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2. A colour engraving depicting a ship of immigrants arriving at New York, 1887

A colour engraving depicting a ship of immigrants arriving at New York Click image to enlarge
Source: Published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 1887. In Histoire 1ère L/ES, 2003 (p.38).


This engraving of the late nineteenth century depicts the moment when, after crossing the Atlantic, immigrants contemplate the Statue of Liberty on the deck.


  1. Identify and describe this document.
  2. How could you recognize that this engraving depicts the arrival of a ship at New York? With the help of an encyclopaedia or the Internet, write a few lines on the history and the symbolism of the Statue of Liberty.
  3. Try to identify the geographic and the social origins of the immigrants by their clothes.
  4. According to you, what is the “message” of this picture?

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Presentation and analysis of the historical context

This colored engraving from the end of the 19th century depicts the arrival of immigrants in the New York harbor after their Atlantic’s crossing. In the foreground, we can see men and women on the deck. In the background, three sailing vessels and the Statue of Liberty can be seen. When the Statue of Liberty was unveiled, liners have replaced sailing vessels. Others sources on the arrival of migrants in NY will criticize what this picture shows us (Question 1).

The Statue of Liberty (Liberty Enlightening the World) was designed by the sculptor Fréféric Auguste Bartholdi (1834-1904). The metal framework was covered with copper sheets by Gustave Eiffel. When it was inaugurated on 28 October 1886, it wasn’t presented as a symbol of welcome to the newcomers but as symbol of friendship between two republics cherishing the universal ideas of the Enlightenment: “It was supposed to not only strengthen historical links between the French and the American but also remind people of the triumph of the slogans of the Enligtment period and the double revolutions in America and France. As far back as in 1871, Bartholdi wished to erect the Statue of Liberty on the Bedloe Island in the New York Bay. It would have its face turned to Europe, in the memory of the principles of personal freedom and democracy that spread from the US... The Statue consists of many symbols. The seven spikes on its crown would stand either for continents or seas – and they therefore represent the world. The tablet held in the left hand bears the inscription of the date of the proclamation of independence - 4 July 1776. This symbolizes the triumph of rights. The flame recalls the Enlightenment and the demand of liberty that was common to the ideas of the Enlightment period. The broken chains at its feet are those of slavery, which was prectised by traders and farmers of the two nations for two centuries” (Alexander Sumpf, cf. “links”). The Statue later became a symbol of the dreams of migrants arriving at NY. (Question 2)

Most of the depicted immigrants seem to be country folk. The people depicted on the left-hand side of the picture (women wearing scarves and men in fur hats) are probably Russian. Bearded men with caps could be the Jews from Eastern Europe. The person that stands with his back to us at the center-right of the picture is wearing a typical Balkan outfit. It is possible that the depicted group comes from the Ottoman Empire.

This engraving could be linked with Augustus Frederick Sherman’s photographs (1865-1925). His work for the US administration at the border control enabled him to collect photographs of immigrants (men, women, children, alone or in a group) of different geographical and social origins who arrived at the Ellis Island. (Question 3)

The engraving expresses, through attitudes and actions of different depicted people, the feelings of those who come to the US, symbolized by the Statue of Liberty: enthusiastic joy, hope and meditation... Men and women of different origins and ages have their eyess turned to their future and their future nation. This picture offers an idealized representation of the arrival of the ship. It should be discussed together with Mary Antin’s text which expresses her joy when she believes to be coming to the end of her odyssey: “What a clamor was then! They all pointed at the happy vision, as if the others did not see. All eyes were fixed upon her, as if they beheld a miracle...” (Question 4)


  • http://www.histoire-image.org : the website “1789-1939: History in Pictures” (presenting the collections of national museums and the Heritage Branch) offers remarkable thematic files providing an insight intof the historical context, an analysis and an interpretation of chosen works. Alexander Sumpf wrote a file on the Statue of Liberty.
  • http://www.histoire-immigration.fr/index.php?lg=fr&nav=600&flash=0: on the National Museum of the History of Immigration (CNHI) website, in addition to the reproductions of A-F Sherman’s photographs, an outstanding teaching pack compiled by Jean-Marie Baldner can be found.