Thanksgiving is a uniquely North American holiday (it has long been celebrated in Canada as well as the United States.) Historic newspaper accounts report of the efforts of individuals and organizations to bring Thanksgiving to those deemed less fortunate in the greater New York City metropolitan area. For homeless newsboys to inmates at Riker’s Island, there was turkey on Thanksgiving. According to a 1907 New York Times article, “If any one [sic] in New York missed turkey yesterday on account of hard times it was because he had hidden himself so well that a Sherlock Holmes could not have found him…”

Introducing Thanksgiving to immigrants predates the Renaissance Revival buildings that stand on the island today. In 1894 the New York Times reported that 350 immigrants were served turkey, vegetables, pies, and puddings in the original wooden Ellis Island immigration building. “The young girls were bedecked with sprigs of celery plucked from stalks on the table by gallant young men.” Some of these young immigrants must have thought that they had truly arrived in the land of plenty.

SEI dininghall

Dining Hall 1

A few years later in 1902 the government provided Thanksgiving dinner to the 800 detained immigrants. In addition to turkey, mince and pumpkin pies they were served “indigenous delectables.” By 1905 the number of immigrants served a special holiday meal had grown to 1,246. In addition to dinner they were treated to a concert by the Heinebund Singing Society of New York.

WatchornOf course there was more than simple charity served with these Thanksgiving meals. Robert Watchorn, Commissioner of Immigration told the New York Times in 1905, “The celebration will have inestimable value in teaching the new-comers to our shores something of the institutions of the land they are about to adopt as their own.” Watchorn went on to say that 27 missionaries on Ellis Island would explain the significance of Thanksgiving from pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock to the present day.

Watchorn’s sentiments were echoed years later by Commissioner Robert E. Tod in 1922 who said, “I want these men and women and children, who are soon to take up the responsibilities and the honors of American citizenship, to join in the spirit of the occasion and feel that, as they sit down to their Thanksgiving dinner, they are also sitting in with the great American democracy.” That year 1,500 were served dinner on tables decorated with flowers. A concert with “songs of all nations” followed dinner.

In 1908 there was no Thanksgiving at Ellis Island. Fritz Brodt, who in 1908 was awarded the contract to feed Ellis Island’s immigrants, said that there was barely enough money to cover ordinary expenses. Surprisingly no civic group stepped forward to provide a Thanksgiving meal, perhaps Brodt’s announcement came too late. Two years later in March 1910, the government canceled Brodt’s contract and a petition of bankruptcy was filed against him.

The lack of Thanksgiving in 1908 stands in stark contrast to the celebration the year before. According to the New York Times immigrants received gold pieces that were baked in cakes. “Many an astonished Italian spat out a five-dollar gold piece and many a fair-haired, wide-eyed Swede gnawed the milled edge of another.”

More than half a century after the immigration station at Ellis Island closed in 1954 Thanksgiving was celebrated once again. On November 15, 2015 Thanksgiving dinner was served in the Great Hall of the Immigration Museum to immigrants who had just become citizens. The meal was hosted by the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations.

Thanksgiving has continued to be a time honored holiday for most Americans. In addition to the traditional turkey, every family has their own food traditions, many of them carried to America by immigrant ancestors. Anyone looking to add some historic ethnic flair to their holiday table should pick up a copy of The Ellis Island Immigrant Cookbook.


The Ellis Island Immigrant Cookbook