Why Your Family Name Was Not Changed at Ellis Island

The New York Public Library is the latest organization to publish an article about the myth of “the family name was changed at Ellis Island” and then describes exactly one exception. Almost every genealogy writer in the US, including myself, has written about the myth before. It is nice to see someone with the authority and credentials of the New York Public Library write about it. Perhaps this fairy tale will now be put to rest.

The article by Philip Sutton says many things, including:

“There is a myth that persists in the field of genealogy, or more accurately, in family lore, that family names were changed there. They were not. Numerous blogs, essays, and books have proven this. Yet the myth persists; a story in a recent issue of The New Yorker suggests that it happened. This post will explore how and why names were not changed.”

The article then humorously goes on to describe one exception. Despite the clarification of the name change myth, there was one person’s whose name actually was changed at Ellis Island. Harry Zarief, “the assistant concert master for Morton Gould,” and famously a father of quadruplets, had his name changed at Ellis Island from Zarief to Friedman. The man now named Harry Friedman apparently was not happy with the name change.

In 1944, HarryFriedman went to court and obtained a legal change of name, BACK TO ZARIEF!

You can find the article, Why Your Family Name Was Not Changed at Ellis Island, at https://goo.gl/DxpnMy.

My thanks to newsletter reader William M. Wilson for telling me about the article.

14 Comments

I do believe that names were not changed at the arrival at Ellis Island, but when the manifests were transcribed and made searchable, very many names and other information changed. I do not know who did that marvelous job, but I guess it was mainly Americans with no knowledge of the country or language where the immigrants came from. In that operation thousands of names were read wrong, in some cases very wrong. This fact which I suppose is valid for most countries, may be the origin to the myth. Thus the searchable database at Ellis Island is difficult in many cases because the names are changed from the original.

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Over the years I have assisted many newbie genealogists who insist Ellis Island inspectors routinely “Americanized” immigrants’ ethnic surnames and no matter what I say they remain convinced that this happened with their ancestors. I will be very glad to have this article on hand the next time I hit that wall.

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    My Godfather came to America about 1900 and died in 1973. Our name was shortened by the Ellis Island Inspector so that it would sound American. It was not our family’s choice.

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My dad had a neighbor who was from Italy. Her surname was Fox. He asked her why her name was Fox because it wasn’t Italian. She said when she came here the Inspector at Ellis Island asked her what her name in Italian meant and she said Fox. She said he then wrote Fox on her papers.

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I believe that no one answer such as described in this article fits all immigrants. There were plenty of names changed, if not intentionally because the inspectors could not understand the foreign speaking person who could at the same time not write in English, or for dozens of other reasons. My Grandfather, b. 1890 in Russia, d. 1972 Detroit, whom I interviewed on many occasions for genealogical and family history purposes in the 1960’s, told me that in indeed both names were changed. He knew…he was there…as were his two brothers. His name in Yiddish was Yussel Kazimierek. HE was told his name was “JOE” in English upon arrival. HE did not know anything about JOE or that he should have been called JOSEPH instead. So he accepted it. HE was told the inspector could not spell his last name and it had to be “AMERICANIZED” as it was too long for the form. So the worker changed it to KASMER, a common POLISH name at the time used by many other immigrants. His brothers were changed at the same time. They did not get together and discuss and decide on a last name..it was changed for them. Kazimierek to Kasmer. They had no choice.I will go to my grave believing my grandfather’s history told to me in person. Regina Bruner Markowicz

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    This article is like most pieces of research, it must be used as a piece of the puzzle but not the only piece. This article was written by a Brit. And He did not talk to his American ancestors to get the truth. He cannot say that 100 percent of everyone who went through those lines were not altered in any way. There are simply too many people who told the same story to their families about how the name changed. Does the author have any idea how hundreds of thousands of immigrants saw their experience in the same way and they were all wrong. That defies logic.

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I don’t think either perspective is absolute. Genealogists, of all people, know that recordkeeping systems are not airtight. Irregularities can and do creep in. Why are we so quick to insist this did not happen in this case? We aren’t witnesses to verbal exchanges that may have happened, and those won’t be in any written record. On the other hand, family stories are also not without their flaws. Perception and memory are both imperfect. Most experienced genealogists would agree, I think, that misspellings are not official name changes. But miscommunication isn’t uncommon between the record creator and the one being recorded. This must have been especially so in what had to have been a stressful experience for both immigrants and immigration officials. To me, the Ellis Island name change question is one of the largest and most fascinating unresolved conflicts in genealogy. Let’s get beyond this “myth” mentality and embrace both sides of the equation. The actual records and the family stories both add to our understanding of the immigrant experience. We should not discount either

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I have ancestors with really long Slovak names that were not change at Ellis Island. They gave their names when they left Slovakia and through my research the last names were the same in Slovakia. A very nice priest from Presov helped me find my family and only a few changes were made before boarding the ship. My mother grandfather was Johannes Grinvalsky which show up on the passenger list, although every census until 1940 spells it incorrectly. He went by John Michael through his lifetime. My mother’s grandmother was a Zaharek and she too was found with that name on a passenger list. The only names that were altered prior to their voyages were my mother’s other grandparents. Andrew Tomalyo came over as Andrew Tomala and Annie Kovaly came over as Annie Koval. However, researching the family they dropped the “yo” and “y” prior to their journey so it was a bit difficult during my Slovak research as I had to figure out what their Slovak last names were. .

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My great grandparents immigrated from the Baden area of Germany. Their name in German was Wohrle. They lived close to the French border and the family name in French was Woehrle. Their immigration papers from Germany had it spelled the German way, but in the U.S. it became the French spelling. I’m not sure why they left it that way and I don’t know if it was written by a customs inspector the French way, but there was, indeed, a name change.

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My ancestors in America go back 300 years. Names WERE changed. To say they weren’t is absurd. In 1738, my ancestors took the oath of allegiance. There are three lists and three scribes. Each scribe wrote the name as they heard it, according to their tongue. One scribe was English, one German, one appeared to be French. There are three spellings on the lists, each entirely different than how the name was consistently spelled in Alsace for at least 70 years. The first American generation changed one letter.
Another ancestor’s name is spelled four different ways on his 1770 Will despite the fact he signed his own name…correctly…on the same will and many other documents. The attorney and clerk made mistakes.
My in-laws thought their last name was changed at Ellis Island. I proved the grandmother changed it dozens of years later when the grandfather applied for citizenship. A nearly 100-year-old myth debunked.
The first time one ancestor bought land in the early 1800s, the recorder spelled the name Teaford instead of Dufford, and a new family line was born.
Any of us who’ve been doing this long know mistakes were made, clerks and churches changed names, people were illiterate and didn’t know how to spell names, or they just decided they wanted a fresh start.
Then there are the Internet folks who never make misteaks. (sic)

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    —> Any of us who’ve been doing this long know mistakes were made, clerks and churches changed names, people were illiterate and didn’t know how to spell names, or they just decided they wanted a fresh start.

    Agreed. But the article above points out that names were not changed at Ellis Island. They certainly were changed in many other places, both before and after Ellis Island went into operation. However, as pointed out in the article above, the immigration inspectors at Ellis Island never wrote down names and therefore had no capability to change them, even if they wanted to. Instead, they worked with passenger lists handed to them by each ship’s captain or a representative of the captain. The names were always written before boarding the ship in “the old country” (and may have had errors then) and that list was then given to the immigration inspectors at Ellis Island.

    The immigration officials never wrote names and never transcribed names.

    Most of the passenger lists are available online today at http://www.ellisisland.org

    There are no lists ever made by the immigration officials as they had no need to create such lists. They simply used the passenger lists which still exist today.

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    Thank you! Good explanation! I do know that a lot of people back in the 1800s were illiterate. Some couldn’t even spell or write their names! So, I believe they picked the most common spelling and that’s what it became when they entered America.

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    —> So, I believe they picked the most common spelling and that’s what it became when they entered America.

    Actually, it probably was the most common spelling in “the old country.”

    All passenger lists were filled out at the port of embarkation before the immigrants were allowed to board the ship. The people in the old country used whatever spelling that made sense to them.

    Upon arrival at Ellis Island, the immigration officials didn’t write any names down. They simply examined the passenger lists given to them by the ship’s captain or the captain’s representative, the same passenger list that had been filled out in the old country, before the ship weighed anchor and sailed for America.

    Since the immigration officials did not create any new lists, the old passenger list was used, complete with spellings, European alphabets (umlauts, diacriticals, and more).

    I believe the procedure was different for Oriental languages that did not use a European alphabet but I have not yet been able to find the details of that. I do know the passenger lists (in the Oriental language) and interpreters were used but I do not yet understand if there was any need to record the names in a European alphabet. Possibly not. There was no need for the immigration official to speak directly to the immigrant as interpreters always did that.

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If the claim is that no names were changed in the Great Hall because the inspectors there didn’t have cause to write down names, that’s one thing. Passenger lists for arrivals were required after 1819, while manifests (written on departure) were required only in 1903. If an arrival list was compiled while the ship was docked at Ellis Island, there was every opportunity for an immigrant’s name to be changed there, just not in the Great Hall. Unless it can be shown that arrival lists were actually written at departure, contrary to the requirements of US law, the official meme is almost certainly wrong.

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