July 3, 2015

Was Great Grandpa's Name Changed at Ellis Island?

Was Great Grandpa's Name Changed at Ellis Island?
 "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.

Sometimes 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

2 comments:

Jan Murphy said...

Philip Sutton at the NYPL Blog wrote an article about this ... and has one interesting case where the name on the outbound register from England doesn't match the US Passenger list. http://www.nypl.org/blog/2013/07/02/name-changes-ellis-island

Art Crocker said...

I live in a Mennonite community in Central Kansas and we have a number of families with the surname Jantzen. While visiting Sioux Falls, South Dakota, I met a man who had grown up in a Mennonite community in Western Kansas and had attended college in the town that I live in. His surname was Johnson and that he had lots of Jantzen cousin in our community. He told me that his great-grandfather was an emigrant from the Ukraine of German/Dutch ancestry and when asked his name at Ellis Island, Jantzen was interpreted as Johnson and that was the name he used following.