The Secrets of Angel Island

Long before the arrival of Europeans, members of the local Miwok tribes would come to the island to hunt, fish, and gather food. The island provided a plentiful buffet, serving up salmon, acorns, and various birds. The island held a special place in the tribe’s way of life and livelihood. Once the Europeans began arriving, Angel Island would be put to far different uses.

Angel Island Between the times of the Miwok and the United States

The first Europeans to displace the Miwok were the Russians. Angel Island became an outpost in their fur trading empire. Thousands of sea otters were trapped and killed for their furs. The Spanish and Mexicans, who used Angel Island as an occasional place to graze cattle, pushed out the Russians.

During these years Angel Island was not an easy place to get to. It required skill, daring, and muscle to navigate the channel and dock a boat at the island. Technology would eventually allow for regular ferry service between Angel Island and Sausalito.

Ellis Island of the West

Ellis Island is famous as being a stopping point for immigrants filled with hope coming to the United States. Angel Island served much of the same purpose for immigrants crossing the Pacific Ocean. While Ellis Island’s role in the history of immigration is well known, the struggles of the people that came through Angel Island are still just being discovered.

Angel Island didn’t just process immigrants; it also served as a detention center. Chinese immigrants would undergo harsh interrogations to see if they qualified for entrance to the United States, many would never enter the United States after getting so close. They were deported and sent back, and a few would die on the island. Most immigrants who came through Angel Island never spoke of the harsh conditions to their families.

The Crying Walls

Many of the secrets of Angel Island would have been permanently forgotten were it not for an alert ranger. The old immigration station was going to be destroyed. It was already in ruins. But, a ranger spotted some Chinese calligraphy on one of the walls. It turned out the walls of the old station had been written on and carved by immigrants detained at Angel Island. Mostly they wrote poems about the conditions, about their families, and their hopes and sorrows. In addition to Chinese, poems have also been found in Korean, Russian, and Urdu.

Angel Island is now an easy ferry ride from the mainland. Campers and other visitors mostly come here for the scenery. But, inside the restored ranger station the secrets of countless immigrants remain, with only a few poems left to tell their stories.

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