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 Department of Water Supply, Gas, and Electricity from 1914 to 1917.
The William Williams Papers contain correspondence, reports, notices, photographs, scrapbooks, and other items from Williams' terms as Commissioner of Immigration at Ellis Island and correspondence, reports, minutes, and additional items from his tenure as Commissioner of the Department of Water Supply, Gas, and Electricity. Williams' Ellis Island papers include correspondence with presidents, mayors, and other officials, clippings and notes on Williams' administration, correspondence and reports on incidents during his administration. His scrapbooks contain 44 interior and exterior views of the immigration station by Edwin Levick and others. In addition, his papers contain a set of 39 photographic portraits of immigrants in native dress taken by photographer Augustus F. Sherman.
Williams' papers as Commissioner of the Department of Water Supply, Gas, and Electricity contain correspondence, memoranda, and reports on his work to reduce the cost of providing New York City with water, gas, and electricity, protecting the city's water sources from pollution, and providing alternate sources of water for the city.
The Bering Sea Arbitration series contains thank you letters to Williams for writing an article for the American Journal of International Law on his role as associate counsel to the United States government in the Bering Sea Arbitration with Great Britain in 1892.
Biographical/historical: 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 (1869-1929), 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. Amateur photographer, Augustus F. Sherman (1865-1925), 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 mementos.
Extent: 6.81 linear feet (11 boxes, 1 oversized folder)