"My great-grandpa's name was changed at Ellis Island!" How often have we genealogists heard this statement? But do you realize that is not true? There is not one shred of evidence to support the claim that officials changed names when an immigrant arrived at Ellis Island.
Officials not only did not have the time to start assigning new names to incoming passengers, they also did not have the authority to do so. Check how many ships were arriving daily and how many passengers on average were on each one... then think about the lineups of immigrants waiting to be cleared. Think about the math - the sheer numbers of immigrants arriving during certain years. There was not time for officials to do more than process each immigrant as quickly as possible.
Sometimes immigrants used incorrect names such as the surname of a stepfather rather than the biological father, or a name the family had adopted for other reasons. Sometimes it was deliberate and an immigrant arrived under the name of someone else. Those arrival names were often changed by the immigrants themselves later in life.
One of the most common reason that your ancestor's name on the manifest does
not match the surname your father and grandfather have used, is that it
was a name unfamiliar to English speaking clerks, and was entered
phonetically in other documents, such as census records.
an immigrant chose to "Americanize" their surname themselves and simply
began using their new name a year or so after settling in America.
When an immigrant's new name no longer matched that shown on their
official immigration record such as a ship's passenger list, he or she
might face difficulties voting, in legal proceedings, or naturalization.
Below are some sample letters representing typical cases of immigrants who made their own decisions to change their surnames.
How Diamond became Cohen…
How Kohnovalsky became Cohn…
How Bahash became Amber…
How Shukowsky became Zakotsky…
How Asszony became Miazaroz…
An excellent article on this topic called "American Names / Declaring Independence" can be found at Immigrant Name Changes