The Time New Jersey Took New York to the Supreme Court to Lay Claim to Ellis Island

Department of the Treasury/Public Health Service, National Archives // Public Domain
Department of the Treasury/Public Health Service, National Archives // Public Domain

Ellis Island, the gateway to the U.S. for millions of immigrants in the early 20th century, is often considered a part of New York. After all, we rarely hear immigrant tales of sailing across the Atlantic in the early 1900s bound for … New Jersey. The Titanic wasn’t setting sail for New Jersey. But the island is, in fact, closer to the Garden State than it is to Manhattan. While you can only access the island from New York by boat, Ellis Island is connected to New Jersey’s Liberty State Park by a bridge that measures only 1100 feet long (though it's only open to authorized personnel). So who does it belong to, really? The answer is so contentious that in the 1990s, New Jersey went straight to the Supreme Court about it.

For centuries, due to the extremely vague wording of a 17th century land grant, the two states have both laid claim to Ellis Island. The 1998 Supreme Court case that finally settled the matter, was, improbably, sparked by a severed leg, as The New York Times recently explored in its F.Y.I. column.

New Jersey was formed by a land grant from the English Duke of York in 1664, establishing an English colony situated between the Delaware River, the Hudson River, and the Atlantic Ocean. The grant established New Jersey’s border as “bounded on the east part by the main sea, and part by Hudson's river.” The key word being part.

To New Jersey officials, that seemed to mean the state was entitled to the western half of the Hudson River, which would include Ellis Island. New York, on the other hand, took it to mean New Jersey ended where the water began. In 1833, as part of a compromise over the boundary between the two states, New Jersey acknowledged that New York owned the islands in the Hudson, including Ellis Island, but stipulated that it owned the land underwater up to the island's edge [PDF].

The federal government, however, was the one actually using the island at the time. In the early 1800s, the state of New York ceded the rights to the island over to the U.S. government to use as a military base, and later, an immigration station. The immigration center opened in 1892, operating up until 1954, when it closed and the island became surplus government property.

A few decades later, an accident would force the issue of who really owned Ellis Island. In 1986, tragedy struck during the construction of the immigration museum that now operates on the island. A worker from the National Park Service lost his leg due to an accident with a stump grinder on the landfill portion of the island, which had been built out into the Hudson River by the government when the island was still an immigration center. He sued the company that manufactured the grinder, and in turn, the manufacturer sued the federal government to share in the liability for the accident.

The federal government really wanted that piece of landfill to belong to New Jersey, since it had a better chance of dodging the lawsuit under New Jersey law. So it tried to give the land to New Jersey. Both the Federal District Court in Manhattan and the Second Circuit Court of Appeals begged to differ. In 1992, the appeals court reaffirmed that the property belonged to New York, since the 1833 agreement didn't say anything about the island's size.

New Jersey wasn't pleased. In 1993, the state went straight to the Supreme Court over where the border line fell. The move was prompted by more than just one worker's lawsuit. According to The New York Times’s 1996 write-up of the pre-trial hearing of the case, tax revenue played a major role. So did pure ego:

At issue is who can maintain bragging rights over a symbol of the immigration that helped forge the United States. (More than 4 out of 10 Americans trace their ancestry to immigrants who passed through the island.) More important, the case would help settle the question of who could collect taxes on the island should plans be realized to convert the crumbling buildings into a hotel or convention center.

According to the newspaper, the trial was a doozy. "Bile oozed across the lectern," reporter Neil MacFarquhar wrote, "as each side mustered 200 years of accumulated skirmishing for the trial, expected to last a month and to include a field trip to the famous rock itself, with dueling experts as guides."

In 1998, the Supreme Court settled the case [PDF]. The court ruled that the landfill belonged to New Jersey, as the state owned the part of the river leading up to the island, including the land underneath it. Since the landfill had been built on top of New Jersey’s territory, it owned the more than 20 acres of landfill on Ellis Island. The state of New York, meanwhile, could keep its claim to the original island as it existed before the federal government got there.

New York ended up with about 17 percent of the island, a mere 4.68 acres, including the land on which the Ellis Island museum stands. But most of the other buildings—which stand in a state of "arrested decay"—belong to New Jersey. Some of the buildings even stand on top of the border, meaning they’re half in New York, half in New Jersey. The museum within the main immigration building largely belongs to New York, for instance, but the laundry and kitchen in the building (which are off-limits to the public unless they take a hard hat tour) are technically part of New Jersey.

But, as the Times notes, this debate only matters when it comes down to the sales tax revenue from concessions purchased by tourists. Otherwise, it’s merely a matter of state pride.

[h/t The New York Times]

Sequoyah: The Man Who Saved the Cherokee Language

Henry Inman, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain
Henry Inman, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

Sequoyah was fascinated by books and letters, enchanted by the way people could divine meaning from ink-stained scribbles on a written page. Born in the 1760s in what is now Tennessee and trained as a silversmith and blacksmith, the Cherokee man never learned how to read or write in English, but he always knew that literacy and power were intertwined.

During most of Sequoyah's lifetime, the Cherokee language was entirely oral. According to the Manataka American Indian Council, a written language may have existed centuries earlier, but the script was supposedly lost as the tribe journeyed east across the continent. Sometime around 1809, Sequoyah began working on a new system to put the Cherokee language back on the page. He believed that, by inventing an alphabet, the Cherokee could share and save the stories that made their way of life unique.

At first, some Cherokee disliked Sequoyah’s idea. White people were encroaching further on their land and culture, and they were resistant to anything that resembled assimilation. Some skeptics saw Sequoyah’s attempts to create a written language as just another example of the tribe becoming more like the oncoming white settlers—in other words, another example of the tribe losing a grip on its culture and autonomy.

Sequoyah, however, saw it differently: Rather than destroy his culture, he saw the written word as a way to save it. According to Britannica, he became convinced that the secret of white people's growing power was directly tied to their use of written language, which he believed was far more effective than collective memories or word-of-mouth. In the words of Sequoyah, "The white man is no magician." If they could do it, so could he.

Sequoyah became further convinced of this in 1813, after he helped the U.S Army fight the Creek War in Georgia. For months, he watched soldiers send letters to their families and saw war officers deliver important commands in written form. He found the capability to communicate across space and time profoundly important.

Sequoyah's first attempt to develop a written language, however, was relatively crude by comparison. He tried to invent a logographic system, designing a unique character for every word, but quickly realized he was creating too much unnecessary work for himself. (According to historian April Summit's book, Sequoyah and the Invention of the Cherokee Alphabet, his wife may have attempted to burn an early version of his alphabet, calling it witchcraft.) So Sequoyah started anew, this time constructing his language from letters he found in the Latin, Greek, and Cyrillic alphabets, as well as with some Arabic numerals.

Sequoyah became more reclusive and obsessive, spending hour upon hour working on his alphabet. According to the official website of the Cherokee Nation, people outside his family began whispering that he was meddling with sorcery. By 1821, Sequoyah was too busy to pay the gossip any mind: He was teaching his six-year-old daughter, Ayokeh, how to use the system.

As one story goes, Sequoyah was eventually charged with witchcraft and brought to trial before a town chief, who tested Sequoyah’s claims by separating him and his daughter and asking them to communicate through their so-called writing system. By the trial’s end, everybody involved was convinced that Sequoyah was telling the truth—the symbols truly were a distillation of Cherokee speech. Rather than punish Sequoyah, the officials asked him a question: Can you teach us how to read?

Once accepted by the Cherokee, Sequoyah’s 86 character alphabet—which is technically called a syllabary—was widely studied. Within just a few years, thousands of people would learn how to read and write, with many Cherokee communities becoming more literate than the surrounding white populations. It wasn’t long before the Cherokee language began appearing in books and newspapers: First published in 1828, The Cherokee Phoenix was the first Native American newspaper printed in the United States.

Sam Houston, the eventual governor of Texas, admired Sequoyah's achievement and reportedly told him, “Your invention of the alphabet is worth more to your people than two bags full of gold in the hands of every Cherokee." Today, while the Cherokee language is now considered endangered by UNESCO, Sequoyah's system remains a landmark innovation—and a source of hope for the future.

You can visit Sequoyah’s one-room log cabin, which still stands in Sallisaw, Oklahoma. Not only listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it has also been designated a Literary Landmark.

Newly Uncovered Galileo Letter Details How He Tried to Avoid the Inquisition

Galileo Before The Papal Tribunal by Robert Henry. Hulton Archive, Getty Images
Galileo Before The Papal Tribunal by Robert Henry. Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Galileo Galilei was one of the Roman Catholic Inquisition’s most famous targets. As a result of his outspoken support for the theory that all the planets, Earth included, revolve around the Sun, the Catholic Church charged him with heresy and he spent the last years of his life under house arrest. Galileo was well aware that he was on the Church’s hit list, and a newly discovered letter shows that at one point, he tried to tone down his ideas to avoid persecution, according to Nature and Ars Technica.

The letter in question, written in 1613, solves a long-held mystery for Galileo scholars. It was found in the library of the Royal Society, where it has been for at least 250 years.

Galileo’s beef with the Catholic Church came about because of his support for heliocentrism—the idea that the solar system centers around the Sun—as advocated in Nicolaus Copernicus’s book De Revolutionibus. Galileo’s scientific writings clearly endorsed Copernicus’s theory of the world, including in personal correspondence that was widely disseminated, and in some cases, he directly questioned the scientific merit of Biblical passages.

In 1613, Galileo wrote to a friend and former student named Benedetto Castelli who was then teaching mathematics at the University of Pisa. The letter was a long treatise on Galileo’s thoughts on Copernicus’s ideas and religion, arguing that science and astronomy should not be overpowered by religious doctrin . (He would later expand this into his Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina.) As with many of Galileo’s writings at the time, the letter was copied and disseminated widely, and eventually, a friar named Niccolò Lorini forwarded it to the Inquisition in Rome in 1615.

This is where things get tricky. Galileo claimed that the version of the letter Lorini sent was doctored to be more inflammatory. He sent a less controversial version of the letter to a friend, saying that it was the original document and should be forwarded to the Vatican, essentially to clear his name. But scholars have never been able to be totally sure if he was telling the truth about the letter being doctored.

This newly discovered letter suggests that he was lying, and that he himself was looking to tone down his rhetoric to appease the Catholic Church and keep authorities from quashing the spread of heliocentric ideas. The original copy found in the Royal Society archives shows changes to the wording in what appears to be Galileo’s handwriting. The seven-page letter, signed “G.G.,” includes changes like swapping the word “false” for the more slippery “look different from the truth,” changing “concealing” to “veiling,” and other edits that seek to tone down the rhetoric that inflamed Church leaders. The wording and handwriting corresponds to similar writing by Galileo at the time. Based on this finding, it seems that Galileo did seek to make his ideas more palatable to the Catholic Church in the hopes of escaping persecution by the Inquisition.

Discovered on a research trip by science historian Salvatore Ricciardo of Italy's University of Bergamo, the letter may have been overlooked in the Royal Society archives because it was cataloged as being dated October 21, 1613 rather than the date it actually bears, December 21, 1613. However, it’s unclear how it came to the Royal Society in the first place. The document is the subject of a forthcoming article by Ricciardo and his colleagues in the Royal Society journal Notes and Records, according to Nature.

The minor changes Galileo made did not successfully hold off the Church’s crackdown on heliocentrism. In 1616, the Inquisition ordered Galileo to stop teaching or defending the theory, and several of his books were subsequently banned. He would stand trial again almost two decades later, in 1633, on suspicion of holding heretical thoughts. He was found guilty and sentenced to house arrest, where he remained until his death in 1642.

[h/t Ars Technica]

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