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.

For starters, passenger lists in the late 19th and early 20th century were recorded at the port of departure, usually in the passenger's native country, and immigration officers at the port of entry worked off of it. Secondly, most immigration officers were multilingual or made use of internal translators, just like they do today. I won't deny there's a lot of errors on passenger lists, but that doesn't mean their name was changed at that point. Every genealogist will come to realize that any kind of document had the potential to mangled names and that it didn't mean their name was changed. This includes, but is not limited to passenger lists. Additionally, it's important to remember that in history, the concept of a legal, official name didn't always exist. Official birth certificates in the U.S. didn't even exist until around 1900, give or take depending on the state, and Society Security wasn't around until 1937, so who was to say how exactly your name was supposed to be spelled? Name spellings could be a fluid concept and it wasn't a big deal to spell it the wrong way on documentation, if there even was considered a "wrong" way to spell it to begin with.

If your family name was Anglicized, it was probably done so after immigration, and probably by choice of your own ancestor. Many people simply assumed an Anglicized version because, again, the concept of a "legal" name did not yet fully exist. 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 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
Immigrant Name Changes - USCIS

Even the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services says:
"...the idea that an entire family's name was changed by one clerk--especially one at Ellis Island--is seldom supported by historical research and analysis. American name change stories tend to be apocryphal, that is, they developed later to explain events shrouded in the mist of time. Given the facts of US immigration procedure at Ellis Island, the above story becomes suspect."
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 of the very real fact 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, and that if it was spelling incorrectly, it was just an error.

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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  3. Well this may be generally true, it is not always so. I found passengers who left the port city on the list as one name and at Ellis Island, their name was misspelled. On documents after they were in America or had made their way to Canada, they went back to the spelling on the emigration list. In the case of my grandmother after whom I am named, she was given a wrong nickname. She was listed as Hanka, not Sanka and when she arrived in North America it was changed to Ksenia, which is the Polish spelling. Then because it was so often mispronounced and incorrectly written, she became Jennie when she crossed the border into the U.S. but used Ksenia in Canada. I think you give the inspection agents too much credit. Yes, they had rules but no one is perfect.

    1. Like I said in my blog post: "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." If someone changed their name, it was by their choice, not due to ignorant immigration officers.