During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, large numbers of people from northern and western Europe traveled in overcrowded ships to immigrate to the United States. They arrived to escape famine and religious discrimination, to buy farmland and cash in on the Gold Rush. This period also saw the beginning of immigration restrictions, starting with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.  

Although Ellis Island had been open since 1892, arrivals at the immigration station reached a peak at the turn of the century. From 1900 to 1915, more than 15 million immigrants came to the United States, with an increasing number from non-English speaking countries. 

It has been estimated that close to 40 percent of current U.S. citizens can trace at least one ancestor to Ellis island.

A massive wave of immigrants came from Ireland, where a potato blight had contributed to widespread famine in the mid-19th century. Foreigners from southern and eastern Europe, including Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Greece, left their homelands to escape political and economic oppression. People of Jewish descent fled antisemitism in czarist Russia, while poverty drove many Italians to seek better lives in America. Non-Europeans from Syria, Turkey and Armenia were also entering the United States in high numbers, seeking economic opportunity.

Augustus Sherman, an Ellis Island Chief Registry Clerk and amateur photographer, captured his unique view on the immigration influx by bringing his camera to work. Sherman's photos showcase the wide array of cultures represented in the people who passed through the station's doors from 1905 to 1914.

The onset of World War I in 1914 eventually slowed the flow of immigrants into the country and foreigners increasingly became targets of suspicion. In the 1920s, legislation set further limits on immigration, including a quota system that restricted entry to 2 percent of the total number of people of each nationality in America. By 1954, Ellis Island, the starting point for millions of immigrants who would contribute to a diverse nation, would finally close its doors.