle Ages, when lovers said or sang their verses to their sweeties. Today we are most familiar with the pretty paper variety. Each year, the Van Gorden-Williams Library presents a delightful display of antique Valentines from its collection. Smiling puppies and impish cherubs, lovely maidens and heartsick gentlemen, the characters on these charming cards convey their messages of love to sweethearts of long ago. Many of the 25 cards on view stand up or feature moving parts, showing an inventiveness rarely seen in cards today.

This antique valentine collection originally belonged to Albert Kalman, who owned and managed Kimbal's Camera and Card shop in downtown Boston for 35 years. His wife, Vivienne, donated the collection in his memory. Each year, Mr. Kalman decorated his shop with these vintage cards to celebrate Valentine's Day. Visit us and carry on the tradition!

Postcard_Tunnel "A Penny for Your Thoughts: Postcards from the Golden Age, 1898-1918"
Opens January 31, 2009
In the early 1900s, when telephones and cameras were few and automobiles were limited to the well-to-do, the postcard filled a necessary and appreciated role. Costing only a penny each to send, postcards were an inexpensive way to convey short messages. Images on the cards showed American pursuits and pastimes, customs, costumes, morals, and manners. Sold everywhere--in drug stores, souvenir shops, dime stores, specialty shops and even on street corners--many postcards from this age still exist today.

In "A Penny for Your Thoughts," on view in the Van Gorden-Williams Library and Archives, more than 100 examples from the Golden Age will be shown, along with postcard scrapbooks. The images capture the optimism, the people, the industrialism, and the transportation of the period from 1898-1918. Visitors will see favorite tourist destinations, cityscapes, and period automobiles. They will also be able read the messages on these antique postcards. A variety of styles and subject matter will be shown, including color lithographic, photographic, novelty, and fraternal postcards.

The exhibition is drawn from gifts from Martin A. and Mildred H. Gilman and various museum purchases. Bertha Petersen, Martin A. Gilman's mother, collected many of the postcards when she lived in New Jersey and Connecticut from 1904-1917.

Postcard, 1906.  O. & W. Ry, New York. Van Gorden-Williams Library & Archives. Gift of Martin A. and Mildred H. Gilman

Valentine Greetings, 1910.  Sam Gabriel, New York, Van Gorden-Williams Library & Archives, Gift of Vivienne Kalman in memory of Albert L. Kalman

Ellis Island: Gateway to America

A thought-provoking new exhibition of portraits of immigrants, taken at Ellis Island by registry clerk Augustus F. Sherman, recently opened at the National Heritage Museum, and will be on view until April 26,2009. Equally as intriguing is Ellis Island’s place in American history as the primary immigration processing center at the height of immigration.

Main gallery Ellis Island Leaving their homelands to escape poverty or religious or political persecution, or lured by the promise of economic opportunity, more than 20 million people immigrated to America between 1892 and 1924. Some traveled with their families, but many sent a husband or older child to America to work for several years to pay for the rest of the family’s passage. More than 70 percent of them traveled through Ellis Island. Today, historians believe that more than 40 percent of Americans are descended from these trailblazers.
Augustus F. Sherman took the photographs featured in the exhibition from 1905-1920, during Ellis Island’s heyday. In 1907, the peak year, more than 1 million immigrants passed through its halls. The largest numbers were Catholics and Jews from eastern Europe, as well as Italians and Greeks. Many Germans, Dutch and Irish immigrated to America during this period as well.

Officials at Ellis Island processed immigrants primarily to weed out the sick and the indigent. Well-off travelers were assessed aboard ship, but the passengers traveling in steerage or third class disembarked at Ellis Island. There, doctors inspected them for “a loathsome or a dangerous contagious disease,” mental illness, or physical deformities, writing codes in chalk on the immigrants’ clothing to indicate potential health problems. Then, aided by interpreters, inspectors questioned each immigrant about his or her name, place of origin, literacy level, job skills, and financial means, to determine whether he or she was likely to become a burden to American society. Officials detained those suspected of problems for anxiety-ridden hours, days or weeks. These were the people Sherman photographed. Although most immigrants ultimately made it to New York, 2 percent were deported.

World War I intensified native-born Americans’ fears of foreigners. The U.S. government soon passed new immigration laws, enacted in 1924, which set quotas and slowed the influx of immigrants to America. As immigration legislation changed, Ellis Island’s role as a processing station became unnecessary. Its function shifted to law enforcement—arrest and deportation of foreigners suspected of crimes—until it finally closed in 1954. It reopened in 1990 as a museum, paying tribute to the many intrepid travelers who passed through its doors to start new lives in America.

The Great Hall seen from the west balcony, pre-1916. Augustus Frederick Sherman. Ellis Island, New York. Courtesy of Aperture Foundation and Statue of Liberty National Monument/Ellis Island Immigration Museum

Augustus F. Sherman: Ellis Island Portraits, 1905 – 1920

Girl K region jpegFrom October 11, 2008-April 26, 2009 the National Heritage Museum is presenting "Augustus Frederick Sherman: Ellis Island Portraits, 1905–1920," organized by the Aperture Foundation.   In working on the installation of the exhibition, we found these photographs of the people coming through Ellis Island both striking and evocative.

An amateur photographer and employee of the Executive Division of the Bureau of Immigration at Ellis Island, Sherman had access to immigrants detained at Ellis Island because they were ill or because inspectors sought proof of their means of support.  From around 1905 through the early 1920s, Sherman captured over 200 images (now housed at the National Park Service's Ellis Island Immigration Museum and the New York Public Library) of travelers and families from, literally, all over the globe. Algerian jpeg

We are excited to share this show with our visitors.  It offers a view on a quintessentially American story that resonates personally for  many.  As noted in one of the exhibition’s text panels, more than 20 million people immigrated to America between 1892 and 1924. Over than 70 percent of them traveled through Ellis Island, an average of 5,000 immigrants per day during the peak years from 1905-1907. Today, historians believe that more than 40 percent of Americans are descended from these immigrants.  These compelling photographs draw us into their world and invite  you to imagine what the subjects’ or our own forebears’ experience was like.  We all live in the country that these travelers helped shape and build. 

For more information see the description of the exhibition on our website.  As well, see the book that accompanies the exhibition,  Augustus F. Sherman:  Ellis Island Portraits, 1905-1920, published by the Aperture Foundation in 2005.  It includes an historical essay by exhibition curator Peter Mesenholler. 


Girl from the Kochersberg region near Strasbourg, Alsace
Augustus Frederick Sherman (1865-1925)
Courtesy of Aperture Foundation and Statue of Liberty National Monument/Ellis Island Immigration Museum

Algerian man
Augustus Frederick Sherman (1865-1925)
Courtesy of Aperture Foundation and Statue of Liberty National Monument/Ellis Island Immigration Museum