Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

The myth of Ellis Island name changes

with 4 comments


Immigrants’ surnames were changed thousands of times, but professional researchers have found that name changes were rare at Ellis Island (or at Castle Island, which was the New York port of entry prior to Ellis Island’s opening). The myth of name changes usually revolves around the concept that the immigrant was unable to communicate properly with the English-speaking officials at Ellis Island. However, this ignores the fact that Ellis Island employed hundreds of translators who could speak, read, and write the immigrants’ native tongues. It also ignores all the documentation that an immigrant needed to have in order to be admitted into the U.S.

In order to be admitted into the United States as an immigrant in the late nineteenth century or later, one had to have paperwork. Each immigrant had to have proof of identity. This would be a piece of paperwork filled out in "the old country" by a clerk who knew the language, and the paperwork would be filled out in the local language, not in English (unless the "old country" was an English-speaking country). The spelling of names on these documents generally conformed to local spellings within the immigrant’s place of origin. Even if the person traveling was illiterate and did not know how to spell his or her own name, the clerks filling out the paperwork knew the spelling of that name in the local language or could sound it out properly according to the conventions of the language used. Also, in many countries one had to obtain an exit visa in order to leave. Again, exit visas had to be filled out by local clerks who knew the language, and exit visas were written in the local language.

A ship’s passenger list had to be prepared by the captain of the ship or his representatives before the ship left the old country. This list was created from the travelers’ documents. These documents were created when the immigrant purchased his or her ticket. It is unlikely that anyone at the local steamship office was unable to communicate with this man. Even when the clerk selling the ticket did not speak the language of the would-be emigrant, someone had to be called in to interpret. Also, required exit visas and other paperwork had to be examined by ticket agents before a ticket would be sold. The name was most likely recorded with a high degree of accuracy at that time.

Next, the ship’s captain or designated representative would …

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Written by LeisureGuy

30 November 2009 at 10:02 am

Posted in Daily life

4 Responses

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  1. There are many articles that come up on search engines “debunking the myth” of Ellis Island name changes, and all conveniently do now allow comments or rebuttal. They are also all the victims of what economists call blackboard projections: the kind of economic forecast you would get assuming everyone declares their income, no one cheats on their taxes, and there is no economy other than those for legal goods (i.e. any monies spent on illegal gun sales, drugs, etc. simply does not exist.)

    OFFICIALLY you needed complete and proper paperwork, yes. But then as now, a few dollars, a silver ring or a cameo slid into a willing palm made things happen that were never recorded on paper. OFFICIALLY a one for one match should be made with the ship’s manifest, but then as now, not everyone cares about doing their job that well. Exactly how many times have you ordered onion rings and got fries instead? OFFICIALLY consent would be needed to change a name, just as officially we all had what are known as Miranda rights before police had to read them to us.

    The fact is, oral history has been a means of passing down both family and canonical history for much longer than the dot-the-i cross-the-t genaeology “experts” like to admit. What an oral history says is very often true. The “expert’s” kneejerk to tell the ordinary guy on the street that whatever he believes is wrong is what is at work here. It makes them feel good, but it’s bullshit.

    Sam Metzger

    7 December 2010 at 8:30 am

  2. Hi Sam,

    Respectfully, I couldn’t disagree with you more. As an avid genealogist and researcher I’ve come across several “family histories” in my own family that were wrong. In many cases there was a small nugget of truth burried in there somewhere, but many of the important details were completely off-base.

    I’m not foolish enough to try to say that the things that you suggest never happened. It’s almost a certainty that those things did occur, from time to time. However, I will argue with you on the frequency at which those things happened. I think that those instances are the exception rather the rule.

    My family had a long-told family history that said that we were related to the famous Civil War General, Robert E. Lee. The truth is that we’re just related to another guy who’s name is Robert E. Lee who also happened to live in Leesburg, VA. So, sure, there was a nugget of truth there; Robert E. Lee was our cousin. But, the major point was completely wrong; he wasn’t the civil war general.

    There are MANY, MANY examples I could give of this type of “family history” folklore that doesn’t hold weight under scrutiny. I’ve also researched many genealogies for other people as well and most of them have a story about “3 brothers who came to America” or “Ellis Island changed our name damn them!”, etc. In every single case this has come up I’ve never found these claims to be substantiated. The passenger manifests clearly show only 1 brother, or sometimes the guy by himself. Or, the census records show that the name changed many years after arriving here. In a handful of cases I discovered instances where the family not only never had a name change, but they were never even at Ellis Island landing instead in New Jersey or Virgina.

    There are a lot of reasons why family histories are inaccurate and should be taken with a grain of salt. The most appropriate reason is the “telephone game” syndrome; information does not pass accurately from one person to the next. You can play the telephone game to see this in action. Another reason is because occaisionally a family will have a narcisstic personality type in their midst. In their mind they will fabricate information and stories to make their family history more “colorful” and pass it on to younger children, nieces and nephews who buy into the BS without realizing it. My wife’s family was a perfect example of that. Her uncle told her that they were German, originally Von Levreich, and that they came here during WWI to escape Nazi Germany. He even claimed that the had a cousin who enlisted in the German army during WWII to fight against the Americans. The truth was that during both world wars the family was a farming family that lived up north in the same area they had since the 1890’s. Further investigation revealed that her ancestor was an early settler in the New York area and was a key figure responsible for founder Oyster Bay, NY and that he was from England, not Germany. She argued at first truly believing the story her uncle told her, but I could show the paper trail going all the way back 400 years.

    If people want to believe that Ellis Island changed their names, thats fine. They can believe whatever they want. But, I would challenge them to know why it is they believe that. Did they beleive it because Uncle Joe says so, or because they’ve seen proof of it? The one question that I always ask people who believe this myth has never been answered; what motivation would a file clerk have to change someone’s name in the first place?

    Also, let’s not forget that prior to the 1940’s most families couldn’t read or write anyway and the census was taken in a door-to-door visitation. So, even if the clerk tried to tell some family “your name is now Jones” all they would have to do is tell the census taker that their name is Jonhannestoffenson. That would certainly create a record disparity that would lend weight to the notion that the clerks changed names at Ellis Island. But, I’ve never seen such an example of that. For the record, Ellis Island has a free search engine of all of their records, including copies of the passenger manifests. So, if you think that they don’t match up you can certainly check for yourself.

    Johnathan Clayborn

    22 June 2012 at 1:06 pm

  3. It’s a form of snobbery and elitism when “expert” genealogists maintain that name changes “never” occurred at Ellis Island. They insist that there was never any slip up or fraudulent behavior. I agree with Mr. Metzger. It’s absurd that the genealogy commando leaders can’t even allow for the possibility that in some rare instances the name change did happen at Ellis Island. Genealogy “experts” can be condescending and downright nasty if you don’t concede that they’re one hundred percent correct.

    Maria Bonde

    8 September 2015 at 12:58 pm

  4. I recall that Congressman O’Konski always said that his last name was spelled that way to get the Irish vote. 🙂 However, it seems to be pretty clearly a name change from some (possibly Irish) immigration clerk, at Ellis Island or elsewhere. And I have a very good friend, Mr. Beetner, whose (German) name was pretty clearly “Bittner” before some immigration clerk decided that the name is spelled (in English) just the way it sounds (in English).

    It seems perfectly clear that some foreign names were mangled in transliteration. I doubt that anyone could seriously dispute that, with any honesty.

    And though they did not go through formal immigration procedures, many (involuntary) immigrants brought to the Colonies and subsequently to the US from African quite clearly had their names changed. That should be thunderingly obvious.


    8 September 2015 at 3:41 pm

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