No one’s family name was changed, altered, shortened, butchered, or “written down wrong” at Ellis Island or any American port. That idea is an urban legend. Many names did get changed as immigrants settled into their new American lives, but those changes were made several years after arrival and were done by choice of someone in
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No one’s family name was changed, altered, shortened, butchered, or “written down wrong” at Ellis Island or any American port. That idea is an urban legend.
Many names did get changed as immigrants settled into their new American lives, but those changes were made several years after arrival and were done by choice of someone in the family. The belief persists, however, that the changes were done at the entry point and that the immigrants were unwilling participants in the modifications. Sophisticated family history researchers have long rolled their collective eyes at the “Ellis Island name change” idea. In genealogy blogs and online publications, they wearily repeat the correction—names were not changed at Ellis Island; immigrants changed their own names, usually during the citizenship process. But the belief persists, perhaps because people need to explain surname changes in a way that satisfies them (thinking that their immigrant ancestors made the changes themselves apparently does not do so).
The explanation for this is pretty obvious when you think about it. Just as today, people bought tickets and their names were written on the tickets:
It’s vital to remember that the people coming over from Europe and other places were paying passengers, not cattle. They weren’t shoved onto ships and then dumped onto American shores to be newly cataloged by harried immigration officials. The shipping companies were running a business, much as airlines do today—they sold tickets to people who could afford to purchase them (even a steerage class ticket cost almost a thousand dollars in today’s currency)….Agents quoted ticket prices to the would-be traveler, accepted payment, and then recorded each traveler’s name and other identifying information (the specific information collected varied over the years). The information taken down by the agents was sent to the home office, where it was transferred by shipping company clerks onto large blank sheets provided by the US government. Those sheets became the passenger lists which later were used by American port officials.
After all the tickets for a particular voyage had been sold and the manifest was complete, it was turned over to the ship’s captain. On departure day, crew members checked people’s names against the list as they came on board. The crew allowed past them only those people whose names were on the list, i.e., those who had paid for a ticket….Captains were required by the 1819 Steerage Act to sign a statement printed on the manifest verifying that the names on each list matched the names of those people disembarking. Any discrepancies resulted in fines for the shipping company. Thus it was in the shipping company’s interest to make sure no one stepped onto American soil whose name was not already on a manifest.
When the ship arrived at an American port, the captain signed the manifest and delivered it to the chief immigration official. That official checked it and then gave the manifest to officers called registry clerks who questioned each traveler and verified the information recorded on the lists…Obviously then, despite what the Godfather film conveys, the officials at Ellis Island did not record travelers’ names—they had pages with the names already filled in. The task of the registry clerks was to do the same thing the ship’s crew had done: check each person’s stated name against the name recorded on the manifest.
…no federal officer at an American port ever carelessly or maliciously altered an immigrant’s name because it was too difficult to spell or sounded too foreign. On a side note, the belief that immigration officials changed names to make them less “foreign” presumes that the Ellis Island officials were of different ethnicities than the immigrants and were openly hostile to them. In fact, officials were often hired because they spoke multiple languages.
From an excellent debunking by Rosemary Meszaros and Katherine Pennavaria. Many people will continue to deny the obvious but if you still have doubts you can find the original manifests through the National Archives. The urban legend that names were changed at Ellis Island comes from a scene in the Godfather movie and perhaps because people with Americanized names today like to think that someone other than their ancestor changed their name.