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...
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.
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 Lyons' 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?
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. Although people still change their names, especially when naturalizing, many people immigrating 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.
The 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.
The 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)
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.
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:
The Library's Digital Gallery includes many images of Ellis Island.