Forgotten Gateway: Coming to America through Galveston Island

Forgotten Gateway is opening a week from today at HMNS. Gail Larsen Peterkin, one of our HMNS volunteers with a Ph.D in anthropology, gives us a preview as well as the background of this new exhibition. Make sure to see the exhibit after it opens Friday, October 1, 2010.

Although many of us think of New York’s Ellis Island as the premier immigration gateway to America, the Port of Galveston played a major role in immigration in the second half of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century. Over 150,000 immigrants from Mexico, Central and South America, Europe, Asia, and Africa entered Texas and the American Midwest through Galveston. Galveston served as a major transoceanic gateway for approximately seventy-five years, from 1845-1924, although federal immigration facilities in Galveston were abandoned after World War I.

The exhibition is divided into four sections, supported by more than 200 original documents and artifacts. “Difficult Journeys” covers the period from 1845-1865. European immigrants dominated this wave of migration, and most left their homes voluntarily to seek freedom, land, and a new life. Once in Texas, they were not welcomed with open arms. Long-term residents resented newcomers, especially when they had claims to land. Prior to the Civil War, forced migration also brought thousands of African slaves to Texas, and Galveston was one of the state’s major slave auctions. Upon reaching Galveston, immigrants had to wade to shore, cross on a makeshift plank bridge, or take small boats called “lighters.” Indianola was another major port and immigrant gateway on the Texas Gulf Coast at this time, although it fell into obscurity by the 1870s.

Jewish immigrants at the North
German Lloyd Wharf in Galveston.
July 1, 1907

The second wave of immigration, from 1865-1900, was dominated by big business. Texas was branded as a commodity, and recruiters lured European immigrants to the state with ads and promotional materials. Immigration was open until the first state and federal immigration laws were passed in 1875, restricting certain groups such as Chinese “coolies” and undesirables. Xenophobia, a fear of the foreign “threat,” became more prevalent in the early twentieth century from 1900-1915. Americans feared competition from immigrants for jobs, housing, and social services. A wave of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe exacerbated the growing hostility, and these new immigrants with swarthy complexions and different religious beliefs (Catholic and Jewish) did not integrate well with the largely northern European Protestant population that preceded them. During this period, Galveston became an official federal immigration station. Inspections at the Pelican Island station were very strict, and many immigrants were turned away or deported from Galveston. The federal station closed during World War I and never reopened. As the U.S. entered the twentieth century, a “closed-door” immigration policy took shape, and it became more and more difficult for immigrants to enter the country. At the same time, political events around the world, such as World War I and the Mexican Revolution, changed the pattern of immigration. Transoceanic immigration through Galveston ceased, as “pedestrian immigration” from Mexico increased along the border.

The exhibit not only chronicles the role of Galveston as a major immigrant gateway, but also traces the history of American immigration policy and the changing attitude towards immigrants during this formative period—all of which provides a timely background to the current national controversy over immigration. Forgotten Gateway: Coming to American through Galveston Island, on view at HMNS from October 1, 2010, through February 20, 2011, was organized by the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, under the guidance of UT professor Dr. Suzanne Seriff and a team of historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, designers, novelists, evaluators, educators, and community members. In addition to artifacts and primary documents, the exhibit engages visitors with personal immigration stories, interactive visitor kiosks, and audiovisual materials. Supplemental materials for educators and community organizations are available through the exhibition website.