Myth of Ellis Island Name Changes
surnames were changed
thousands of times, but professional researchers have found that name
changes were rare at Ellis Island (or at
, which was the
port of entry prior to
's opening). The myth of name changes usually revolves around the concept
that the immigrant was unable to communicate properly with the
English-speaking officials at
Ellis Island. However, this ignores the fact that
employed hundreds of translators who could speak, read, and write the
immigrants' native tongues. It also ignores all the documentation that an
immigrant needed to have in order to be admitted into the
In order to be admitted into the
as an immigrant in the late nineteenth century or later, one had to have
paperwork. Each immigrant had to have proof of identity. This would be a
piece of paperwork filled out in "the old country" by a clerk
who knew the language, and the paperwork would be filled out in the local
language, not in English (unless the "old country" was an
English-speaking country). The spelling of names on these documents
generally conformed to local spellings within the immigrant's place of
origin. Even if the person traveling was illiterate and did not know how
to spell his or her own name, the clerks filling out the paperwork knew
the spelling of that name in the local language or could sound it out
properly according to the conventions of the language used. Also, in many
countries one had to obtain an exit visa in order to leave. Again, exit
visas had to be filled out by local clerks who knew the language, and exit
visas were written in the local language.
A ship's passenger list had to be prepared by the captain of the ship or
his representatives before the ship left the old country. This list was
created from the travelers' documents. These documents were created when
the immigrant purchased his or her ticket. It is unlikely that anyone at
the local steamship office was unable to communicate with this man. Even
when the clerk selling the ticket did not speak the language of the
would-be emigrant, someone had to be called in to interpret. Also,
required exit visas and other paperwork had to be examined by ticket
agents before a ticket would be sold. The name was most likely recorded
with a high degree of accuracy at that time.
Next, the ship's captain or designated representative would examine each
passenger's paperwork. The ship's officials might not know the immigrant's
language, but they had to inspect the exit visa and the proof of identity.
They knew that immigrants would not be accepted into
without proper documentation and, if the paperwork wasn't there, the
passengers would be sent back home at the shipping company's expense! You
can believe that the ship's owners went to great lengths to insure the
accuracy of the paperwork, including names, places of birth and travel
plans. It is believed that many more people were turned away at the point
of embarkation than were ever turned away at
. In other words, most of those without proper documentation never got on
board the ship.
When the ship arrived at
, the captain or his representative would disembark first with the
passenger list. The
officials would then bring in interpreters to handle the interrogations.
These interpreters were usually earlier immigrants themselves or the
children of immigrants, and they all knew how to speak, read and write the
language of the immigrants.
The usual immigrant processing time was one to three days. During this
time, each immigrant was questioned about his/her identity, and all the
required documentation was examined in detail. Keep in mind that this was
not a quick two or three-minute conversation such as we have today at
international airports. In the days of steamships, the
officials had the luxury of time. They could make leisurely examinations.
The questioning at
would be done in the immigrant's native tongue. While the immigrant often
was illiterate, the interpreter doing the questioning always could read
and write the language involved.
employed interpreters for Yiddish, Russian, Lithuanian and all of the
European languages. The immigration center in
did the same for all the Chinese dialects as well as Japanese, Korean, and
many more Oriental languages. Other immigration centers in
and elsewhere followed similar procedures.
Anyone who did not have proper paperwork (in the native language) showing
the correct name and place of birth was sent back. Many thousands were
sent back for identification reasons or for medical reasons or because
they did not have sponsors in the
Most of the people who came through
did so with correct paperwork showing the correct or at least plausible
spellings of their real names in their original language.
There were a very few exceptions, however. Occasionally war refugees were
admitted without much documentation. This was especially true in 1945 and
1946. A few others succeeded in falsifying documents in order to gain
admittance when they could not be admitted under their true identities.
Occasionally a child was admitted under the surname of a stepfather when
the name of the natural father would have been more appropriate. Nobody
can document the number of exceptions, but most professional researchers
believe that the number of exceptions was very small.
Once settled into their new homes, however,
anything could happen. Millions of immigrants had their names changed
voluntarily or by clerks or by schoolteachers who couldn't pronounce or
spell children's names. Some immigrants changed their names in order to
obtain employment. Many immigrants found it easier to assimilate into
American culture if they had American-sounding names, so they gladly went
along with whatever their neighbors or schoolteachers called them.
However, the records at
remained in the original language.
more information about the myth that "the family name was changed at
," look at the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization's Web page at: