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Ellis Island Myth

"My family's name was changed at Ellis Island." I have heard this many times in the Q&A sessions that follow my live performance and when I speak with folks about my work researching names, identity, and what it means to be an American. When I tell people that the belief that family names were changed at Ellis Island is a myth, many are reluctant to believe this and some reject it outright as a possibility. No amount of explaining will change their minds. They cling to this piece of family history as tightly as if it were a life vest.

The Ellis Island name change story repeated in family lore, novels, and countless movies, reinforces the myth. This three-minute scene in The Godfather 2, of how Vito Andolini became Vito Corleone will make reading this blog and the Stairwell Episode more meaningful. Click and watch, so beautifully filmed.

If you have European roots and have done genealogical research, you might have read some of these Ellis Island Myth articles, but if you haven't, I'm providing some resources that debunk this myth. Some 12-14 million people were processed through Ellis Island between 1892-1954. European immigrants also arrived in the United States in other port cities including Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New Orleans. Click here for more information on other ports of arrival.

First, a simplified big picture view of the Age of Mass Migration from Europe (1850-1920). An estimated 55 million immigrants left Europe, with some 30 million coming to the United States. People left their countries for the same reasons people seek entry into the United States today: poverty, famine, natural disasters, violence, political instability, well-organized persecution (pogroms), and other conditions that made life difficult. As we have seen in recent years, thousands of people (including mothers with young children and unaccompanied minors) journeyed from the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras to the United States seeking refuge. Today Vito Corleone would be classified as an unaccompanied minor, likely no older than 15 (on second-thought he looks 12), and he was traveling alone to America. And, no doubt, Vito would be denied entry.

Of course, not all immigrants come to the US fleeing dire circumstances. Our nation attracts people from different backgrounds including the already prosperous and highly educated in search of educational and employment opportunities that may not be available in their home countries.

The barriers to immigration for Europeans in the 1800s to early 1900s were minimal. (Note: this is describing European immigrants). So when you hear folks say their ancestors came legally, they did it "the right way," they didn't jump the line, it's important to note that back then most Europeans would be admitted. Check out this excellent explanation of the evolution of restriction on immigration in the American Immigration Council’s fact sheet: Did My Family Really Come "Legally"?

But back to the Ellis Island Myth. The first hurdle to immigration was convincing a clerk for a European shipping company that you were healthy enough to make the arduous one-way cross-Atlantic trip. Were you strong, willing, and able to do the physically demanding manual labor that was available in the United States? If you met those minimal requirements the clerk then collected information about you (and your family if you were traveling as a group) that was entered into the Ship Manifest, the document describing the cargo the ship was transporting.

This included the passenger’s name, country of origin (remember people came from all over Europe to various port cities to board the ships), their city or region (Corleone is a region in Sicily), occupation, destination, and other basic data. The information included on the Ship Manifest varied over time, but it was basic demographics about the passengers. Back then, many people did not read or write, and often no proof of identity was available or required. Very different from today when we have passports, drivers' licenses, government-issued ID cards, and many other forms of identification to confirm who we are.

When a ship arrived at NY harbor, Immigration Agents boarded the Ship and inspected first and second-class passengers. If someone could afford a first or second-class ticket and they appeared in good health, they were welcomed with open arms and sent on their merry way. Steerage class passengers proceeded to Ellis Island. There Immigration Inspectors checked their names against the Ship Manifest and confirmed the information previously recorded by the shipping company. They did not write the names of arriving passengers; they simply checked them against the Manifest. When there were discrepancies or the Inspectors suspected something was amiss, the immigrant would be sent for a secondary screening, which could keep them at Ellis Island for much longer periods of time, or could lead to denial of entry into the United States. When this happened, the shipping company was responsible (at its own expense) to return the passenger back to the European port where the trip originated.

After a cursory health screening, an immigrant might undergo further examination, as is shown in the clip of the Godfather. If you haven't yet watched the Godfather clip, click here, it’s only three minutes. Vito is told by an Italian-speaking nurse that he will be quarantined for three months because of smallpox. We see the lone sad boy in a small room with a view of the Statue of Liberty. And the next scene, we see him packing and ready to Ellis Island renamed Vito Corleone.

What gives rise to this Ellis Island Name Change myth?

1. The belief that arriving passengers could not communicate with the Immigration Inspectors at Ellis Island, and thus Inspectors wrote down whatever they heard, even when it wasn't a person's name.

2. The idea that Immigration Inspectors thought immigrants should have “American” sounding names, so they entered new names as they registered them arrival at Ellis Island.

Inability to Communicate

Ellis Island employees were a multilingual crew, and a third of them were immigrants. On average, the employees spoke three languages. And volunteers from various ethnic groups organizations maintained offices at Ellis Island and assisted in processing immigrants in the event no interpreter was available. One of the most famous Ellis Island employees was Fiorello La Guardia, who worked as an interpreter while attending law school at night. The son of an Italian father and a Jewish Austrian-Hungarian mother Fiorello spoke English, Italian, German, Yiddish, and Croatian. He went on to serve in the US Congress and was mayor of NYC for three terms. If you've traveled to NYC, you've probably been through La Guardia Airport.

Immigrants Needed Their Names Americanized

According to the many sources debunking this myth, there are no contemporaneous sources confirming this myth that inspectors wrote in new names for the arriving passengers. Instead, their job was to check them off the Ship Manifest, which is why the Manifest is one of the primary sources for genealogical researchers. Check out this New York Public Library Blog on the subject. The Smithsonian Magazine also has a short clear explanation. Some articles are specific to immigrant groups as this one in the Armenian Weekly.

Check out the lesson plan (with pictures and video) and take a Scholastic Tour of Ellis Island. And, if you are in a listening mode, this seven-minute podcast at Ancestral Findings provides great information. There are abundant resources for anyone wanting to learn more about their European ancestors who came as part of those great migrations. You can search the Complete Archive of Ellis Island Records for free online at

Inspectors were too busy to write-in new names, and that was not their job, their job was to check the presenting immigrants against the Ship Manifest. Each inspector processed 400-500 people a day (that's less than one minute per immigrant in an average workday). Most immigrants went through Ellis Island between 4-7 hours, assuming they did not need to undergo secondary inspection. More here.

Finally, this article, Why Your Family Name Was Not Changed at Ellis Island (and One That Was)

published by the New York Public Library recounts one story where a name was changed on the Ship Manifest. Mary Johnson was sent for secondary inspection as Johnson was dressed in male attire and exhibited some male characteristics. Johnson explained to the Inspectors that although born female, he had years back taken the name Fred Woodhull and lived his life as a man. Woodhull had previously lived and worked in the United States but had traveled back to England, his home country, and was now returning to the United States.

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. Said Woodhull: 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)"

And so, an Addendum was prepared and added to the Ship Manifest.

Well, if names didn't get changed at Ellis Island, how did families get new names?

In many different ways, as described in the various articles provided. Some took new names before leaving Europe and traveled under those names and that's what appears on the Ship Manifest. Most others though, changed names over a period of years once in the United States. Sometimes under pressure from the hiring hall, a school, at the suggestion of a friend. And some did so to appear more "American" hoping to avoid the prejudice and discrimination new waves of immigrants encountered.

As our nation re-examines many glorified and untrue narratives passed on for hundreds of years as American history, the Ellis Island Name Change story is best understood for what it is -- a myth.

Thanks for reading this lengthy blog (so much more to say) and for watching the Stairwell Teatro Episode. If you enjoyed it and feel better informed, please share it with your friends and colleagues.

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