NOTE: This is an updated version of an article I first published on April 17, 2012. The topic arose again this week in response to some comments made on the Genealogy Roadshow television program. A couple of newsletter readers who are new to genealogy research asked questions about the history of immigration at Ellis Island. To answer their questions, I dusted off the earlier article, made a few minor changes to wording in order to emphasize some points that arose this week, and am republishing it here.
There is a family myth amongst tens of thousands of American families: "The name was changed at Ellis Island." The stories claim the immigrant arrived at Ellis Island and was unable to communicate with the officials. A record was then created by some official who assigned the immigrant a new name.
That is a great story but is always false. This fairy tale refuses to die. Let's look at a few simple facts:
1. Passenger lists were never created at Ellis Island. They were created abroad, beginning close to the immigrant's home, when the immigrant purchased his ticket for the ship. In 99% of the cases, the clerk filling out the forms and creating the passenger list in "the old country" knew how to speak, read, and write your ancestor's language. That clerk filled in the proper name. In the case of Eastern European or Oriental languages, those forms even included the correct non-Roman characters. To be sure, spelling variations were common as many immigrants were illiterate and often didn't know their own alphabets or how to spell their own names. The clerks wrote what they heard, which may or may not be the same spelling used elsewhere. Perhaps there was no "correct" spelling. Generations of your ancestors may have used the same surname without knowing how to spell it. If a person could not read or write and did not know the letters of his or her own alphabet, spelling was a minor issue for that person. However, what was recorded on various forms ALWAYS sounded correct, especially when pronounced in the immigrant's language.
It is unlikely that anyone at the local steamship office in "the old country" was unable to communicate with the immigrant or his/her family. Names were most likely recorded with a high degree of accuracy at that time. Those lists of names were later delivered to immigration officials at Ellis Island or other ports of entry.
The steamship companies were very aware that any passenger denied entry at Ellis Island or any other American port of entry was always sent back to the port of embarkation at the steamship company's expense. As a result, those steamship companies were very careful to make sure that each and every passenger had complete documentation, including the correct surname, before allowing that passenger to board the ship. Documentation was delivered to the ship's captain or to a member of his staff before the ship weighed anchor.
2. The passenger lists were always prepared in "the old country" by steamship company officials. Upon arrival in New York or any other port of entry, that passenger list was delivered by the ship's captain or a member of his staff to immigration officials BEFORE those passengers were allowed to leave the ship. (First class and second class passengers did receive faster treatment. However, most immigrants arrived in steerage.) If any immigrant arrived at Ellis Island and provided a different name to officials or had no documentation, he or she was always denied entry. If a brief investigation could not clear up the mystery, the immigrant was shipped back to the old country on the steamship's return trip.
3. The idea that the immigrant was unable to communicate with officials at Ellis Island is ludicrous. In fact, one third of all immigrant inspectors at Ellis Island in the early twentieth century were themselves foreign-born, and all immigrant inspectors spoke at least three languages. In addition, Ellis Island and other ports of entry also hired an army of interpreters, most of them as part-time employees. These interpreters always (repeat: ALWAYS) could speak, read, and write the languages of other immigrants.
Upon arrival at Ellis Island, would-be immigrants were assigned to different groups for processing. Those who spoke Polish were grouped together and assigned to an interpreter who spoke fluent Polish, those who spoke Italian were assigned to an Italian interpreter, and so forth. Each interpreter then lead his or her group through the immigration procedures and interviews. No immigrant was ever processed through immigration without an interpreter/guide, except perhaps for a few immigrants from English-speaking countries.
If a new immigrant arrived and no interpreter was available for his or her particular language, that immigrant was detained at Ellis Island until a qualified interpreter was located and brought in for the interview. Most immigrants were processed through Ellis Island within a day or two but there were cases where immigrants were detained for several days until an interpreter became available and proper documentation was examined. Nobody passed through the immigration process without being interviewed by someone who was fluent in a suitable language. Paperwork was also examined closely by the same interpreter who could read and write the language used in those documents.
For example, Fiorello LaGuardia was one of the hundreds of part-time interpreters employed at Ellis Island. He was American-born of immigrant parents: Achille La Guardia, an Italian immigrant from Cerignola, and Irene Coen, a Jewish lady from Trieste, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Fiorello was fluent in several dialects of Italian and could easily read and write Italian. Of course, he later became well known as the Mayor of New York for three terms from 1934 to 1945. He also was elected to Congress in 1916 and 1918, and again from 1922 through 1930. He earlier had been one of the many interpreters at Ellis Island. Hundreds, probably thousands, of Italian-speaking immigrants were guided through the immigration process by Fiorello LaGuardia.
NOTE: Many immigrants were refused entry for a variety of reasons and were returned. Estimates seem to vary from 12% to 18% of all would-be immigrants were denied entry into the United States and instead were sent back to their originating countries. The fates of most of these returnees have not been well documented.4. Later immigrants had to verify their correct names every year. Starting in July of 1940, the Alien Registration Act required every alien resident in the United States to register at their local post office every January. As part of the registration process, the immigrant had to provide ALL names by which he or she had ever been known, including his or her full name as used in "the old country" as well as the name used currently and any maiden name or nicknames ever used. Alien Registration requirements applied to all aliens over the age of fourteen, regardless of nationality and regardless of immigration status.
Despite these facts, the Ellis Island name-change story (or Castle Garden, or earlier versions of the same story) is as American as apple pie. However, there is little to no truth to these stories.
When Did the Names Change?
After processing through Ellis Island and settling within the United States, many immigrants DID change their names. In numerous cases, the names were changed for them by public officials, schoolteachers, shopkeepers, and neighbors. Anyone from Eastern Europe, with a name long on consonants and short on vowels, learned that his name often got in the way of a job interview or became the subject of ridicule at his child's school. Any change that might smooth their way to the American dream was seen as a step in the right direction. In many cases, these later name changes were made without court papers or any other official recognition.
In any case, the records at Ellis Island and other ports of entry always contained the correct original names, although with frequent spelling variations.