Thursday, June 7, 2012

The "Our Name Was Changed at Ellis Island" Myth

I am not the first one to write an article on this. But it's an important issue and therefore needs to be covered. One of the most persistent myths in American culture is the one of family names being altered and Americanised at Ellis Island by ignorant and lazy immigration officers who couldn't understand foreign names and didn't care enough to get they them right. We grow up hearing this and it becomes something we all just accept as a universal truth. We don't question it. I've even seen big name authors (ahem, Janet Evanovich) use it in novels.

But I guarantee that Stephanie Plum's family name was not shortened from Plumerri by an "overworked immigration clerk." It's true that many of our ancestor's names, both given and family, were Anglicized in order to integrate into U.S. society. However, it's a myth that it happened at Ellis Island (or other ports of entry) by immigration officers.

Documentation was simply not so lacking in the late 19th and early 20th century that this would be common and furthermore, most immigration officers were multilingual. If your family name was Anglicized, it was probably done so after immigration, and probably by choice of your own ancestor. Today, we take pride in our heritages but the truth is that in the golden era of immigration, people came to America to be American, to shed their former cultures and embrace the society that they felt offered them so much more opportunity. My Sicilian great grandfather went from Giovanni D'Amore to John Demore. And legend has it (and I know what I've said about family stories in past posts) that when my Nan began speaking Italian as a baby, he said "No, we are American now, we speak English." So from that day on, only English was spoken in the house and my Nan soon forgot how to speak Italian. Today, this seems a shame to us. We even encouraged her to see a hypnotists in hopes that she might remember some Italian.

I won't ignore that a large part of an immigrant's choice to change their name and integrate into society was likely due to prejudice they might have experienced. But the fact of the matter remains that in all probability it did not happen against their will by ignorant immigration workers. Since the topic has already been so extensively covered elsewhere (and since this blog is more about my personal journey and experiences through genealogy), I will merely refer you to some of them for details:

Our Name Was Changed at Ellis Island - Dispelling the Myth of Ellis Island Name Changes
Truth v. Myth: "My family's name was changed at Ellis Island"
The Myth of Ellis Island and Other Tales of Origin
They Changed Our Name at Ellis Island
No, Family Names Were Not Changed at Ellis Island

If you're interested in more reading on the subject, check out American Passage: The History of Ellis Island by Vincent J. Cannato. The myth is so ingrained in us, that one reviewer on Amazon still finds the truth hard to believe even after reading the book! He seems to think that just because his family name was changed, it must have happened at Ellis Island. There is a fundamental misunderstanding that the name was changed after immigration by the choice of your ancestor. I'll bet if the reviewer did the research and found his ancestor's immigration papers, he'd find the name was not changed at the port of entry.

Did mistakes happen? I'm sure they did. Even today, there are errors that occur in processing immigrant papers. The point is that it happened far less than what most people have come to assume. And more importantly, it wouldn't necessarily mean one's name was legally and permanently changed.

I have the records to prove that my Italian ancestors didn't change their family name until well after immigration and I'll bet if you look hard enough, you'll probably find it's the same case for you. Happy searching!


  1. Thanks for clearing this up. I admit being one of those who believed that the immigration officials were the ones who Americanised names. I have German ancestry on my mother's side and I believe the 'Heck' she's now researching is an Anglicised 'Hecht' and never considered the family might've changed it due to prejudices or other reasons.

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