3. A fisherman’s tavern and oyster bar

An aerial view of Ellis Island.
An aerial view of Ellis Island.

Samuel Ellis, a New York merchant, bought the island in 1774. Taking advantage of the bustling harbor around the island, Ellis built a tavern and oyster bar on the island where sailors and fishermen could stop by to grab a meal, sip on a drink, and enjoy the views of the harbor.

Ellis tried to sell “that pleasant situated island,” in 1785, but couldn’t find any takers. He died in 1794 with the island still in his possession. Willing it to his unborn grandchild, the island would be passed on so long as that grandchild turned out to be a son and named after Samuel. Ellis’ daughter eventually gave birth to a son and named him Samuel after her father, but, sadly, the child died in infancy. In 1800, the State of New York took control of the island, along with Governor’s Island and Bedloe Island, which would later become Liberty Island. Despite this change of control, the Ellis family still maintained ownership of the island.