Using Basic Genealogy Tools and Methods to Show that Your Family Name Was NOT Changed at Ellis Island

There is a common misconception, call it an old wives tale or an urban legend, that family names were often changed at Ellis Island. Such myths gain a great deal of credibility when newspapers such as the New York Times, the country’s “paper of record”, perpetuates these myths by repeating them, in this case in obituaries.

Kenneth A. Bravo, JD did a bit of research and found about half a dozen Times obituaries with similar erroneous Ellis Island stories. After doing the research on each, he was able to show the original name for each of them.

Bernice Bennett recently interviewed Kenneth Bravo about the experience. He describes the common misconception in Bernice’s podcast at

My thanks to newsletter reader Marlis Humphrey for telling me about the podcast.


I was surprised to find that the linked summary article didn’t give any examples, or really anything other than multiple statements that such and such was true. Pretty useless, I thought; though I actually believe the researcher proved exactly what he said he did, and that the person who wrote the summary was at fault. “After doing the research on each, he was able to show the original name for each of them,” she wrote, but showed nothing. Probably she wanted us to listen to the audio stream to find out the secret facts.


I listened to the blog, and the researcher does give some examples, enough that she kind of cuts off how many he wants to give. Among other things, he wanted the NY Times to do an article on what he sees as a fascinating topic–that people think names were changed at Ellis Island, when in fact, it didn’t happen. I’ve read an article (my memory’s bad at the moment and I don’t remember where) indicating a single exception–someone who booked passage as a member of the opposite sex, and was found out upon arrival at Ellis Island. Their name on the passenger list is crossed out, and the real name is inserted. But that’s not what people mean when they say the name was changed.

My mother insisted that one of her grandfathers had his name changed at Ellis Island, even had down pat the sentence the “inspector” said that changed the family’s name forever. The fact that this sentence never varied in the telling, over many years, indicates to me that it was part of family oral history. She wouldn’t listen to my explanation, which makes sense in a way, as she must have gotten the story from her mother, this man’s daughter. Who was I to contradict that? I still haven’t found this guy’s immigration records at Castle Gardens, Boston, or Quebec, or records leaving Norway. His obit, which I did find, says he immigrated in 1868, long before Ellis Island existed. I have records from Norway prior to 1868 in the first name my mother knows, and from the US after that in the second name she knows, so I agree, it got changed. His brothers all made the same change. How and when is probably a far more interesting story than just “at Ellis Island.”


I seems to be one of the most popular american genealogical myths that immigrants names were regularly shanged on Ellis Island Ellis Island may have been the last time the original name was properly spelled out. Swedish immigrants often changed their names when they came to USA in must cases it was small changes in spelling like Andersson became Anderson or Pettersson or Pettersdotter became Peterson Svensson became,Swanson. But in many cases they took totally different swedish names like Nordin,Sundberg, Nyman names that were swedish but had no resemblance to their old patronymic names.sometimes these new names were further anglicised l different siblings also sometimes took different last names in USA. the name change mostly took place soon after arrival or whitin the first years of arrival.
When did the myth that names were changed on ellis Island taake hold and why is it so popular ?? Why is the fact that the immigrants changed their names by themselves so hard to admit ?


The change in our family came from school! My grandfather “Mueller” always said the teacher at school changed it to ‘Miller’ and it stayed that way ever since. It was probably a spelling thing and not hearing the German or knowing what to do with it!


Dick, Maybe your reference to the one documented name change is from this NYPL blog about this Ellis Island Myth:
A passenger “Frank Woodhall” was really a woman, Mary Johnson, dressed as a man and the unique circumstances led to the “correction” to the passenger list at Ellis island.


One branch of my husband’s Danish ancestors were Jensen in Denmark, Jensen on the immigration records and other documents in the US, they eventually changed to Johnson and there is a period of time when the usage overlapped, which made tracking them interesting, even though they were always in the same place.


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