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Why Your Family Name Was Not Changed at Ellis Island (and One That Was)

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Between 1892 and 1954, over twelve million people entered the United States through the immigration inspection station at Ellis Island, a small island located in the upper bay off the New Jersey coast. There is a myth that persists in the field of genealogy, or more accurately, in family lore, that family names were changed there. They were not. Numerous blogs, essays, and books have proven this. Yet the myth persists; a story in a recent issue of The New Yorker suggests that it happened. This post will explore how and why names were not changed. It will then tell the story of Frank Woodhull, an almost unique example of someone whose name was changed, as proof that even if your name was changed at Ellis Island (it wasn't), it wouldn't have mattered. Confused? Read on...

Immigrants undergoing medical examination., Digital ID 416754, New York Public Library

The legend goes that officials at Ellis Island, unfamiliar with the many languages and nationalities of the people arriving at Ellis Island, would change the names of those immigrants that sounded foreign, or unusual. Vincent J. Cannato's excellent book American Passage: The History of Ellis Island explains why this did not happen:

Nearly all [...] name change stories are false. Names were not changed at Ellis Island. The proof is found when one considers that inspectors never wrote down the names of incoming immigrants. The only list of names came from the manifests of steamships, filled out by ship officials in Europe. In the era before visas, there was no official record of entering immigrants except those manifests. When immigrants reached the end of the line in the Great Hall, they stood before an immigration clerk with the huge manifest opened in front of him. The clerk then proceeded, usually through interpreters, to ask questions based on those found in the manifests. Their goal was to make sure that the answers matched. (p.402)

Inspectors did not create records of immigration; rather they checked the names of the people moving through Ellis Island against those recorded in the ship's passenger list, or manifest. The ship's manifest was created by employees of the steamship companies that brought the immigrants to the United States, before the voyage took place, when the passenger bought their ticket. The manifest was presented to the officials at Ellis Island when the ship arrived. If anything, Ellis Island officials were known to correct mistakes in passenger lists. The Encyclopedia of Ellis Island states that employees of the steamship companies,

…mostly ticket agents and pursers required no special identification from passengers and simply accepted the names the immigrants gave them. Immigrant inspectors [at Ellis Island] accepted these names as recorded in the ship's manifests and never altered them unless persuaded that a mistake had been made in the spelling or rendering of the name. Nonetheless the original name was never entirely scratched out and remained legible. (p.176)

Although it is always possible that the names of passengers were spelt wrong, perhaps by the clerk when the ticket was bought, or during transliteration, when names were translated from one alphabet to another, it is more likely that immigrants were their own agents of change. Cannato, for instance, suggests that people often changed their name in advance of migration. More commonly, immigrants would change their names themselves when they had arrived in the United States, and for a number of reasons.

Immigrants being registered at one end of the Main Hall, U. S. Immigration Station., Digital ID 1693105, New York Public Library

Someone might change their name in order to make it sound more American, to fit in with the local community, or simply because it was good for business. There is at least one instance of a small businessman arriving in the United States from Eastern Europe changing his name, at least his public name, to something that sounded Swedish, because he had settled in a Swedish neighborhood in New York City. Immigrants would sometimes officially record their name change, when naturalizing for instance, but often, as there was no law in New York State requiring it be done, no official record of a name change was made. People would just start using a different name.

John Colletta, in his book They Came in Ships, describes the immigration process at Ellis Island in more detail:

[The] Inspector [in the immigration receiving center] had in has hands a written record of the immigrant he was inspecting and, asking the same questions over again, could compare the oral statements with it. The inspectors therefore, read the names already written down on the lists, and they had at their service a large staff of translators who worked along side them in the Great Hall of the Ellis Island facility. (p.12)

Contemporary descriptions of Ellis Island do not mention name changes at Ellis Island. A search of historical newspapers using the ProQuest Historical Database produces only one story about name changes written during the time that Ellis Island was in operation.

Leonard Lyon's entertainment column Broadway Potpourri, in the Washington Post of April 10th, 1944, states that Harry Zarief, "the assistant concert master for Morton Gould," and famously a father of quadruplets, had recently changed his name back from Friedman.

Friedman. His name originally was Zarief, but when his family arrived at Ellis Island the immigration inspector told him that Zarief was too complicated, and recorded his name as "Friedman." Many years later the "Friedman" was changed back to the original Zarief. (p.9)

There are hundreds of stories about the immigration inspection station in the newspapers of the time that do not mention names being changed. In a 1922 article, titled To Be or Not to Be American in the New York Times, journalist Elizabeth Heath describes a visit to Ellis Island, and the Great Hall where immigrants were processed.

Upstairs, in the great main hall of the building, the straggling crowd is skillfully split into a dozen long lines, each leading to the desk of an inspector. Before him is spread the manifest of the steamship company, giving the required information about each steerage passenger - religion, relatives in America, amount of money, source of passage money, literacy, occupation, and the positive statement that the candidate for admission does not believe or practice polygamy or anarchy. It is a seeming miscellany of information, but each item has a direct bearing on the legality of admission. (p.41)

A letter to the Chicago Tribune advice column The Legal Friend of the People, dated September 16, 1912 discusses name changes and an application for citizenship, and mentions Ellis Island.

After having lived in the United States for five years I changed the spelling of my name. When I made my declaration to become a citizen of the United States, about a year and a half ago, I gave my name as I now spell it. Will this cause any hitch in my taking out final citizenship papers six months hence? [...] I understand that all declarations of intention to become a citizen are forwarded to New York and verified by the records at Ellis Island. When it is discovered that my name, as I spelled it when I took out my first papers, is not on the books [the ships manifests] there, will this interfere with my taking out my final naturalization papers?

The advice given in reply:

On making the application for final papers, you should spell your name as in the original application. You have the right to change the spelling without a court process. (p.6)

The idea that names were changed at Ellis Island raises lots of questions. For instance, if names were changed, what happened to the paperwork? And if inspectors were charged with changing names, why are there no records of this? Where are the lists of approved names? Where are the first hand accounts, of inspectors and immigrants? If immigrants had name changes forced upon them, why did they not simply change their name back when they entered the country? Or, if they could not, where is paperwork describing the roles of Federal officials charged with making sure that names were not changed back?

Immigrants seated on long benches, Main Hall, U.S. Immigration Station., Digital ID 417074, New York Public Library

All rather silly, perhaps. Yet the myth persists, almost exclusively in family lore. One explanation might be that we live in more enlightened times. People migrating to the United States no longer feel that they have to change their name to fit in, and so it seems strange that people would voluntarily change their name generations ago.

Marian L. Smith, in her essay American Names: Declaring Independence, suggests that another interpretation of the Ellis Island myth might be:

That an immigrant is remembering his initial confrontation with American culture. Ellis Island was not only immigrant processing, it was finding one's way around the city, learning to speak English, getting one's first job or apartment, going to school, and adjusting one's name to a new spelling or pronunciation. All these experiences, for the first few years, were the "Ellis Island experience." When recalling their immigration decades before, many immigrants referred to the entire experience as "Ellis Island."

There is always the exception to the rule. The clipping below is from the passenger list for the steamship S.S. New York, which arrived at the Port of New York, from Southampton, England, October 4th, 1908. It shows that a passenger's name has been crossed out and replaced with another, that of Mary Johnson. The clipping below that is from the United Kingdom Outward Passenger Lists and confirms that the passenger had described himself as Frank Woodhull, a clerk, and alien in the United States.

 S.S. New York (American Line) Sept 26th,1908List or manifest of alien passengers: S.S. New York (American Line) Sept 26th,1908

 S.S. New York (American Line) Sept 26th,1908United Kingdom outward passengers: S.S. New York (American Line) Sept 26th,1908The S.S. New York's passenger list includes an addendum, a page titled Record of Aliens Held for Special Inquiry. This was a list of the names of passengers disembarking from the S.S. New York, who were detained at Ellis Island. The reason given for "Mary Johnson" being held for further inspection is that "she" was travelling as Frank Woodhull "in male attire." Mr. Woodhull proved that he would not be a financial burden on the United States, and was allowed to continue his journey to New Orleans.

 S.S. New York (American Line) Sept 26th, 1908Record of aliens held for special inquiry: S.S. New York (American Line) Sept 26th, 1908The incident generated headlines in newspapers all over the country, and Frank Woodhull gave a number of interviews, where he told his story, a story that tells us much about the times. Here it is as told to the New York Times, October 5th and 6th, 1908.

My life has always been a struggle. I come of an English-Canadian family, and I have most of my fight to make all alone. Thirty years ago, when I was 20, my father died and I was thrown entirely on my own resources. I came to this country a young girl and went west to make my way. For fifteen years I struggled on. The hair on my face was a misfortune. It was often the subject of rude jest and caused me endless embarrassment. The struggle was awful, but I had to live somehow, and so I went on. God knows that life has been hard, but of the hardness of those years I cannot speak.

Then came a time fifteen years ago when I got desperate. I had been told that I looked like a man, and I knew that in Canada some women have put on men's clothes do men's work. So the thought took shape in my mind. If these women had done it why could not I, who looked like a man? I was in California at the time. I bought men's clothes and began to wear them. Then things changed. I had prospects. My occupation I have given here as canvasser, but I have done many things. I have sold books, lightning rods, and worked in stores. Never once was I suspected that I was other than Frank Woodhull. I have lived my life, and I tried to live it well. Most of the time I have been in California, but now I am going to New Orleans, where there are chances of employment. I have never attempted to take citizenship papers. I knew to do so would be either to reveal my sex or else become a law breaker. I have never been the latter. I did not know that there was a law against women wearing male attire in this State or I would have sailed to another port. My folks come originally from England and it had long been my wish to go there and take a look about. So with a measure of success the longing grew and I began to save up for my holiday. I went over in the steerage two months ago and returned the same way.

On October 8th, 1908 Woodhull returned from Europe, and passing through Ellis Island, as an alien, despite having lived in the United States for a number of years, was pulled to one side by an official who thought that he might have Tuberculosis. Erica Rand, in her book The Ellis Island Snow Globe, quotes an article that appeared in the New-York Tribune, describing "what happened when Woodhull was called for further examination:

[…] Woodhull told the surgeon "Oh, please don't examine me!" She pleaded. "I might as well tell you all. I am a woman, and have traveled in male attire for fifteen years." "(p.80)

Woodhull was brought before a Board of Special Inquiry at Ellis Island, who according to the New York Times, October 6th, declared him a "desirable immigrant [who] should be allowed to win her livelihood as she saw fit." (p.6)

Woodhull talked about how women were expected to behave, dress, and of the types of work open to them.

Women have a hard time in this world. They are walking advertisements for the milliner, the dry goods stores, the jewelers, and other shops. They live in the main only for their clothes, and now and then when a woman comes to the front who does not care for dress she is looked upon as a freak and a crank. With me how different. See this hat? I have worn that hat for three years, and it cost me $3. What woman could have worn a hat so long? Bah! They are the slaves to whim and fashion. What could I do when fifteen years ago I faced the crisis in my life? There was only housework to which I could turn.[…] Men can work at many unskilled callings, but to a woman only a few are open, and they are the grinding, death-dealing kinds of work. Well, for me, I prefer to live a life of independence and freedom.

The New York Times goes on to add that the individual identified at Ellis Island as Mary Johnson, was freed, to "face the world as Frank Woodhull." (p.6)

A private interview between a young immigrant and an Ellis Island official. Two staff members [?] are also present., Digital ID 1693107, New York Public Library

A thorough search of Ancestry Library Edition provides no clues as to Frank Woodhull's whereabouts after leaving Ellis Island, though the internet does include references to his settling in New Orleans, becoming an American citizen, and dying in 1939: citations are missing. Perhaps, after the furor, Frank decided to change his name, to avoid further publicity. This story illustrates one thing. Once Woodhull left Ellis Island, he was no longer obliged to be known as Mary Johnson, but was free to resume his life, complete with the name and identity of his choosing. Ellis Island could not impose a name upon him.

Further reading

Copies of ship's manifests, or passenger lists, are avialable at New York Public Library, via the database Ancestry Library Edition.

If you would like to read more about Ellis Island, try searching for materials in the Library's catalog. You can use the following subject terms:

Ellis Island Immigration Station (N.Y. and N.J.)

Ellis Island Immigration Station (N.Y. and N.J.) -- History.

The Library's Digital Gallery includes many images of Ellis Island.

Comments

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Thank you!

I read the story you mean and the Ellis Island comment bothered me as well. This is a myth that unfortunately keeps persisting, to the detriment of history. Thank you for doing your best to set the record straight!

what a fascinating piece

thanks for this fascinating research! There's a great follow-up piece to be written on the reasons American Jews especially find this myth compelling I was also interested in the quote about ensuring that entering immigrants didn't "believe or practice polygamy or anarchy." I would assume that some subset of the many thousands of Jewish immigrants were indeed interested in anarchism, non-authoritarian socialism, etc. Is there any research on this? Was this a circumstance where everyone would just strive to be as politically innocuous as possible?

jewish name changes

Eric Goldstein of Emory University wrote such a piece, but I can't locate it right now. It might have been on the H-Judaic listserv. As I recall, he emphasized the particular importance to Jews of re-fashioning themselves in America. There is a great deal of good historical writing about Jewish anarchists. Emma Goldman was one whom the US government deported despite her defense of political freedom. This reader can find lots of interesting stuff in the journal "American Jewish History" and in the books of immigration scholars and Jewish historians.

No changes at Ellis Island

@Miri: I suspect that "being innocuous" was something that all immigrants strove for when entering the country. Anarchists and other radicals came from Italy (Sacco & Vanzetti), Germany (the Haymarket affair), Poland (Leon Czolgosz, who assassinated President McKinley), and just about everywhere else. After a passage in steerage, appearing innocuous would have involved "appearing at least marginally healthy" for the most part. Those 10 to 14 days were not easy for even single, healthy young workers, let alone the old, the young, the pregnant and those for whom life had taken its toll on their bodies at an early age. The immigration process sought-and still seeks--to filter out those who represent[ed] real or perceived dangers: trachoma, TB, polygamy, subversion, the wrong ethnicity, etc. It's been a few decades since a British immigration officer asked whether I'd do anything to overthrow the government--but only a few. I especially treasure the follow-up question: "That's not something you'd lie about, is it?"

Sacco & Vanzetti

Read attorney Theodore Grippo's new book "With Malice of Aforethought" on the Sacco & Vanzetti court hearings. They were innocent.

Czolgosz was not an immigrant

Leon Czolgosz was born in Michigan to immigrant parents.

Ellis Island

My mom came to America via Ellis Island in 1921 at the age of three. She had told me that due to language issues there were often misunderstandings (and misspelling)of immigrants' names at the ports. This had occurred with one of our relatives. So there may be some truth to the "name changing" but not in the way perpetuated by the myth.

Mom spelled her name 2 r

my grandfather Spilious Theoharris came from Greece in 1930 He had 2 brothers Bill and Chris . Chris went back to Greece They lived in Milwaukee Wisconsin

Thank you, Klea. There were

Thank you, Klea. There were interpreters at Ellis Island, and the passenger lists are the record of somebody's name, so no spelling mistakes were made there. If there were errors, they would have occurred at the point of embarkation, not at the immigration center.

Great article!

Thank you for writing this, I will share it on facebook to help dispel this persistent myth!

Thank you!

Thank you for writing this! Trying to put a dent in the "our name was changed at Ellis Island" myth has been a pet project of mine for years but it's widespread and persistent so the more articles like this, the better! I wrote a feature article for the NIAF's Ambassador Magazine (National Italian American Foundation) last year. Here's the link if you'd like to check it out: http://rootsintheboot.com/the-myth-that-refuses-to-die-ellis-island-changed-our-name/ I also put up a little FAQ page on it: http://rootsintheboot.com/ellisisland/ Thank you again for this great article! Aliza Giammatteo Roots in the Boot Owner|Lead Genealogist|Columnist

Ellis Island

Great post! Good point about the lack of evidence for a systematized name-changing process. Had there been such a policy, there would certainly be much documentation that had been used to shape and direct the Ellis Island staff on the ground. Mary Johnson/Frank Woodhull's story is fascinating, to boot.

This story is the myth. Names

This story is the myth. Names were changed. Why try to rewrite history? Revisionism.

name changes happened

My grandparents names were changed from Scaccia to Scotch and their parents names were changed to Scatch. Saw all the papers while cleaning out our uncle's house.

please submit them

if you have \"papers\" documenting a name change at ellis island please post them somewhere! because, of all the millions of immigrants passing through ellis island, no one else has ever seen such a thing.

Name Changes

If names were changed, how come there has NEVER been any forms found. There are wonderful records of health inspection cards, telegrams asking for money from relatives, etc. There was NO ONE there who could have legally changed a name, no forms ever filled out, etc. Wonder what it will take to put this myth to bed...or the bottom of the ocean!!

Names were difinetly changed.

Names were difinetly changed. My great grandmothers name was changed from Goullinar to Delina. She said she begged them to change her name to Mary not Delina but they would not. She remembered the whole encounter she was 12. And i have her papers that prove it.

People who say they have papers showing name changes

I would like to know exactly what papers the people have, who say they show the names were changed. Perhaps they are the naturalization papers? Please provide the title and/or official organization. Also, a 12 yr. old child begging not to change to a name she didn't want, who was she begging? Maybe her parents? It's this undefined "they" that I'd like more detail about!

There were no forms because

There were no forms because it wasn't "hi we are going to change your name, fill out these forms." it was how do say your name again? Scarcella (scarCHella) "Scarchella? okay how do you spell that? "I don't know" Okay....Pietro Scarchello. Take this form over there." We had our names changed on both sides. To the point that my mother's father had his name changed to Votto. He never spoke his real last name again because he thought he would get into trouble. That's the name they gave him and that's the name he used. Never told anyone because he was afraid. There was no proof because there were no name change forms. Americanization of names were more perpetuated when the kids went to school. My grandparents, aunts and uncles had their teacher give them american name. Pietro became Peter, Francesca became Frances and Onofrio became Adolph (no american equivilant. Teacher gave him the name.) I am not saying the article is wrong, I am just very skeptical. Our proof is the stories that have been passed down to us. We are the proof. If you are saying they were changed when they got off the boat and not directly at ellis island i can give you a bit there but to say noone had their names changed at Ellis Island. No. AND all you have to do to change your name is start using it on legal documents. My grandmother went by Marguarita and Margaret. Never needed a name change 'form' when it was changed at school.

More revisionist history?

Here's a clue, my family possesses the original Ellis Island documents. My ancestors were Greeks living in the Turkish City of Contopoulos until the Turks kicked them out. As historians may well be aware, people's last names were often the town in which they were born...Now you spell Contopoulos in Greek...which is how the name appears in the Ellis Island records. Care to guess what it was recorded as?

name changes

Ellis Island records? Do you realize that the "records" you refer to were the ships' manifests which were generated at the place they immigrants bought their tickets? Look closely and you will see those documents were prepared in Europe not in the US.

Everything perfect at Ellis Island

What amazes me is the absolute insistence by genealogy snobs that nothing ever went amiss at Ellis Island regarding names. Recently the same man climbed the fence at the Whitehouse TWICE within weeks. Highly classified documents walk out the door of government agencies. Employees sneak off of a worksite and ask someone to cover for them. Such “replacement” may not know how to properly do the duties of the absconder. People manage to get dangerous items past airport security. All kinds of improper things happen in this world. But the “experts” continue to insist everything was 100% perfect at Ellis Island, And they brand those who say that names WERE changed as inexperienced fools. Well, I know of specific instances where brothers of the same last name no longer did at that point. And that is not the only case.

Hot topic on Facebook group

Thanks for the really good and useful post, Philip! On the Facebook group "Tracing the Tribe" a link to your post has led to more back-and-forth arguing about supposed name changes at Ellis Island: https://www.facebook.com/groups/20364215746/

Name change

I too have read numberous articles that the names were not changed upon entry into the USA. But what mygeneration wants to do is find out how and when it was changed. Can this be done? How would I proceed?

name changes and documentation

the requirement to change names via the courts was rather a late innovation, and most people just \"used\" whatever name they wanted to be known by, and so long as there was no intention to defraud or whatever, it was acceptable. obviously, this broke down somewhat when they applied for naturalization, and had to prove arrival, for instance, under their \"original\" name from the old country. the documentation trail should have their \"original\" name from the old country (or at least the name they were travelling under) on the ship's manifest, and probably in their declaration of intent and petition for naturalization. and they should be on census forms from then on, usually under whatever name they used. so if you can locate them on successive census records, at the same address, and with the same family structure, it's often possible to trace name changes, if not necessarily the reasons for them.

Names and Professions

Thank you for a very enlightening article, which leads me to another question about the ship manifests. I wrote an article myself in a Swedish Emigrant Journal and few years ago. My article was called "The emigrant and the Truth". I had perhaps come across a "smart" business venture organized by the shipping agents, when searching for a relative who was on board the brig. UARTA, when arriving in the Boston harbour in 1855. I then discovered that my man (Carl Risbeck - son of a priest) and all the other men on board were called "farmers". If I understand this correctly the chances of buying land in the New Land thus improved, even if they were not truly interested. However they were assisted by the shipping agent on the arrival destination to pursue this issue and could then make a buck or so by selling it back to the representative of the the steamship company. I base my article also on findings of a particular man who appears frequently as a "husband" of many arrivals in New York. He might be doing the same type of "work". I am sure somebody can give me the exact "truth" (which would be much appreciated) explaing my thoughts as a distant non-emigrant.

Name changes in Eastern Europe

Jewish families from Eastern Europe often arrived in the US under names other than their own. Men crossed the border from Russia to Austria to avoid being drafted into the Tsar's army, and changed their names to avoid being deported. When they married they often took their wives' family names, since their religious marriages weren't recognized by the state and their children were all registered under the wife's family name. Men also emigrated with forged papers because they were evading the draft of whatever country they were leaving. When brothers reunited in the US it was easier to blame their different names on Ellis Island than to explain the true story.

Name order switched

My grand father, Johann Conrad and his 2 siblings(one is brother Johan Heinrich) came to the US thru Qubec city. They are Germans from Russia. I was told that my grandfather's name order was switched at the border because they couldn't have two Johann Simons entering. FYI: For a period of time, Germans names are not first, middle and surname as we might do today, but spiritual, common,and surname. Many males in my family are named a version of John as their baptismal or spiritual name. For legal and other records, they are known by their second name. This makes finding records lots of fun, not. Another fun fact: most of my relatives are named after other relatives. Keeping these ancesters separate can be a trial.

Family name misspelled

I agree with Mr Cannato the names where misspelled by official of the steamship with English education. Example: Dipietro -Depietro. Savarino-Severin, D'Amico-Deamico, Di Carlo-Decarlo,Moreschi-Moresce,Maltese-Maltesi Di Giuseppe-Deguiseppe, Sanzo-Sonzo.Is the English pronunciation.I'm not sure of the name Cannato it could be Cannata Sicilia dialect for vine jug.Is better to be an American, even with misspelled name than not to be one.Thanks.

Name change

When father's last name was changed to Carran, but he went back to using Karantzakis. I was enrolled in school with the last name of Carran, but went back to using Karatzakis.

record of aliens held for special inquiry

I was interested in the photo caption in the above story. According to my grandmother, she was held at Ellis Island for 3 weeks because they thought she had the dreaded "eye" disease (trachoma). I was determined she had a plugged tear duct which made her "cry" continuously. Where can I find this "record of aliens held for special inquiry"? I would like to see what the actual record says for her.

Record of detained aliens or those held for special inquiry

Usually at the tail end of the passenger list of the ship she arrived on. Do you have that information? BGAndersson

Name change

My great grandfather was named Kaufman Moses on the ship. He became Moses Kaufman. His future brother in law was Nathan Arje and he became A. Nathan. There were three brothers who may have been some form of Yudelovich. Family lore is that they adopted the last name Fish. I cannot find them under either last name on passenger listed. Names were changed.

Why the myth persists.

I think the myth persists because names were certainly changed, just not at Ellis Island. And also because no one wants to call Great Grandma a liar (maybe her memory isn't good for what her father told her 60 years ago). And further "Ellis Island" has also become a 'catch all' term for all immigration ports at all times in the past. I have had people tell me (several times in fact) that their immigrant ancestors' name was changed at Ellis Island 30 to 50 years before Ellis Island opened it's doors. Also maybe it was changed on the ships manifest in the departure port and not in the U.S. at all? This all just begs the question "Why not change it back?". Evidence suggests that most name changes were made by the person themselves to fit into the melting pot of America, and most of these were done informally in an era when you didn't have to present a birth certificate every time you turned around (like now) so little or no documentation exists. This all makes it hard for genealogists. It would be nice if the evidence of name changes actually did exist in the Ellis Island database because it would make life easier for us all.

Fascinating reaction

I'm fascinated at the reaction of a few of these comments, insisting despite the simple facts presented in this post that names were changed at Ellis Island. Here is another simple fact: once you got out of the port, there was absolutely no reason why you would have to use the name that somebody wrote on a ship's manifest. A person can legally use whatever name they choose to use, as long as they don't change their name to avoid creditors. That is true to this day. Court orders are needed today only because of the elaborate web of identification documents our society requires: driver's licenses, Social Security numbers, credit cards and more. You can't do anything without these documents, you get one document without another document, and the new document has to use the name that appeared on the previous document, perpetuating whatever your name originally was. None of that existed when your great-grandparents arrived in this country. If your ancestor decided one day to call himself Genghis Khan, that's the way his name would appear in the City Directory (the predecessor of the phone book). And if the next year he decided he wanted to be Mahatma Gandhi, then he would update his listing in the directory, and nobody would stop that. The only time you had to use the ship manifest name was when you filed for naturalization, and then only because you had to match up your naturalization papers with your manifest to prove that you had been in the country for the right amount of time. And the final naturalization document routinely included the original manifest name as well as the preferred American name, so Friedrich Magaziner becomes Frank Miller as part of the routine course of naturalization. This actually makes genealogy HARDER, because the family's name could appear differently from one document to the next. On the manifest it's Jacobowicz, but on the census three years later it's Jacobovitz, and then in the next ten-year census the children have married and moved out and three of them are Jacoby but one of them is Jacobson. And that's just the last names. The first name goes from Bluma to Lena to Lea to Lee. And none of these name changes have anything to do with what a clerk wrote on a piece of paper at the immigration center. Nobody cared what an immigrant manifest said your name was.

Names WERE changed

My grandparents names were changed to Scotch from Scaccia. My Great grandparent last name was changed to Scatch. We found and read the papers while cleaning out our uncle's house.

Name Changing - As Told On Ellis Island

On my first visit to Ellis Island just after it was opened and before much restoration work, the guide told the name-changing story. Last year we were told about the use of the ship manifests and how the stories aren't true.

There were errors in names

It took me years to find my great-aunts ellis island records. Her last name had been spelled as Stemkova, although her last name was Steininger. Quite a difference. My grandfather's first name was Julius but was spelled Jules. Close enough but it took awhile to figure it out.

These aren't my strongest

These aren't my strongest languages, but I think Stemkova and Steininger could be closer than you think. -inger is a typical suffix in German and -kova in (here I'm foggy) Polish or Russian. Stem could easily be a misreading or misspelling of Stein. In my reading, many people in, say, German-speaking areas of Poland had multiple versions of their name based on the language, the same being true for place names. If your great-aunt were from a multilingual region like that, it might have been easy for "Steinkova/Stemkova" and "Steininger" to be interchangeable.

these are'nt my strongest

My grandfather was originally Aizik Logan in Russia. Since he sailed on a Hamburg Amerika Linie (German) ship, when the clerk asked him if he was a Cohain, his name on the manifest and other travel papers was "Germanized" to Aizik Kohen. Once here, he used a "more American" form, Cohen.

Logan/Kogan

The name might actually have been written as KOGAN, but mis-read or rewritten with the K changed to L. Kogan would have been a Russian pronunciation of Cohen. (As an example of misspelling/transcription, in looking for my husband's grandfather, his first name in Ellis Island records was recorded as Lelig. It was suppossed to have been Zelig. So the Z looked like an L. See what I mean?)

name change

I read your article and all I know is that my father and two aunts came to Ellis Island at the beginning of the nineteenth century. When they arrived at Ellis Island their names were Ostrovsky and when they left it was Ostro.

Ellis Island, as a point of

Ellis Island, as a point of entry for immigrants, did not open until 1892--the end of the nineteenth century. The names may have changed, but not by an immigration officials at Ellis Island at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Italian Name changed

In my research of my ancestors Di Dia from Marsala, Sicily I found mt great grandfather Giacomo and his brother Vincenzio Di Dia had not only their last named changed but also their first name Vincenzo Di Dia went by the name James Dee, and my great grandfather Giacomo Di Dia went by Chris (Criss) Dee. Now it was told to me that Italians were not treated well if you were known to go by an Italian name and so that is why they changed them after Ellis Island. Most of them changed when they register with the immigration office to become U.S. citizens, and others changed them when they enlisted into the U.S. military. Over and over I've been told that the immigration office and the U.S. Military office would asked for an American name. Discrimination in America towards Italians was notorious.

Vincenzo Di Dia

The Italian Land Registry in Marsala still shows Vincenzo Di Dia the owner of a vineyard. Below is the exact location. Catasto: Terreni Comune: MARSALA Codice: E974 Foglio:324 Particella:1013 Anthony Alioto a.alioto@italianlaw.net San Francisco

Name changes

I had a friend in college, whose family came through Boston, not Ellis Island. He had Eastern European and Jewish features 3 generations after his family arrived. But his name is "Cline" - as Irish as they get. His family's name was changed in Boston by an Irish immigration agent - from "Kleinfus" (little-foot in Yiddish or German) to what the officer could understand "Cline".

Cline is not an Irish name.

Cline is not an Irish name. Also your testimony- I had a friend in college whose grandfather- is hearsay on hearsay which would better be termed folklore. Names got changed, but not by the immigration officials.

Misunderstandings

Some misunderstandings still certainly occurred. Sure they had interpreters, but a lot can still be lost or misunderstood in translation. My MIL told me about how her great-grandfather told her that on his arrival, he got confused because they were asking about his "family name" (surname) and he took this to mean his ancestral tribe, the Cohen tribe, so he kept saying, "I am a Cohen", and this became his last name. His actual last name was different, and I have found the European records for his family with that last name, although there is no ship manifest for his year of immigration, so I can't say how it was recorded or if it was changed on paper somewhere. He seemed to think that this had happened to a number of Jewish families who came over. Plus people were probably often confused and a little nervous as they arrived, so if some official misread their name, they could have just gone with it and figured that this was going to be their name in America.

Hmm... I didn't know families

Hmm... I didn't know families said their names were misspelled @ Ellis Island. My family was different, I guess; we changed our names for ethnic reasons. And then some that became middle class changed their names again to avoid being associated with us.

Another reality supporting

Another reality supporting the fact that immigrants' names were not changed on Ellis: the inspectors were far too busy to waste their time on coming up with names for people. With anywhere from 5000 to 10000 people coursing through the building on any given day, immigration officials were focused solely on checking each person's answers against the ship's manifest where their original responses had been recorded when the immigrant boarded the ship. Those manifests are the documents that people now consult when they look up their relatives on Ellis Island or at the Archives. If it was customary for officials to change the names, wouldn't there have been a space on the manifest for that name to be recorded? In truth, an immigrant's name was never even written down at Ellis, unless he or she was detained for medical or legal reasons. It may be romantic to think that great-grandpa desperately wanted to keep his complex name even though the mean official told him he had to be American now, but it just doesn't wash.

Hard to believe

My grandfather's last name was changed to Preamble. As in, the preamble of the Constitution. He came from Serbia; I find it hard to believe he chose that name himself, without any help from someone in Immigration!

Using Someone Else's Ticket

Family lore has it that my great-uncle might have purchased a ticket of someone who had died before he actually travelled. I suppose by today's standards he might have been considered "illegal." While my great-uncle knew exactly when he arrived in 1913 and which ship, he could never prove how he got to the USA. As a result I don't think he was ever able to become naturalized; never got a passport; and could never leave the USA to travel! A lesson to be learned.

Like in the movie "Titanic"!

Like in the movie "Titanic"! Which is why there was no record of Jack, remember? He'd won his ticket in a card game, got across the ocean with that guy's ticket, and after he died in the ocean, Rose took his last name when she got to America, when they were taking roll. I wonder if truth is based on fiction, or the other way 'round? Also, I find it interesting that no discussion of trans people way-back-when has occurred at all.

It is not a myth

My family last name was misspelled when they arrived from Europe. All the pictures of my family from their native land as well as the small butcher shop they ran had the original spelling of my last name. When they arrived somehow they misspelled my relatives from my dad's side last name. They were not huge errors because most were misspelled by 1 or two letters. My ancestors on my fathers side came from Poland, Lithuania and Russia. While my mothers side came from Bohemia region of the Czech Republic, Ireland and maybe Germany. So while you might think its a myth, I have documented proof that it's not.

It IS a myth

It is a myth and you don't have proof. A misspelled name is not the same as a name being changed. Most immigrants of the period were illiterate and relied on somebody else to spell their name for them. I have done extensive research in eastern Europe and over a 100 year span you can see many spellings recorded for the same family. It changed as the priest changed.

Man or a Woman?

I'm confused by the last story. The whole article was great. Then this story comes of a woman that was a "he"...how is that possible?

Documents were not created at

Documents were not created at Ellis Island. The document you have is almost certainly a ship's manifest. These were not created at Ellis Island, but by the steamship companies, prior to the ship arriving at Ellis Island. This is the document that the inspectors at Ellis Island referred to when processing passengers through the immigration inspection station. Ergo your ancestors name was not changed or even misspelled at Ellis Island. If there is a mistake on the ship's manifest, it was made by the clerk at the steamship ticket office at the point of departure. Often the change was not deliberate, but a typo.

My relative's name change story

Hello, My German "Ewert" relatives arrived in three shipments during the 1890s. They are on the passenger manifests as "Ewert". Once in Cleveland, three of four brothers began using the phonetically similar "Evert". When anti-German sentiment arose just prior to to WW1, the fourth brother started using the Anglicized "Everett" in 1916. This is recorded on the birth certificate of his youngest child. "Ewert" is struck out and "Everett" written in by hand as the current family name. As poster Tracey points out above, even if there was a spelling error made by the steamship clerk on the passenger manifest, the immigrant was under absolutely no obligation to continue using an erroneously entered name once in the US. Those who write above that they "have the papers to prove" that a family name was changed by agents at Ellis Island, what papers are they writing about? I have never seen any documents issued to my relatives from Ellis Island employees. Thank you.

My relative's name change story

Hello, My German "Ewert" relatives arrived in three shipments during the 1890s. They are on the passenger manifests as "Ewert". Once in Cleveland, three of four brothers began using the phonetically similar "Evert". When anti-German sentiment arose just prior to to WW1, the fourth brother started using the Anglicized "Everett" in 1916. This is recorded on the birth certificate of his youngest child. "Ewert" is struck out and "Everett" written in by hand as the current family name. As poster Tracey points out above, even if there was a spelling error made by the steamship clerk on the passenger manifest, the immigrant was under absolutely no obligation to continue using an erroneously entered name once in the US. Those who write above that they "have the papers to prove" that a family name was changed by agents at Ellis Island, what papers are they writing about? I have never seen any documents issued to my relatives from Ellis Island employees. Thank you.

My relative's name change story.

Hello, My German "Ewert" relatives arrived in three shipments during the 1890s. They are on the passenger manifests as "Ewert". Once in Cleveland, three of four brothers began using the phonetically similar "Evert". When anti-German sentiment arose just prior to to WW1, the fourth brother started using the Anglicized "Everett" in 1916. This is recorded on the birth certificate of his youngest child. "Ewert" is struck out and "Everett" written in by hand as the current family name. As poster Tracey points out above, even if there was a spelling error made by the steamship clerk on the passenger manifest, once in the US, the immigrant was under absolutely no obligation to continue using an erroneously entered name. Those who write above that they "have the papers to prove" that a family name was changed by agents at Ellis Island, about what papers are they writing? I have never seen any documents issued to my relatives from Ellis Island employees. Thank you.

All these people saying "my

All these people saying "my ancestor's name WAS changed," instead of what is the likely reality, "my ancestor CHANGED his name." Yes, I have ancestors who entered through Ellis Island (and Castle Garden before that). The same family name, over various years for different people coming from different ports in Europe, was misspelled several ways. When they appear on the census, WWI registration, etc., it's all different again. Several of them CHOSE to change their surname, finally all settling on a root of the original. So some of you who feel immigration officials did it, might just consider what it was like, that your ancestor may have gone through a period of flux with the surname. And yes, their children also may have changed it yet again.

Ellis Island name change

This is an interesting article and very enlightening for me. Thank you. I have recently found birth and insurance records of my grandpa and her sisters where their name is NOT the Polish Skrzatek name that we have always known, but rather, Szatkowski. A name used by my great grandfather (their father) and showing as his real surname on their birth docs. So when HIS children had children, the sons and daughters had no idea the name shows up as Szatkowski or why this was so. It was a past that was never NEVER discussed. I am left to the conclusion that my ancestor immigrated under an alias surname to avoid the war in Poland, then came here, settled, still keeping this alias name- he had the children under this same Szatkowski surname until 20 years later when he was naturalized (and the children were well in their teens) then diverted back to Skzratek? Which I guess was his original name? He was naturalized in 1939 or 1940 (I think) but was in this country already married and having children by about 1918. It doesn't sound right to me however I do not know what else could have happened. If he was trying to 'Americanize' his name, he traded Szatkowski for Skrzatek? I found document that while he and his kids were still Szatkowski, he used Skrzatek as well. Could he use the Ellis Island name Szatkowski as his legal name from fear of confusion, then divert back to his REAL name upon naturalization?

Manifests Are Wrong

While persuing dual citizenship through my Italian grand-father, I learned from his US Naturalization record that he left the Port of Naples on the steamship \"Florida\" in 1910. When I looked at that manifest, I never found my grand-father because his name was so mangled, with just the first three letters correct. But my grand-father must have sorted this all out with the immigration authorities because our family name was never changed. I agree that the errors occurred at embarkation and that the immigrants that ended up with different names either didn't have the wherewithall to make the necessary corrections with the US authorities at Ellis Island or they changed their names because they thought it would help them \"fit in\" better.

Rewriting History

We do not need you to rewrite our histories. Names were absolutely changed at Ellis Island, however it may have happened. You cannot look at some records and decide it did not happen. The overwhelming volume of experiences says otherwise. Discrediting our own people verges on Anti-Semitism. Research creates fools, not wisdom.

Thank you!

Thank you!!!

Literacy

My family came from Italy. I read somewhere in my research that in the old days Italian spelling was not important or taught in schools; words were written as they were heard and that was perfectly acceptable. Also remember that most immigrants were coming over as Steerage passengers. Many of them were unable to read or write in their native languages or only had very minimal schooling. I have papers from 1913 where my gg-grandfather signed his name on an official document with an X. I'm not sure if he would have even known if the steamship company spelled his name correctly because he himself did not know how to read or spell. A combination of these two things can also explain why my g-grandfather's birth certificate spells his name as Alessandrino, his first entry into the US spells it as Alejandro, and his second as Alessandro. Once settled in the US he went as Alessandro for a while, eventually choosing to be called Alexander. Some name changes were intentional and others were likely just paperwork discrepancies.

My relative's name change story

I know that somehow my grandfather and his brother, who were both on the same ship, each had their last names written down with different spellings. The brother's name was spelled, "Sena" and my grandfather's name was spelled, "Cina." This is the story that I heard, although it was said that it happened at Ellis Island, I can imagine that it might have been on the ship's log. The name was put down from the Slovak, each man going through the line and speaking with two different transcribers.

Hi! My name is Ashley Colin.

Hi! My name is Ashley Colin. I want to my family tree and the names are: john Broustures and his wife Maria Mezyani from Greece. And Panagotes Stavrakes and Catherine Amastasada from Austria,Hungary. Please let me know.

For the next article...

Let's give the ignorant masses the truth about their "family coat of arms".

changing names

Hmmm well I don't know how it was that my grandmother's birth certificate says one thing, and the immigration record at Ellis Island says something different. I understand what the article is saying, but 100 years later, all I see is sloppy work somewhere. Not that it matters now, it's just interesting that there still seems to be finger pointing at someone else. Bottom line, the name my grandmother was born with in Italy is not the name she died with in Canada.

name changes

I finally found the ship's manifests for my dad's family. They came here in 1923. Knowing that I would not find the name as I know it today, I did NOT expect to find 3 spellings (so far) of the family name. Eldest sister traveled with her husband and daughter, 2nd sister had 1 spelling, 1st brother, traveling later in the year, had another spelling, The remainder of the family, the parents and 4 younger boys traveled together. They had yet another spelling, and the name of the same town is spelled differently on the manifest- a "K" with the 1st group of 3, and "R" with the 2nd group of 3. Keep in mind, that some surnames are spelled differently, depending on whether the person is male or female!! Just for the linguist in all of us--remember "Peking" in China? It is now called Beijing. Politically correct. Who decided on that name change!?

Your article is wrong my

Your article is wrong my Italian family as well as my Scottish families names were in fact changed. First my Scottish family's name had the a dropped from Mac making us Mc. Secondly we are still very close with our Italian family in Italy and the last vowl of my grandmothers name was changed from an i to an o and we have here birth certificate from Italy to prove it!

Name Changing

After many years of consideration, my wife and I changed my last name (Mikolajczyk). One element of my reluctance was that my grandfather was able to enter the U.S. *without* having it changed by officials. At the time we changed our name, our son -- three years old -- didn't like the idea. And said so. When he turned 16, he legally changed it back.

Name Change

When my maternal grandmother's family came here in the early 1900s, the brothers wanted a more American name so they changed it to Greenberg. It had been Feller.

It's hard to give up those family stories

My mother still claims that her Norwegian grandfather's name was changed at Ellis Island in 1868. "The immigration agent asked him his name, and he told him. The agent said, 'I can't spell that. You're Charles Johnson.'" She loves that story, which has to have come down in the family for well over 100 years. It doesn't matter that I tell her Ellis Island wasn't open in 1868. I haven't found his immigration records yet, but I've got plenty of US records on him prior to Ellis Island's opening. I've no idea where or when he changed his name, but the 1865 Norwegian census showed his last name as Johannessen, so Johnson sounds like a name he'd have picked for himself to sound more American. She's perfectly willing to accept the family story about her other grandfather's name change, and it wasn't at Ellis Island (he too came before its opening). He was looking for a job, and his Norwegian name was an extremely common one. He found a farmer who was willing to hire him, but had the same name, and said he'd hire him only if he changed his name. So he chose a different surname, changing his Norwegian surname into a middle name. Again, if those names were changed at Ellis Island (or other ports of entry), the documentation would be there, and it just isn't. Anybody who thinks they've got proof that the name changes in their family occurred there needs to bring forth that documentation. Another point is that in the cases I've got, the original name does not appear on the naturalization documents, either first papers or second papers. I know that naturalization happened in a variety of courts, so some may have required the original name, but this has not been the case for my families (ND and MN). Only the name used in the US has appeared on those documents. Fascinating, important subject.

Names were changed in Hamburg before sailing to Ellis Island

Both of my Grandfathers told the same story although they left on different ships in the same year, 1904. Upon arriving at the dock in Hamburg the registrar asked them their names. In Yiddish one said Shmuel Yitzkok HaCohain, the other Fiegel Moshe HaCohain. Their names were Samuel Einhorn and Phillip Fabish. The registrar, hearing the Yiddish suffix HaCohain--designating their priestly status in the religious sense---thought it was their surname and both were put down as Cohen. Samuel Cohen and Phillip Cohen. These were the names as you rightfully say that we're copied off the ship manifest on Ellis Island. Sam's first 2 children were born as Cohen. He then had his and their names legally changed back in New London, CT to his real name--Einhorn. Phillip Fabish, however, never changed it back from Cohen. So, when his son Russell Cohen married Sam's daughter Alice Einhorn, my name became Cohen. It should be Fabish! These two examples are why we see a preponderance of the name Cohen in America.

Names Were Changed in Hamburg before Sailing to Ellis Island

Both of my Grandfathers told the same story although they left on different ships in the same year, 1904. Upon arriving at the dock in Hamburg the registrar asked them their names. In Yiddish one said Shmuel Yitzkok HaCohain, the other Fiegel Moshe HaCohain. Their names were Samuel Einhorn and Phillip Fabish. The registrar, hearing the Yiddish suffix HaCohain--designating their priestly status in the religious sense---thought it was their surname and both were put down as Cohen. Samuel Cohen and Phillip Cohen. These were the names as you rightfully say that we're copied off the ship manifest on Ellis Island. Sam's first 2 children were born as Cohen. He then had his and their names legally changed back in New London, CT to his real name--Einhorn. Phillip Fabish, however, never changed it back from Cohen. So, when his son Russell Cohen married Sam's daughter Alice Einhorn, my name became Cohen. It should be Fabish! These two examples are why we see a preponderance of the name Cohen in America.

My great grandmother's name

She arrived via Ellis Island with the last name of Sheehey and ended up with Sheehan .... my great grandmother was from Ireland and said "They didn't understand me!"

Name changes

My brother in law and his younger brother arrived in Ellis Island with the names Julius Grossmann and Emil Grossmann. The family story is that the inspector suggested they take middles names to sound more American and they became Julius James Grossman and Emil Robert Grossman who later changed his name to Robert Emil Grossman. The inspector, also, dropped the second n in the German spelling of Grossmann. I don't know how true this is but it's a good story.

Not all that ported at NY went through inspection at Ellis Islan

It would be interesting to see how many of the ancestors of those that have carried the family lore of a name change at Ellis Island actually went through the inspection station. Not everyone on the ship manifest was required to pass through the halls of the station. Those that traveled 1st and 2nd class disembarked before the ferry carried the rest of the passengers to the island.

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