Your Family Name Changed at Ellis Island? Are you sure?

by Steven Dugan

Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954 must have had many questions. Questions about being accepted in their new country, jobs, schools, and where they were going to live were probably at the top of their list. But what about changing their last names or making them sound more anglicized? One popular myth about Ellis Island is that immigration officials anglicized the last names of many immigrants so they would be easier to pronounce and understand. How many of us know people whose names have been anglicized? For instance, names like Juan are changed to John, and Busch is changed to Bush. So, were names really changed with purpose at Ellis Island, or is there more to the story?

According to many sources and Ellis Island records this is one of the most debunked myths in the genealogy field. If any errors were made to immigrant’s names, they most likely happened in the immigrant’s home country. In an interview with Smithsonian Magazine, Peter Urban, a National Park Service Ranger who interprets the history of Ellis Island, explains that an immigrant’s journey, as expected, started at home. First, immigrants had to purchase a place on a ship, whether bound for New York Harbor or another port of entry. Before they left home, immigrants would register their names with the shipping clerk of the ship company who would make all attempts to confirm the identity and name of each passenger, including correct spelling.  When immigrants were being processed at Ellis Island, their names were already provided to the agents from the ship’s manifest (passenger list). “If anything, Ellis Island officials were known to correct mistakes in passenger lists,” says Philip Sutton, a librarian at the New York Public Library.

Making name changes for everyone with a difficult name entering Ellis Island would have slowed down the operation of handling the enormous number of immigrants waiting to enter the country, who were already anxious after leaving their homeland and physically tired from a long trip. The last thing they were looking forward to was another long wait entering the United States.

If the health screening of an immigrant concerned Ellis Island officials, the immigrant was sent to a federal hospital located on the Island to recuperate. After it was determined that no health risk remained, officials resumed their screening. From the Homestead Museum’s collection.

Between 1892 and 1912, immigration laws were less strict than they are today. “…if an immigrant made it to Ellis Island, he or she were likely allowed into the country,” says Urban.  And with a large number of immigrants arriving each day, efficiency was key. Immigrants were given health inspections and questioned before they were allowed into the country. Further screening included questions about the type of work an immigrant could perform and the name of a sponsor, if they had one. Agents were trained to process as many immigrants as possible. It is estimated that the 500 or so employees at Ellis Island were able to interview each immigrant in a matter of four to seven hours, which works out to 400-500 immigrants per day. One day in particular was incredibly busy, when agents processed a staggering 12,000 immigrants on April 17, 1907.

Ellis Island officials were also well prepared for communicating in the multiple languages spoken by new arrivals. A report from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services shows that from 1892 to 1924, “one-third of all immigrant inspectors were themselves foreign-born, and all immigrant inspectors spoke an average of three languages.” Among the many inspectors at Ellis Island was Fiorello LaGuardia, future congress member, three-time mayor of New York City, and namesake of one of the airports in the New York Metropolitan Area. “The son of an Italian father and a Jewish mother from Austria-Hungary, LaGuardia spoke Italian, German, Yiddish, and Croatian.” It must have been comforting to new immigrants to be welcomed into the country by someone who spoke their language.

When you encounter name changes in your genealogy research, here are a few things to keep in mind. First of all, as immigrants assimilated into American society, many of them did anglicize their names over time, but that could be years after they arrived. There are different reasons why someone would anglicize or change their name. One reason, whether it was a first and/or last name, was to make a fresh start in a new country. Another was to make the name easier to pronounce. One of my family names, for example, is Nonnemacher. Sometime between 1880 and 1900, the spelling of this German last name was anglicized to Nonamaker. Another reason some immigrants changed their name was to hide a criminal past or to disassociate themselves with a well-known name or a particular nationality. Be ready for any possibility in your research. Some name changes will be easier to recognize (e.g., an anglicized last name), but others might be more difficult (e.g., a complete name change). You never know where your research will lead you.

If you’re interested in family history, we invite you to attend It’s All Relative, a two-part genealogy workshop at the Homestead scheduled for March 16 and 30, from 10 a.m. to noon each day. The workshop is ideal for beginners, or if you need motivation to get back into your research. The first session will cover the basics of genealogy research, such as how to collect and organize facts, documenting your research, and accessing resources both online and in person. The second session will help participants dig deeper with further tools, including ways to break through road blocks (when the trail of an ancestor goes cold), and tips for dating photographs. The workshop is free. A limited number of spots remain available. Please call the museum at (626) 968-8492 or visit us online for more information.

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