The extended Ištvanović family had already traveled half the world by the time they reached Ellis Island from Buenos Aires on 23 July 1904. Most likely Mačvaya Roma originally from the city of Šabac in northwestern Serbia, their surname had been latinized as ‘Estevanovich’ after migrating to Argentina in the early 1900s, but their ever-roaming spirit remained. Stepping aboard the S.S. Tennyson for a month-long, 7000 nautical mile journey across the Atlantic, this group of 20 were venturing together to join a scattered but resilient network of Roma peoples who had already established a foothold in North America. To join their family and friends in St. Louis, the group would first have to carefully navigate and overcome obstacles they immediately faced while trying to enter the Golden Door. Upon landing, however, the entire group was detained, held for special inquiry, and each family member was summarily declared a “Likely Public Charge”. Although they would hire legal counsel, successfully present additional family members to testify on their behalf, and produce supporting documentation to fight the claim, they were unable to overcome unwritten law which singled out Roma for exclusion. As they waited in legal limbo, heads of each family filed several formal appeals to overturn the decision, to no avail. Augustus Sherman, then a high-ranking clerk at Ellis Island who oversaw special inquiry hearings, captured at least three photo portraits of the family during their 10+ weeks in detention before a final deportation order was handed down, blocking their entry, and returning the entire group to Argentina. Sherman’s ‘Servian Gypsies’ portrait serves as a jumping off point for a deeper examination of less studied aspects of Roma migration to the Americas
Somewhere outside the laws and statutes regulating immigration to the United States, lies practice. While there was nothing on the books that should have prevented Roma from entering the at Immigration Ports across the United States, there was a concerted behind-the-scenes effort to constrain entry. The lengthy archival paper trail that accompanies the Estevanovich family's time at Ellis Island exposes the federal government's covert tactics in excluding Roma from entry. Decidedly unhidden, however, was public press coverage of Roma immigration and settlement; throughout the late 19th and early 20th century, Roma were regularly characterized in the press as “undesirable immigrants”, a people who could never be fully assimilated or Americanized.
Sherman’s Serbian Gypsies portraits taken at Ellis Island would serve as photo stock for visually illustrating the face of Roma exclusion in the press, books, magazines, as well as for lantern slides accompanying public lectures. The public could then rest assured that immigration authorities were keeping America safe from the “Gypsy menace”.
Ironically, the extra (negative) attention Roma and other ethnic groups received in the media is what makes the work of deciphering Sherman's Ellis Island portraits possible.
Assembling the clues
Captions or annotations were sometimes included on early prints of Sherman's photographs. Sherman made some of the these in his own hand on the photos, their verso or by typing in light areas of a print; others who played some role in a photo's distribution captioned them as well, possibly years after the photos were shot. Such annotations may appear to be invitations to explore identity further, but in reality many are vague, inaccurate, misleading—or they simply record an ethnicity, reflecting a preoccupation with racial "types" which passed as a form of scientific evidence during the first half of the 20th century. The date for Sherman's Serbian Gypsies has been recorded or ascribed to different photographic prints as 1902, 1905 and 1906; the image has also been captioned Rome Family, Hungarian Gypsies and Slovenian Gypsies on different prints or as captioned in reproductions appearing in the press and other media. The conflicting dates and ascribed ethnicities make research into the subjects' identity prohibitive, but after discovering that Sherman's photos had a habit of turning up in a variety of contemporaneous publications (newspapers, books, periodicals, government documents), it becomes easier for the researcher to set boundaries by comparing dates and usage.1
Locating any relatively concurrent use or commentary is an essential step in deciphering anonymous but widely circulated photographs. In the case of Sherman's Serbian Gypsies, there were a number, with one standing out as the likely earliest use of the photo: a New York Times article from 12 February 1905 titled "Four Years of Progress at Ellis Island". This full-page article reproduced the above image with the following caption: 'Hungarian Gypsies, all of whom were deported'. Though the caption wasn't specific as to when the subjects were deported, the publication date was first clue to help me narrow the search and eliminate some of the attributed dates. Because the photo was shot outdoors and the subjects are hardly dressed for a New York winter, my first assumption was that the photo dated from at least the summer or early fall of the previous year. Sherman started his photographic work in April 1904, partly at the behest of William Williams, Commissioner of Immigration at Ellis Island, so I started a more focused search within this timeframe.
Digging deeper into newspapers and periodicals from the time period for any mention about the arrival and/or deportation of Roma peoples, a few patterns quickly became apparent: Roma were periodically getting press and all of it was disparaging, playing up racist stereotypes that persist to this day. Newspaper articles asserted that Roma were kidnapping babies, casting spells on whites, stealing, menacing upright citizens, poisoning wells—and more and more were slipping across the borders, or at least trying to do so. 1904 was a particularly busy year for this ethnic group in the U.S. and Canadian press. Dozens of syndicated stories reported on their constant movements, suspicious activities, and deportations. Among the reports, few have anything remotely positive to say about the behavior of Roma in North America.
After many false starts, I eventually located two stories in The New York Times and The Evening World that appeared to correspond with Sherman's photo and caption. As it turned out, the brief article from August 1904 gave some crucial detail while leaving out certain key facts, simultaneously revealing both the institutional and popular prejudice of the time. The fact that the subsequent 1905 article referenced the group's earlier deportation indicated that the NY Times journalists were already familiar with the story, or that Sherman supplied them with that information along with the photograph when interviewing William Williams, Commissioner of Immigration at Ellis Island, and others at Ellis Island for the lengthy 1905 article. In any case, deportations were rare at Ellis Island, typically running at about 2% of all arrivals, so the chances of a mismatch became less likely. Of course newspapers didn't report on all deportations, but ones that were unusual or exotic in terms of ethnic composition, (Roma, Chinese, South Asians, North Africans, etc.), violent or salacious, garnered special attention in the press.
As a rule, Roma migrants didn't hide their characteristic style of dress and often traveled in large groups composed of immediate and extended family members, invariably attracting near instant attention from the press. Truthfulness and objectivity in their reporting was another matter.
Given the New York press' fairly regular reportage on Ellis Island related stories, there must have been well-established lines of communication between Ellis Island officials and newspapers. Or beat reporters were frequent visitors to the island, where they would wait for an angle on an unusual detention/deportation story to mine; or to shock readers with tales of immigrant hoards stricken with dangerous contagions; or of public charges poised to drain the resources of the state; or of menacing undesirables posing a grave threat to society—all of which required the Golden Door to be guarded so as to preserve law and order. Sometimes all of these elements could be combined in one piece, with one ethnic group.2
Look at the picture
The NY Times article speaks of the impending deportation of "Twenty Servian Gypsies" and gives the date of their arrival on the S.S. Tennyson as 23 July 1904. After cross-referencing all of the source material, including records certified by the Tennyson ship's master and immigrant inspectors at Ellis Island along with other documents discussed below, I concluded that the families were one and the same. There are 13 people depicted in Sherman's photo from what appears to be four separate families. Husbands stand behind wives with some of their children sitting, most of them looking away. Another photo isolates one part of the extended family, reversing the roles and shows the husband seated and mother with daughter standing. These were posed photos with a colorfully-dressed and exotic ethnic group who needed no props nor symbolic backgrounds for it to captivate the viewer, unlike a number of other photos by Sherman. In general, the subjects appear quite at ease; some smile while others look at the camera intently but not with much concern. Whether they were "proper" immigrants or not, they were the show.
The Tennyson's ship's manifest for this date records the arrival of 20 members of the extended Estevanovich family: four adult males, four adult females and 12 children, seven of which were two and under. All were listed as 'Servians' originally sailing from Buenos Aires with six stops at ports in Uruguay, Brazil and Barbados. Four of the adults were literate and all were judged to be in good health and not to require further physical examination. The men were all listed as laborers and their last place of residence was given as Buenos Aires. Together they carried with them an enormous sum of cash: $595 = over $18,500 in 2021 dollars.
Subsequent documents revealed that some or all of the family was from Šabac, Serbia, while five of the youngest children were born in Argentina. After living in Argentina for several years, it appears that the family name was latinized from the Serbian Ištvanović to Estevanovich or Stevanovich.
A steamship company clerk that processed the group before embarkation at the port of origin added most of the details in dark ink, while an immigration officer at Ellis Island added additional observations and amendments in the various fields using a lighter pen. The acronym "SI" was appended to the left of their names, indicating that the emigrants were to be held before a Board of Special Inquiry to assess whether they should be allowed to enter the U.S. as immigrants. All family members were marked as such.
According to the manifest, the final destination for the entire Estevanovich family was St. Louis, Missouri, where two unnamed brothers were staying or working at the Jacob Weiss Saloon, an establishment owned by an Austro-Hungarian immigrant. Their stated final destination also happened to be host to the great event of the year: The Louisiana Purchase Exposition, i.e. the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, which had begun just a few months before the family's arrival. Based on the manifest, it's impossible to say what the group planned to do once they arrived in St. Louis, but the Fair just might have had something to do with their emigration.3
One of the women was pregnant and two of the children were less than two months old, further complicating what was already a precarious journey. They had spent three to four weeks traveling by steamship [in steerage] up the coast of South America, through the Caribbean until reaching New York, but their journey wasn't yet halfway over in terms of distance and just beginning in terms of duration.
Discrimination, Detention, Deportation
Corresponding with the NY Times article, an entry on the Record of Aliens Held for Special Inquiry sheet notes that all 20 members of the Estevanovich family were ultimately deported back to Argentina, again on the Tennyson and at the expense of the steamship company.
But not as immediately as the Times article implied and this delay is what possibly led to the right circumstance for the photographs to coalesce. The Estevanovichs didn't leave Ellis Island until 4 October 1904, over 2.5 months from the day they landed, giving Sherman plenty of opportunity to photograph the group. Sherman happened to be well-placed within Ellis Island to monitor detainees; during the early 1900s, he clerked at Special Inquiry hearings and appeals against deportation orders; eventually, he went on to supervise all appeals support staff. Such a position gave him a bird's eye view not of the flood of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island but rather a specific class of immigrants: those in detention.
The Estevanovich family was detained on the grounds that if allowed to enter the U.S., they would become a "Likely Public Charge" (LPC). LPC was a frequently employed but in this case entirely disingenuous claim considering that the family was flush with money, were joining immediate family, and were in good health.4 Regardless, the Estevanovichs were unable to overcome the LPC charge.
The final dismissals came over a week after the NY Times article claimed the decision had already been made. The appeals took longer to accommodate, in part because the family was waiting for two witnesses (a brother and a son/nephew of three of the Estevanovich men) to arrive and submit sworn affidavits on the group's behalf. In any case, denial meant deportation and even after four hearings before the Board of Special Inquiry on 24 July (all families), one rehearing on 31 July (Andrija/Andreas) and four appeals delivered on 19 August (all families), nothing changed.
Although there was no state provision, laws or federal statute that specifically singled out Roma for exclusion at ports of entry, the real reasons for their detention and ultimate deportation clearly had more to do with race-based discrimination rather than any regulatory provision put in place to limit the influx of public charges into the United States. As the Times article bluntly noted: "...they were not desirable immigrants." Other statements from Ellis Island officials made during the hearings would echo the language in the Times.
We know this because transcripts of the Special Inquiry hearings and related documents for the Estevanovich family have been preserved by NARA—only because the initial negative outcomes had been appealed—offering a fascinating glimpse into the forgone conclusions of the board. In each case, after a half dozen or so perfunctory questions by two inspectors and the chair of the inquiry, a similar motion ordering deportation was abruptly made for each family. Below is an excerpt from Jeverem's transcript, which is virtually identical to the other three:
Mr. Paul: How did you support yourself before you came to this country?
Jeverem Estevanovich: We have been farm hands
Mr. Paul: Did you ever attempt to enter this country before and were refused admission and deported at that time?
Jeverem Estevanovich: I have never been in this country before.
Mr. Paul: I move the exclusion of the alien immigrants before the Board as likely to become a public charge. This alien is encumbered with his wife, who is pregnant and two very young children; he has an inadequate sum of money to preclude the possibility of their becoming public charges until such time as they would become self-supporting if at all. This class of immigrants are as a rule wandering, professional beggars, fortune tellers, and on the whole very undesirable for admission to this country. 5
The motion was seconded, then the chair declared that the aliens are unanimously excluded as likely to become public charges and ordered deported at the expense of the steamship company which brought them to the U.S. The line of questioning ended with the motion's acceptance. Hearings for each family head took place on 24 July, just a day after the group's arrival at Ellis Island. With each testimony, a copy of a letter from the Consulado de la Republica Argentine en St. Louis, MO, dated six weeks before the family's arrival, was entered into the record. The letter was sent to Commissioner Williams, prior to the group's arrival on the Tennyson. In a perfectly unequivocal manner, it stated that the entire family was expected by family members in St. Louis—who were ready to accommodate them—and that the group should come to the consulate for any assistance in locating their relatives. Though the letter appears to have not been discussed to any substantial degree, it nonetheless shows a high level of preparation on the part of the group. How many other emigrants could have produced such a document?
Did your wife ever tell fortunes?
On 31 July, a rehearing was held for the case of Andreas Estevanovich and family, apparently at the request of Commissioner Williams. Andreas was ostensibly the head of the entire group, and he was being accused by a "man from the Deporting Division" of having attempted to enter the country in November 1903, only to have been denied entry and deported; Andreas denied the claim made by the inspector in this and subsequent statements. Through the proceedings, we learn that two of his sons and a daughter were already in the U.S. and that one of them, 25-year-old Stefan Stevanovich, had traveled from St. Louis to Ellis Island in order to serve as a witness for his father (Andreas) during the rehearing.
Chairman Coe: On what ship did you come to this port sometime last fall?
Andreas Estevanovich: I don't know, I could not tell.
Chairman Coe: What month was it you were sent back?
Andreas Estevanvich: I could not tell you; I do not recollect it.
Chairman Coe: Was it in October or November?
Andreas Estevanvich: (no answer)
Chairman Coe: What was the name under which you came her last fall?
Andreas Estevanvich: Only one name I have.
[Stefan Stevanovich is sworn in]
Mr. Hise: Have you any money saved?
Stefan Stevanovich: Yes, sir
Mr. Hise: How much?
Stefan Stevanovich: $500
Mr. Hise: Where is that money?
Stefan Stevanovich: With me
Mr. Hise: Show it?
Stefan Stevanovich: (Shows $500 in gold)
Mr. Jackson: What have you been doing in St. Louis?
Stefan Stevanovich: Working at any kind of work, underground, in factories, and any kind of work. I will pay for him if I have to pay $500, he is my father.
Mr. Jackson: These aliens came to this country on the S.S. Tennyson, November 20, 1903; were made S.I., and were excluded by a Board of Special Inquiry on November 23, 1903 as persons liable to become public charges. At that hearing the opinion of the Board was unanimous, and, aside from that, special stress was laid upon the fact that "if there is such a thing as an undesirable class of immigrants that come to this country, the immigrants before the Board are certainly within that class." [...] I also believe that they do belong to a peculiarly undesirable class. [...] My opinion is that he [Andreas Estevanovich] is a gypsy or has maintained himself after the fashion of a gypsy. I move to exclude them as likely to become a public charge.
Mr. Hise: There being no evidence submitted before the Board that these people are other than what they profess to be, viz, farmers; also the fact that the man, to my mind, is capable of supporting his family; he shows £41, which he says he has obtained by his own exertions; he has three children in this country, one of whom appears here and exhibits $500, in gold, of his earnings; he appears to be a hard working man. Believing there is no likelihood of these people becoming public charges, I, therefore, move to admit them.
Chairman Coe: They are excluded.
(FORMER DECISION SUSTAINED) 6
The one dissenting voice throughout all of the hearings came from Mr. Hise and his opinion was referenced in subsequent documents filed on behalf of the family, to no avail.
Despite the outcome, Stefan remained in New York and together with another relative of Andreas who had just come forward, a younger brother named Thomas Michael, they retained the services of an attorney from a Manhattan law firm to represent the entire Estevanovich family in an attempt to reverse the decision of the Board.
The head of each Estevanovich family wished to formally appeal the Board of Inquiry's initial decision and rehearing, but new evidence would be needed. Stefan and Thomas made sworn affidavits in support of an appeal to be made before another convening of the Board of Special Inquiry. Thomas' affidavit stated that he had been in the U.S. since the mid 1880s, that he and his brothers were all born in "Shabats, Servia" (Šabac, Serbia) but was now a naturalized U.S. citizen who at no point during his stay in the U.S. had became a public charge, that he was a successful small business owner as a coppersmith in New York (he had $5000 in savings), and was willing to support the Estevanovich family financially should the need arise. Additional evidence was entered, including copies of telegrams, submitted by Stefan, from the Argentine Consulate in St. Louis dating from January and June 1904 that indicated Andreas had not attempted to enter the U.S. in November of the previous year. Within a week, the sworn affidavits and evidence were sent to both Commissioner Williams at Ellis Island, as well as to the U.S. Commissioner-General of Immigration in Washington D.C., Frank Pierce Sargent.
On the same day that attorneys for the Estevanovich family submitted their first affidavit, it appears that Ellis Island officials unsuccessfully attempted to deport the entire group on the same ship they came in on, i.e. the S.S. Tennyson. According to a letter by agents of the ship to Commissioner Williams, the Tennyson could not accommodate such a large group at the last minute, so they were sent back to detention. Within a few days, the affidavits were submitted and received. The four briefs filed on behalf of the appellants concisely address the unfounded statements made by Board officials and offer sound arguments against their unfairness. Moreover, the prejudice of Board officials was called out by attorneys for the family in a manner unusually forthright for the time:
There is nothing in the law prohibiting gipsies, whatever that term signifies, from entering this country. The law does require the exclusion of 'professional beggars'; but these immigrants are neither gipsies nor beggars. There is not the slightest evidence in the case to support the statements of the inspector...
The law of the land does not permit even aliens to be excluded because they belong to an 'undesirable class of immigrants.' [...] There is nothing in the statue that gives the Board of Inquiry the power arbitrarily to determine who is and who is not desirable for admission to this country. Their duty is to administer and obey the law. 7
The attorneys were correct, but in the end their arguments mattered little. In this case, the Board had deferred judgement on the next steps to the Department of Commerce and Labor in Washington D.C., where officials reviewed the material and quickly set out a course of action, recommending deportation on two flimsy provisions that state:
'If he elects to appeal from said order of deportation, he must...file notice of such appeal promptly'
(Rule 9 of Department Regulations)
'No appeal will be considered after any such alien has in consequence of an adverse decision of a Board of Special Inquiry, been transferred from an immigrant station to be deported' (Rule 8 of Department Regulations)
The Department must, therefore, decline to entertain the appeal, leaving the decision of the Board of Special Inquiry as the final adjudication as to the right of the appellants to land in the United States. 8
And so because the group did not act promptly with their appeal (a dubious claim nowhere mentioned before) and because the physical act of having the group being transferred out of detention and taken to the pier for deportation violated Rule 8—despite the fact that the group was not accepted on board the Tennyson—is what ultimately nullified their final appeal. None of the letters between Ellis Island and Washington officials acknowledge the new affidavits or evidence. The case ended abruptly on the technicalities referenced above, most specifically Rule 8: the letter from the Assistant Secretary of the Department of Commerce and Labor to the Commissioner of Ellis Island was dated 18 August; all appeals were dismissed on 19 August.
Despite the quick dismissal, the group remained on Ellis Island for another six weeks, but no additional records concerning their detention are available. All that seems to remain are some notes entered on the August ship's manifest detailing their deportation, including for a newborn.
Maria Estevanovich, age 24, gave birth to her child (technically a U.S. citizen, or stateless?) in the hospital at Ellis Island on 19 September. The unnamed child was barely two weeks old when this extended family of now more than 20 was deported, but that wasn't the end of the Estevanovich's attempts to emigrate to the U.S., nor for other groups of Roma.
Roma on the Tennyson and Carpathia
Incredibly, the same passenger liner that carried the Estevanovich family to Ellis Island in 1904 also transported other extended families of East European Roma from South America to the U.S. Starting even before the Estevanovich's attempted emigration and continuing until at least the 1910s, some of these would-be immigrants would also be deported back to their port of embarkation—and would again have their detention and deportation reported on in the New York press.9
From another ship, a story would emerge that overlaps in time and overall narrative with the Estevanovich deportation—at more than ten times the scale. In early September 1904, when the Estevanovich's were still in detention awaiting deportation, a packed steamer sailing from Liverpool arrived at the Ellis Island immigration station. It was the S.S. Carpathia and it carried over 2000 emigrants from all over Europe. More than 200 Roma were among the passengers in steerage, constituting what could very well be the largest single attempted migration of Roma to North America.10 According to reporting at the time (which claimed to be citing immigration officials), it would also eventually amount to the largest deportation of a single ethnic group arriving at Ellis Island. By the end of September, about two-thirds would be deported but not before attracting a number of sensationalist news pieces in nationally syndicated press. Who were they? Mostly Russian Roma, many of which had already traveled widely across the Europe and even the Americas. The migration must have taken a great deal of planning and coordination—and might have been hastened by the Britain's increasingly intolerant immigration policies—but the group was described by their self-proclaimed spokesperson/interpreter, José Michel (i.e. 26-year old Joe Mitchell), as "...not Gypsies, but just a band of rovers."11
Others, including additional members of the extended Estevanovich family, would attempt to emigrate to the U.S. in 1911. Unlike many groups of Roma who tried the same, this group of 25 met with success in legally entering the U.S. and we can say with certainty that at least some of them went on to become naturalized citizens. Two ship's manifests from 1910 and 1911 which document the emigration of this second group of Estevanovich's, first from Cuba, then via Puerto Rico to Ellis Island, help to reveal a great deal more about their identities and origins.
The July 1910 ship's manifest is incredible document, filled with barely legible but fascinating insights into these well-traveled Roma. The inspection regime of customs officials is also exposed, with telling nuances about immigration procedures in U.S. controlled Insular areas.
Here we see one family of 25, most born in Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzegovina, but with some born in France, Brazil and two different cities in a newly independent Cuba. At least two separate immigration inspectors added details in Spanish and English. Costa Estevanovich was apparently the head of the family and he carried with him the savings of the entire group: $4000, which is a staggering $115,000 in 2021 dollars.
According to notes in the manifest, the group had no permanent residence and had been away from Europe for 13 years. Their final destination was given as Chicago Illinois, but Costa “[couldn't] give [an] address, except [that] it is known as “Gypsy Place”. The occupation of the adults in the group was recorded as 'artista' in Spanish and 'actor' in English and the inspector blithely noted that they carried with them "Certificates for Chicago via New York...except for 2 dead ones."
The group made their way from Ponce, Puerto Rico to New York in January 1911. Two more children were born to the family by the time of this second voyage.
Despite the long history of Roma being turned away at immigration stations and border points throughout the U.S., this part of the Estevanovich family appears to have passed through the inspection regime at Ellis Island without incident. No detention, no special inquiry hearing, no scandalous reporting in newspapers—no deportation. Some, perhaps even all, went on to becoming naturalized U.S. citizens. While it remains unclear just how this family is related to the 1904 Estevanovich arrival, it does point to the fact that both as individuals and as a group, Romani peoples tenaciously found ways to the U.S. during the early 20th century.12
|Geljan dade tu dureste,|
Te barjova, bizo tute
tu te na džana
To amal avilo
Me pučhav le, dade,
Dal' khere tu ka ave
Ti slika dikhava,
Tuke me rovava
|You went, oh father, far away|
You left us,
To grow up without you
Without knowing you
Your friend came
I asked him, oh father,
Whether you'll come home
I look at your picture
And cry to you 13
Sherman's two images of the extended Estevanovich family date from 1904, making them some of his earliest portraits of Ellis Island arrivals. Shortly after he took the photos, Sherman would be regularly photographing aliens awaiting deportation, perhaps as part of his official duties at Ellis Island. It wouldn't be long before his images would travel beyond the island.
By 1905, Sherman's portraits were turning up in a variety of print publications, including newspapers, government documents, books and several periodicals. Published in 1906, Edward Steiner's convoluted but essentially pro-immigration On the trail of the immigrant, featured Sherman's Serbian Gypsies group portrait with the dubious caption: "WITHOUT THE PALE — Not always is the adverse decision of the Commissioner so easy as in the case of some Servian gypsies who, deported from New York, found their way to Canada and quickly made police records." While other captions also highlight the group's deportation, this is the only one I've discovered that makes a claim about what happened to them after leaving Ellis Island.14
Besides the contemporaneous pickup of Sherman's photos, both Estevanovich portraits above have been reworked by contemporary artists such as Catherine Bancroft and Ai Weiwei, who were drawn to their old world/new world ambiguity during the latest, ugly iteration of the US's long-running debate around immigration. It's not clear whether they or any of the many other artists who have refashioned Sherman's portraits realized that his work didn't always capture actual immigrants. But in a sense, this makes their work even more powerful—particularly if the often complicated and heartbreaking backstories can be brought to light.15
By untangling the family's suspended time at Ellis Island, the Estevanovich narrative reveals more about unwritten U.S. policies of discrimination and exclusion rather than immigration, settlement and citizenship—but the concepts have been persistently connected over the centuries of immigration to the U.S. While we only have a fragment of this particular group's long journey, having it illuminates the complex and frustrating path many immigrants had to navigate—especially ones extra-judiciously deemed undesirable—and upends the way one should read Sherman's portraits, no matter the form they're presented in.
It's been over 100 years since Sherman stood behind his large, cumbersome box camera and captured this determined group of would-be immigrants on the roof garden of Ellis Island. It's hard to imagine that either he or his subjects could know that at the beginning of the 20th century the images produced would outlive their own lives, but not the policies and prejudice that brought them together in the first place.
A few years after the deportation of the Estevanovich family, some traces emerge of two of Andreas' sons in an unexpected place: Butte, Montana.
Stefan, who appeared at Andreas' rehearing, and his brother Milan were part of a large group of 'Servian Gypsies' living just outside of Butte that were arrested for vagrancy and ordered to leave the city. In a typically dubious news article, other claims of theft, begging and stealing wood were also made. The story is fragmentary, and it remains unclear what became of the group after their time in Montana. However, national news reporting from rural America to Ellis Island kept consistent pace with American Gypsies' shifting geography—invariably leveling accusations of public nuisance, theft, larceny, kidnapping and violence. It would be decades before their portrayal in the press would approach even a negligible degree of fairness.
From the 1920s on, the Estevanovich family name can be found in U.S. Census returns and vital records, particularly around Alameda County, California.16
1 Sherman's Serbian Gypsies first appeared in a New York Times article from 12 February 1905 titled "Four Years of Progress at Ellis Island", but the photo quickly turned up in a variety of other publications, including:
- "Is there an immigrant peril? The popular impression that the scum of Europe invades the United States vigorously combated by qualified experts", The National civic federation review. v.2 no. 3 (June 1905)
- "Exclusion or suspension of immigration necessary", The Railroad Trainman v.22:2 (Sept 1905)
- "Good and bad immigrants at our gates", The Christian Herald (1 Nov 1905)
- Grosvenor, G. Hovey., National Geographic Society (U.S.). (1907). Scenes from every land: a collection of 250 illustrations from the National geographic magazine, picturing the people, natural phenomena, and animal life in all parts of the world. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society
- Caffin, Dorothy, "The Stranger within our gates", The Public health nurse. v.11 no.9 (September 1919). Published 15 years after it was taken, this journal's use of the photo simultaneously shows the persistence of Sherman's work and yet another genre of uptake. It is an alternate (re-touched) photo of the same group of 13, one not preserved elsewhere.
2 In 1920, the New York City News Association hired Remsen Crawford to literally "...'cover' Ellis Island as one who could interpret that institution and its mission." See: "Contributors' Gallery" Outlook, Vol. 142 (April 7, 1926), 533. Available via HathiTrust.
3 I subsequently found there were a number of circus performers and animal trainers among other attempted migrations of East European Roma to the U.S. via South America; this included other parts of the Estevanovich family. With massive exhibits such as Hagenbeck's Zoological Paradise and Animal Circus, the 1904 World's Fair would have put their skills in demand. However, transcripts from the Estevanovich hearings indicate that all the adult males intended on performing manual farm labor once they got to St. Louis, as they had done in Argentina. A number of newspaper articles also indicate that the Fair was attracting Roma from all over the U.S. See: ROSS, Albert, Gypsies Around St. Louis. Reaping a Harvest. The World’s Fair Has Drawn Many Bands, in The Sun, Chanute, Kansas, 31 October 1904, p. 4.
4 From the late 1890s to the mid 1910s, LPC designations accounted for over two-thirds of all exclusions. See: PARK, L. (2011). Criminalizing Immigrant Mothers: Public Charge, Health Care, and Welfare Reform. International Journal of Sociology of the Family, 37 (1), 29.
5 FILE 46,584, Estevanovich; 4-Families-appeal; Records of the INS Records of the Central Office, letters received (early immigration records) 1882-1906; Special Inquiry held at Ellis Island, N.Y., on July 24, 1904, "Case of Jeverem ESTEVANOVICH", Record Group 85; National Archives Building, Washington, DC.
6 ibid. "Re-hearing in excluded case of ESTEVANOVICH, Andreas, 31 July 1904". It is possible the accusation that Andreas had unsuccessfully attempted to enter the U.S. in November 1903 had something to do with Sherman taking photos of the family in 1904. Two months after the Estevanovich deportation, U.S. Commissioner-General of Immigration F.P. Sargent, requested that photographs of all debarred and deported immigrants from several categories (ex-convicts, anarchists, prostitutes) be sent to the Bureau of Immigration in D.C., apparently for redistribution to main ports (Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, etc.) so immigration officials there could use the photos to help to prevent the attempted re-entry of previously excluded individuals—exactly what Andreas was being accused of.
7 ibid. "Brief for Appellants (Nicholas and Andreas Estevanovich)", submitted by Wing, Putnam & Burlingham, attorneys for appellants, to the Secretary of Commerce and Labor, 6 August 1904. The presumption by inspectors of the groups' ethnicity as 'gypsy' is implicit in questions like "Did your wife ever tell fortunes?" but nowhere in the hearings does an official ask the question "Are you a gypsy?" The Estevanovich attorneys actually deny that the family was gypsy and elsewhere say that "These Servians, instead of being an undesirable class, are a set of thrifty men." Ironically, being Roma in early 1900s should have put them in the opposite position as immigrants. According to the U.S. Immigration Commission's Dictionary of Races or Peoples, Roma were considered to be, biologically speaking, of the "Aryan race...and therefore Caucasian" because of their Sanskrit-based language, but this would matter little in the face of the centuries-long, global discrimination against Gypsy, Roma and Traveller peoples. See: Folkmar, Daniel, and C. Folkmar Elnora. "Dictionary of Races or Peoples, Presented by Mr. Dillingham, Dec. 5, 1910." Reports of the Immigration Commission. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office (1911). Available via Internet Archive.
8 ibid. "Departmental Letter No. 45,584", Department of Commerce and Labor, 18 August 1904
9 A number of other "Serbian gypsies" sailed from Buenos Aires to New York during the same time period, including: a group of 20 in August 1902, also from Šabac like the Estevanovich's; a group of 39 in November 1903—the group from which Ellis Island officials would accuse Andreas as having been a part of; a group of 15 in June 1904 that indicated the same final destination as the Estevanovich family, i.e. St. Louis, Missouri. Some members of the 1903 group—who had sailed on the Tennyson—were ultimately deported, while the 1902 and 1904 groups all apparently entered without incident. Others came directly from Europe and met with mixed success, such as a group of 50 who tried to enter in August 1901 but were all deported. Years later, in July 1909, a group of 25 Bulgarian Roma [Tanazoff and Petrovich families], who had left Buenos Aires on the Tennyson for New York but were originally from Thesolonika, were denied entry at Ellis Island. After five days of detention, the entire group was deported back to Argentina. All 25 were classified as LPC and deemed undesirable [i.e. "professional beggars"] by Ellis Island officials, even though they were healthy and carried over $1000 in gold. According to several newspaper reports, including a lengthy one in the New York Tribune, the group resisted deportation and violently clashed with officials. The reporting was more incredulous than anything, but the deportation was real and echoes the Estevanovich story, which took place exactly five years earlier.
10 Details on most of the group's arrival and deportation can be seen in the Carpathia's manifest of alien passengers [image 176, 190-201, 205] and record of aliens held for special inquiry [image 338-341]. It appears they first assembled in London before departing from Liverpool for the U.S. Among them were Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Greek nationals; the last residence for most was given as Libau, Russia (i.e. Liepāja, Latvia). According to news reports, much of their detention was spent on board the Carpathia, due to an outbreak of measles which had stricken over 40 of the passengers. The children in particular were hardest hit and required medical treatment onshore at a hospital in Brooklyn. Five died during detention and even more on the ships that deported them back to the United Kingdom.
11 See "Gypsies Detained at Island" New York Times. Sep 3, 1904, pg. 14. Available via Internet Archive.
12 Other NARA documents in the Estevanovich family case file indicate a much wider network of Serbian Roma existed in Argentina during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There were more Estevanovich's from Šabac and surrounding areas (i.e. Mačvanski Prnjavor) and more Roma from the same broader area in Serbia that attempted to emigrate to the U.S., again on the S.S. Tennyson. The Estevanovich name persists to this day among Roma communities in Argentina as well as in Brazil, where relatives or decedents have led the Circo Le Cirque (Família Stevanovich) for over one hundred years.
13 From Geljan dade, a folk song as sung by Šaban Bajramović (1936-2008); translation from Romani to English by Ismail Filip Hromčík. Šaban Bajramović was a Serbian Roma vocalist and recording artist with a remarkable career spanning more than five decades. Geljan dade and its Serbian language counterpart Prokleta je Amerika, offer two different takes on early 20th century migration to the U.S. The same stanzas in the Serbian language version read: "Prokleta je Amerika, I zlato što sja. Šta mi vredi tvoja slika. Kada oca nemam ja...Ja te znam sa slika. Nemam uspomena." [Damn America, And the gold that glitters. What's your photo worth to me? When I do not have a father...I know you from photographs, I have no memories.]
14 Three weeks after the Estevanovich deportation, a few articles appearing in the Montreal Gazette [26-28 October 1904] and subsequently reported on in the U.S. press, are a likely source for Steiner's caption. They reference the initial U.S. deportation—despite the fact that these "gypsies" were naturalized U.S. citizens—the detention on the steamer Ionian, and that the prosecutor in the case "was in a position to show these immigrants belonged to a low and immoral rank of society. Their expulsion from Canada was a matter which concerned the welfare of the public...they should be subjected to a vigorous medical examination before admittance was granted." I've tracked down the ship's manifest of the Ionian and the group referred to in the article is not the Estevanovich family, but rather two families assumed to be from the large group of Roma that tried to enter the U.S on the S.S. Carpathia in September 1904. After careful review of the U.S. deportation records, incoming and outgoing U.K. passenger lists, it's evident that the two Roma families on the Ionian were not on the Carpathia, a reminder of the typically careless reporting of the day. In any case, considering their long detention on Ellis Island, it's unlikely that the Estevanovich family would have traveled back to Argentina, then boarded steamer for Canada. Before entering Port de Québec, their steamer would have made a stop at Ellis Island, where they would faced the same inspection regime as before. It should also be noted that in his book Steiner refers to Gypsies as "really a sort of parasite."
15 Long before Weiwei and other artists reimagined Sherman's images, newspaper and magazine illustrators during the early 1900s reworked his photos as well. One of the earliest was by Phillips Ward, a New York based artist whose work routinely appeared in Collier's, Harper's, and McClure's Magazine. Ward made a series of sketches drawn from Sherman's photographs, including at least one of the Estevanovich family. Copies of Ward's sketches were kept in scrapbooks by William Williams, Commissioner of Immigration at Ellis Island at the time of the Estevanovich deportation, along with dozens of prints of Sherman's photographs. Beneath the Estevanovich photo, Williams pasted in a copy of a 21 July 1909 article from The Sun which covered the violent debarment and deportation of 25 Roma. Like the Estevanovich family, this group of Roma had also come to Ellis Island via Buenos Aires on the Tennyson, exactly five years later. Was it just a coincidence that Williams interchanged the stories? Both groups travelled the same route and met with the same fate.
16 See for example, an entry for the Estevanovich family living in Washington, Alameda county on a 1930 Census return. The census enumerator defined the area on Marsh Rd. that this family and over 75 others lived in as a "Gypsy Camp". Though the census records indicates otherwise, I've discovered that older members of the family were actually born in Argentina.
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This page references:
- AUGUSTUS F. SHERMAN Serbian Gypsies, 1904
- AUGUSTUS F. SHERMAN: Group Servian Gypsies 1904
- Excluded Gypsies about to be deported [N.D.]
- AUGUSTUS F. SHERMAN Untitled, 1904
- Four Years of Progress at Ellis Island
- Estevanovich family held for special inquiry [24 July 1904]
- Estevanovich family arrival from Buenos Aires on the Tennyson [23 July 1904]
- Estevanovich family: arrival from Puerto Rico to New York [26 January 1911]
- Not desirable immigrants...
- Estevanovich family: arrival from Cuba to Puerto Rico [27 July 1910]
- DETENTION PEN—on roof of main building, Ellis Island, where emigrants held for deportation may go in fine weather
- AI WEIWEI: Lamppost banner 20