William Williams papers

Collection History

William Williams (1862-1947) collected these photographs while he was Commissioner of Immigration for the Port of New York at Ellis Island, 1902-5 and 1909-13; they came to the Library with the bequest of his papers, which are now held by the Manuscripts and Archives Division.

This digital presentation is in two parts:

(1) Photographs of immigrants: exhibition-quality mounted prints by Augustus Francis Sherman (1865-1925), Chief Registry Clerk at Ellis Island until his retirement in 1917
(2) Photographs of Ellis Island: prints, 1902-13, including views of New York harbor and skyline; 33 are by commercial photographer Edwin Levick (1869-1929), and the remainder by unknown photographer(s).


Under construction for a decade, the Ellis Island immigration station opened in New York harbor in 1900, just in time for the huge upswing in immigration to the United States that took place in the years leading up to World War I. In 1907, the peak year of immigration, 3,000 to 5,000 newcomers a day were examined at Ellis Island as they sought permanent entry to the country.

Many photographers, such as Edwin Levick, who specialized in maritime subjects, were drawn to Ellis Island by the general human interest and newsworthiness of the scene; others, such as pioneering social photographer Lewis Wickes Hine (1874-1940), responded to the individual humanity of the immigrants' raw eagerness, symbolized for Hine by their humble possessions and their stoicism.

One amateur photographer, Augustus Sherman, the Ellis Island Chief Registry Clerk, had special access to potential subjects for his camera. It is possible, for example, that Commissioner Williams requested that he photograph specific individuals and groups. It is also likely that Sherman's elaborately costumed subjects were detainees, new immigrants held at Ellis Island for one reason or another. While waiting for what they needed to leave the island (an escort, or money, or travel tickets), some of these immigrants may have been persuaded to pose for Sherman's camera, donning their best holiday finery or national dress, which they had brought with them from home. Sherman's pictures were published in National Geographic in 1907 and for decades hung anonymously in the lower Manhattan headquarters of the federal Immigration Service. Incoming correspondence in the William Williams Papers suggests that the Commissioner gave copies of Sherman's haunting photographs to official Ellis Island visitors as mementoes.

Related Resources

American Park Network. "Statue of Liberty National Monument: Photography." (c2001) <http://www.americanparknetwork.com/parkinfo/sl/photo/>

Coan, Peter M. Ellis Island Interviews: In Their Own Words. (c1997)

Temple, Andrea and June F. Tyler. "Ellis Island: A Historical Perspective." <http://www.americansall.com/PDFs/02-americans-all/12.9.pdf>

United States. National Park Service "Ellis Island." (2004) <http://www.nps.gov/elis/index.htm>

Yans-McLaughlin, Virginia and the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation. Ellis Island and the Peopling of America: the Official Guide. (c1997)

Collection Data

William Williams papers
Williams, William (1862-1947) (Collector)
Library locations
Manuscripts and Archives Division
Shelf locator: MssCol 3346
Williams, William, 1862-1947
Ownership : Bequest of William Williams, 1947

Ownership: MSS 47M76
William Williams was a New York lawyer and the Commissioner of Immigration at Ellis Island for two terms, 1902-1905 and 1909-1913, and the Commissioner of the New York City Department of Water Supply, Gas, and Electricity from 1914 to 1917. His papers contain correspondence, reports, notices, photographs, scrapbooks, and other items from his terms at Ellis Island and at the Department of Water Supply, Gas, and Electricity. Ellis Island materials include photographic portraits of immigrants in native dress by Augustus F. Sherman and interior and exterior views of the immigration station by Edwin Levick and others.
Type of Resource
Type of Resource
Still image
NYPL catalog ID (B-number) : b11996408
MSS Unit ID : 3346
UUID: ab855230-c6f4-012f-dbe6-3c075448cc4b
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