Family Stories and Other Fairy Tales

Do you have a family story handed down over the years? Perhaps an ancestor was a ship’s captain. Or perhaps the family name was changed at Ellis Island. Or some lady in your family tree was a Cherokee princess. Another story I have heard many times is that some immigrant was the illegitimate child of the Russian czar or another royal person. Proving such stories can be difficult for one very simple reason: they often are not true! A more common scenario is a family story that contains a bit of truth but was embellished over the generations.

If you are using a family story to trying to find an ancestor, I’d suggest that you consider the possibility that the story is only partially true or at least was built on some amount of facts. I can offer two examples from my family’s stories plus a third example from someone else’s family.

First, when I was a child I was told that “our family took part in the Salem Witch Trials.” When I heard those stories, I assumed that the participant(s) was named Eastman although I am not sure that was ever clearly stated. I worked on that assumption for years and tried to find the story behind our family’s “participation.” One problem: my Eastman ancestors never lived in Salem! In fact, in the 1690s my Eastman ancestors were living about 40 miles further north in Salisbury, Massachusetts. Of course, that doesn’t rule out their participation, but it does reduce the likelihood of their being actively involved.

Next, after several years of reading almost every scrap of information I could find about the Salem Witch Trials, I eventually discovered that another ancestor of mine on my grandmother’s side of the family did live in Salem at the time. His name was Goodall, not Eastman. I never found any mention of him in any of the Witch Trial records, but I did learn that his son-in-law served on the jury. So yes, there was a nugget of truth to the claim that “our family participated in the Salem Witch Trials.” Indeed, it was a very distant relative: the son-in-law of an ancestor. However, the “real story” turned out to be somewhat different than what I had imagined.

My second family story involves a family claim that an ancestor had served as “a captain in the Revolutionary War.” This story turned out to be factual, although not what I had assumed. I found that he served as a ferry boat captain, crossing a river time and again all day long in the years before a bridge was built. I have never found a description of his “ship” although I suspect it was not much bigger than a rowboat.

For a third example, I recently corresponded with a lady who expressed frustration at not being able to find an ancestor listed in the records at Ellis Island. She felt that he must be listed. After all, she told me that “his name had been changed at Ellis Island.” She assured me that he had arrived in this country without paperwork and he could not speak English. He arrived with only fifty cents in his pocket. Since he couldn’t speak English, the authorities at Ellis Island had given him a name which he used forever after. He eventually made his way to Indianapolis, where he joined relatives who had immigrated before him.

That’s a great story, but let’s examine the so-called facts, one at a time.

“His name had been changed at Ellis Island.”

In fact, this never happened, despite all the claims otherwise. The story probably has a nugget of truth as many immigrants did change their names eventually. They processed through Ellis Island by using their true names, although often with spelling variations. After all, most of these people were illiterate and had no idea how to spell their own names in their native language, much less in English. Their names were copied from the documents in their possession which had been filled out by clerks back in “the old country.” Spelling variations were common, but the names on the documents almost always sounded the same as the true names.

In the months and years following immigration, these immigrants settled in new neighborhoods and were assimilated into American life. Indeed, many did change their names over the years, but not at Ellis Island. Names were not changed by immigration officials but often were later changed by schoolteachers, by local officials, or by the immigrants themselves.

“Since he couldn’t speak English, the authorities…”

In fact, most immigrants could not speak English, except for those arriving from the British Isles. Non-English languages were so common that the authorities at Ellis Island were well prepared. Ellis Island hired an army of part-time interpreters during its years of operation. Ships would arrive at any time of the day or night, and first-class, second-class, and third-class passengers would leave the ship within a few hours. However, those traveling in steerage (which includes the majority of our ancestors and certainly included anyone “with only fifty cents in his pocket”), remained on board at least overnight and were processed the following day, at the earliest. Delays of two or three days were not uncommon.

During the afternoon and evening hours after the ship’s arrival, a call went out for the part-time employees who worked as interpreters and were able to speak the language(s) of the passengers. If a ship arrived from Italy, no steerage passengers were ever allowed off the ship until Italian interpreters were available to interview them at length. The same was true for passengers who spoke Russian, Polish, Czech, Yiddish, or other languages.

Fiorello La Guardia at a desk at Ellis Island circa 1908

One of the part-time employees became famous in later years: as a young man, Fiorello Laguardia was employed for several years at Ellis Island as an interpreter. Although he was born and raised in America, he spoke Italian fluently and could read and write the language. He assisted thousands of Italian immigrants process through Ellis Island. He was but one of hundreds of interpreters who worked at the immigration processing center. Today Laguardia is remembered as mayor of New York City from 1934 to 1945.

Occasionally, a passenger who did not speak the language of the other passengers would be on board. For instance, a Greek national might travel overland from Greece to Italy and then purchase a ticket on a ship sailing from Italy to New York. The ship presumably was filled with Italian-speaking passengers, save for this one Greek person or family. In such cases, that Greek-speaking family would be detained at Ellis Island until a Greek interpreter was located. That might require a few hours or, occasionally, an extra overnight stay. Ellis Island had dormitories built just for such requirements. Nobody was allowed to pass through the immigration center until after they had spoken with an interpreter and their documentation had been examined by someone who could read and write the language of their documents.

“He had arrived in this country without paperwork.”

The requirements for admission to the United States were strict. First, one had to have proper identification in their possession, filled out in the old country. Even if the ancestors in question could not read or write, they always had some paperwork (probably written in their native language) that clearly identified who they were and where they were from.

Anyone who did not possess identification was sent back to the port of embarkation AT THE STEAMSHIP COMPANY’S EXPENSE. Of course, the steamship companies all knew this and did not want the financial burden of carrying non-paying passengers back to the old country. Therefore, all the steamship companies typically checked the identification of passengers before they could board the ship. Anyone who lacked proper identification usually was not allowed to board at the port of embarkation.

One of the facts about Ellis Island that we do not learn in school is that thousands of would-be immigrants were denied entry into the United States and were sent back. Most of those denied entry were for medical reasons, but others who slipped past the steamship companies’ scrutiny were denied entry for lack of identification or for possessing no visible means of support.

NOTE: I am told that some exceptions to the rules concerning required identification were made in 1945 and 1946 as a flood of refugees from war-torn Europe arrived at Ellis Island. These folks often did not possess identification. Their passage often was paid by the Red Cross or other relief agencies. If your ancestor arrived in 1945 or 1946, it is possible that he or she did not possess identification.

“He arrived with only fifty cents in his pocket.”

To be sure, many immigrants were nearly penniless upon arrival. I could quibble that the immigrant in question might have had fifty pence or fifty lira or fifty rubles, but never fifty cents unless he arrived from some country that used dollars and cents at the time. Whatever the currency, it certainly is true that millions of immigrants were nearly penniless upon arrival. However, immigrants were not allowed into the country if they were to be paupers. They all had to either have money in their pocket (which steerage passengers rarely had) or they had to have some documentation proving they had financial support.

Let’s assume that he really did arrive with the equivalent of fifty cents in his pocket. Who paid for his ticket? How did he or she pay for meals while on board the ship on a voyage that lasted a week or two?

Trans-Atlantic passage was never cheap. Somebody had to pay for the ticket. In many cases, passage was paid by some other relative who had gone to America earlier and had earned the money. It was very common for immigrants to save their money and pay for the passage of their relatives left behind. The newer immigrants were expected to do the same: save their money and pay for still other relatives to join them in America. In many cases, the immigrant had a letter in his possession written by a relative who had arrived in America earlier. The letter (often written by a clergyman or others) would state, “I will provide food and shelter for this person (or this family).”

Sometimes the letter came from a new employer in America who had paid for the passage. Many immigrants without relatives in America were “sponsored” by corporations. Indeed, the mills of New England and elsewhere sent many recruiters to the old country, looking for new employees. The mills of New England were full of sponsored immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Canada, and elsewhere. Many of their descendants still live in many of the mill towns.

Mill workers in New Bedford, Massachusetts

The would-be immigrants would sign employment agreements for two or three years, sometimes longer. In turn, their new employers would provide steamship tickets, often for the new employee and his family, along with dormitory accommodations upon arrival. Thousands of immigrants did arrive at Ellis Island with little money in their pockets but holding letters (with their correct names clearly written) that guaranteed passage to an American city and to guaranteed employment. If your ancestor went to work in a mill or factory soon after arrival, especially if that mill was not in New York City, be suspicious that his passage was paid in advance by his new employer.

“He eventually made his way to Indianapolis where he joined relatives who had immigrated before him.”

Now the story makes sense. The ancestor did not arrive at Ellis Island without knowing anyone in America. He probably carried documentation that stated he was to go to Indianapolis where his livelihood was guaranteed.

New York City had many “travelers’ aid” societies that helped immigrants board trains and travel. Such agencies would include the Italian Society of Emigration, the St. Joseph’s Home for the Protection of Polish Immigrants, the Swedish Lutheran Home for Immigrants, and other mutual aid societies. Many of these organizations are still in business today.

A new arrival in America who could not speak English and could not read or write any language and had little money in his pocket could not be expected to find the train station and purchase a ticket for a distant city that was a 2- or 3-day trip inland. Such immigrants always had at least a bit of assistance from people who spoke their language.

Indeed, my correspondent had a family story that appeared to be built on a bit of truth but had been embellished over time.

Now let’s return to your family story that has been passed down over the generations. The story may be wrong or, as in the case of my correspondent, may have been “enhanced” significantly.

Let’s examine a few other common family fables:

There is no such thing as a “Cherokee princess,” despite the thousands of people who believe they have such a princess in the family tree. The Cherokees and other American Indians had no concept of royalty. There were no princes or princesses anywhere amongst American Indians. Even the title of “chief” was not hereditary; it was not passed down from father to son. If you have a true Indian Princess in your family tree, she obviously was from India.

In many countries, ALL illegitimate children were referred to as “the child of the king” or the “child of the Czar.” In most cases, they had no royal parentage.

In Canada, nearly a thousand young female immigrants were admitted as “the King’s daughters.” However, that title refers to the fact that their passage was paid by the French government. In effect, the King paid for their passage whereas other young women often had passage paid by their fathers, brothers, or other relatives. Historians have never found a single one of these young women that was a true daughter of any king.

Not everyone sailed on the Mayflower. The list of 102 passengers on that tiny ship is well known and documented in many places. (See Wikipedia at Thousands of families erroneously believe that their ancestors sailed on the Mayflower. If all the stories were true, the Mayflower would have been bigger than the Queen Mary!

“All the records were destroyed in the war (or fire or flood or tornado or other disaster).” This is NEVER true in North America and rarely was true in Europe. First of all, there is no central repository of records. Tax records are typically stored at a local government facility, military records are usually stored at a national location, baptism records are stored in the local church, and marriage records are typically stored in the church with duplicates often stored at the town or city offices. And so on. No one disaster ever destroys all the records of a person’s existence.

“The name was changed at Ellis Island.” Not true. Get over it.

“He jumped ship upon arrival in America.” This one is possibly true but has been claimed far too often. In short, be skeptical. Even if it is true, you will probably never find any documentation to prove it. Those who jumped ship didn’t want to leave records for fear of deportation! It is a great family story, but probably is not true. Even if there is some truth to the story, you probably will never prove it.

“He arrived with fifty cents in his pocket.” Ask yourself: who paid for the ticket and how did he survive in his first few weeks in America? How did he or she travel from Ellis Island to their final destination if they had no money? Also, why did the authorities at Ellis Island allow him to pass through when they sent all the other paupers back? Yes, many immigrants did arrive with little or no money, but they always had some guaranteed method of support after arrival. If they didn’t possess such proof, they were sent back.


If you cannot find information about an ancestor’s story that’s based upon family folklore, question the story. It could be partially right and partially wrong, or all wrong. Go back and ask yourself how you would approach your research if you didn’t know about the family story. Would your research point in a different direction?

If you have already spent a lot of time trying to prove a family story and have been unsuccessful, I would suggest that you stop and try to find that ancestor through traditional genealogy research methods. If the story is correct, the facts will eventually prove it.


Dick: One of your best pieces ever. Please republish once or twice each year.

Liked by 1 person

A very timely post. I have been attempting for several weeks now to convince a colleague that the information she has in her family tree is all based on family lore, usually prefaced by ‘by my aunt/uncle/grandmother etc. told me” and not substantiated by records. As her ancestor is possibly part of my family tree I have been attempting to put the family together with documented records, but it is becoming difficult as the family gave different information as to ages, place of birth etc. on three consecutive census records. One thing was constant — his age. It was exactly 10 years apart in 1910, 1920 & 1930 giving a birthdate of c. 1851. My colleague believes he was born in 1838! I’ve sent her your post and suggested she subscribe.


    The thirteen year difference in birthdates could indicate two separate individuals have been telescoped into one — father & son, two brothers, a pair of close cousins bearing the same name, etc.


That is the best version of what happened at Ellis Island I’ve ever seen. I’m saving it for the people who tell me that their ancestor did it all another way!
You are certainly keeping busy during this pandemic and we are getting a lot of extra information! Thanks so much.
Keep up the great work but I will still hope things will settle down again sooner than later.
Stay safe!
Mary Holland


Apropos to nothing…my memory as a child of Mayor LaGuardia was listening to him on the radio reading the Sunday comic strips. Just a sweet memory from about 80 years ago.
Stay safe everyone and be well,


I enjoyed the article very much, however disagree with one statement, that about lost records. Vast numbers of court houses in the south were destroyed during the Civil War. No deeds left prior to the War, no marriage records, no tax records, no court decisions, etc. Some places were a total loss, and other, like the one here in my home town, the deeds and marriages books were saved, but the building and other records were lost.


Ellis Island didn’t open until 1892. If US Census data lists an earlier year of immigration, start looking at passenger lists in other ports, usually Castle Garden, NY, aka Castle Clinton:
Or try Boston or Philadelphia or New Orleans or a couple of locations on the St. Lawrence Seaway in Canada.
If they came from the three Scandinavian countries and settled in MN, WI, IA, Dakota Territory (later ND, SD), the likelihood of arriving in Quebec is great (distance is shorter, fare was cheaper), altho a few came through NY in the 1870s-1880s, one came through Philadelphia the first time, then NY or Boston the second time). One of the immigrant feeder shipping lines also owned the Canadian Pacific Railway, so immigrants could travel overland and come south through rather open ports of entry by train, boat on the Red River of the North, or – if early enough – by ox cart trails. There are some transcribed passenger lists, but if you don’t understand the patronymic naming system, most of it won’t make much sense (so it’s better to search by year and port of embarkation), nor will the church records in Norway, Denmark, or Sweden if you don’t understand the patronymic naming system thoroughly (the first two have free access to their records, the third has a fee-based web site, but it’s worth it if you know the patronymic naming system because they’ve now scanned all the records in colored digital format).
Scandinavian location or farm names were sometimes adopted as surnames in America (or immigrants switched back and forth between using either their patronymic name or their father’s patronymic name and then switched to a location name used as a surname, but it might not be the farm location of birth, but location names were not generally used until the 20th century in those countries unless there were extenuating circumstances. They used farm names as addresses until they had to choose a permanent surname by law (mid-19th century in Denmark; 1902 in Sweden, 1923 in Norway, but in some cases in port cities they started using inherited surnames by 1900; not so much in the country until they had to). [In my Norwegian ancestors’ case they used an alternate spelling of the last farm they lived on before emigrating as their US surname, not the names of their birth farms or other farms they lived on before emigrating, but changed the spelling a bit later, so there are US documents with both spellings. My Swedish grandfather and his brother used an American spelling of their father’s patronymic name by the 1895 MN state census. My Danish ancestors used the same patronymic name found in records on both sides of the pond, some retained the Danish sen suffix and some switched to the American son.]
Get ALL relevant documents in America for the immigrants. I had a 45-year-old brick wall on my Swedish grandfather because I lacked the name of the location he came from in Sweden. When MN put their birth index info online, I ordered birth certificates for all of my father’s siblings because I’d found birth/death certificates for the eldest siblings who had all died as infants and no one had ever told me about them. On the birth certificate for my dad’s next eldest sister was the name of the farm my grandfather came from in Sweden (the only US document I’ve ever seen with the correct location), and only very slightly misspelled, so I walked on air for about six months after finding family in Sweden as well as family I didn’t know my grandfather had in the US; he died when I was a baby, so I had no info on any of that, and the location where he sent letters to his sister is where she moved to – so did the youngest brother, but he died young of a stroke – altho she and the two brothers had all been born in the same location, so the mailing address was of no use. The eldest brother who came to America disappears after the 1895 MN census, or there’s a “maybe” he made it to Illinois because of one entry in the 1900 US census that matches his month and year and country of birth, but I can’t prove if it is or is not him.
Genealogy is a lovely jigsaw puzzle to put together, but one must pay attention to details. Dick is right about the family stories and fairy tales. In 55 years of genealogy research I have proved and disproved many family stories and found documents on things no one else found, can now mostly understand penmanship in four languages going back four hundred years (thankfully I have people to turn to who can decipher what I can’t), unraveled false info in obits and found documents to disprove it, been frustrated by gravestones with inaccurate info carved in stone, and laughed about info I discovered that wasn’t a tall tale after all. Genealogy research can be a wild ride…! 😀


    Thank you for this excellent post!


    Arthur Carter Rogers August 13, 2020 at 5:58 pm

    Your post included very interesting information on changes in last names. My wife’s grandfather, Niels Peter Nielsen, born in Denmark for some reason changed his last name to Lang. One of his brothers also immigrated to the US and he changed his last name to Lang. A third brother immigrated to the US according to my wife’s mother and lived in Florida but we can’t find him by his birth name or by Lang. A brother who stayed in Denmark kept his birth last name. I thought that the two Lang brothers may have been sponsored by a person with the last name Lang. However, her grandfather probably went to Nebraska first (he wound up in Blair, Nebraska at Trinity Seminary/Dana College, then Minnesota, then Nebraska, then Chicago), while his brother settled in Colorado. Thanks for the information about Danish name changes/farm locations. Very interesting
    Carter Rogers


My father’s name is spelled, in Polish, NOWICKI. He met a Polish American man returning to the USA before he boarded the ship. The man explained that the “W” in Polish was pronounced similar to the “V” in English. Before he boarded he arranged at the Russian/Polish Consulate, to have his name changed and spelled NOVICKI on his documents. His sister did not make the change and when you look at the ship manifest his name is spelled with a “V” but her name is still spelled with a “W” but they are noted as brother and sister. I have proof of the story, a copy of the manifest.
Great article Dick.


That is the fun of genealogy – research exposes the truth. When you start with no information, the surprises and scandals are uncovered with those researching before and most are wiling to share what they have found, old records, cemeteries, etc., help along the way. Some stories you find to be true – some are new. After 35 years of research, I have a roomful of records and made many friends along the way.


We have a family story that was considered a tale made up by my grandfather that turned out to be true. My great grandfather was a county sheriff in the late 19th century and early 20th century. In those days sheriffs and their families lived in the court house where the prisoners were also kept. Grandpa told a story about how his sister caught a prisoner trying to escape over the wall by holding onto his “britches” until help came. We thought it was just something Grandpa told but not a factual story. However, in the fifties, someone sent us a clipping from a newspaper of a column that reprinted stories from the newspaper 50 years ago. The reprinted item recounted the incident which it said happened “yesterday.” My grandfather was correct in all details.


Thanks Dick for well-placed comments! I have been searching for the better part of 20 years for my ancestor, who was “without a doubt” died in the Battle of Long Island in the Rev. War. Search as I may the only thing I came up with recently was that “he might have been recruited by the British after the Battle as a prisoner.” We have a name and place in Nova Scotia with land but it dead ends. Family and records have not been found by his name since then – so it was assumed that he died. Another Family Tree Magazine writer says one should overlook these blemishes.NO! History is history. But the myth goes on! I will send to you under separate cover my paperwork following Mills: Evidence Explained/ to come up with a rationale. Thanks for your continued search for the truth. CHBloss


My father told me that his great grandfather had been a guard at Vatican city before he emigrated to Canada from Belgium in th 1870s and that this same man had also fought in the Franco-Prussian war. I was able to find a picture of a young “Grampa Treau” in the uniform of the Papal Zouaves which was a volunteer unit of young Catholic men from various countries that was raised to protect Papal states during the Wars of the Italian Unification in the 1860s. So the story had at least a kernal of truth.


Great article! My ancestor Lucy Flinn was descended from Queen Elizabeth, married a poor stable boy, came to America, never claimed the inheritance, etc. She was born 1813 in Michigan. I found the “connection” in a death certificate that her own grandmother’s death certificate named Elizabeth Tudor born 1783..
Joy Lehmann


    Joy Lehman –
    Tudor is a Welsh name. Have you tried searching records in Wales? Or even in English counties bordering Wales?
    If you were referring to Queen Elizabeth I, the last of the royal Tudors (the line daughtered out), The Virgin Queen had no children and never married; she died on 24 March 1603.
    That Tudor line started out with the union of Owen ap Meredith ap Tydier (also spelled Owen ap Maredudd ap Tudur) and Catherine of Valois, widow of Henry V of England. If Owen and Catherine married, there is no surviving document, but they had children. Before Owen was beheaded, he is recorded as saying “this is the head that was wont to lie on Queen Catherine’s lap” – modern interpretation of his words. (Wikipedia entry for Owen: “Moments before his execution he realized that he was to die and murmured “that hede shalle ly on the stocke that wass wonte to ly on Quene Katheryns lappe.” “)
    Owen and Catherine’s son, Edmund, married Margaret Beaufort who was only 13/14 at the time. She gave birth to Henry VII, her only child, when she was only about 14/15 (unk. Margaret’s definite year of birth between 1441/43) who became King of England when he defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field. Henry VII’s marriage to Elizabeth of York was the pact that ended the War of the Roses. They produced (among other offspring) Henry VIII, who fathered two known illegitimate sons who both died without issue, one legitimate son, Edward VI (son of Anne Seymour), who died of tuberculosis at age 15, Bloody Mary (dau of Catherine of Aragon), and Elizabeth I (dau of Anne Boleyn); one of Henry VIII’s illegitimate sons was the result of an affair between him and Anne’s sister, Mary Boleyn, the other a result of an affair with Bessie Blount. When Henry VIII died there were no males and seven females who could have been queens of England in the Tudor line; Lady Jane Gray was the nine days’ queen who was beheaded. On her deathbed Queen Elizabeth I gave her nod to have James VI (Stuart) of Scotland become King James I of England (QEI had signed the death warrant for her cousin, his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, after nearly two decades of Mary’s plotting to overthrow Elizabeth)…, and after the death of Queen Elizabeth I, English history becomes a messy affair with disgustingly boring religious wars.
    Luckily, that’s where my genealogy picks up…. 🙂 I also spent some 35+ years reading about the Tudors, Celts, Plantagenets, etc., and I inadvertently memorized the five generations between Owen and Catherine down to Elizabeth I.
    Obviously, there were other people in Wales named Tudor, and just as obviously, Elizabeth has been of the most popular female names in Britain for several centuries. There have been several queens named Elizabeth (just not Elizabeth I of the Tudor line), as well as sisters and mothers of various kings being named Elizabeth (nicknames: Bess, Bessie, Betty, Beth, etc.). Queen Elizabeth I was sometimes referred to as “Good Queen Bess;” she became queen when the treasury was bare, and ended up leaving a surplus in the treasury at the time of her death.
    But if you are thinking someone descended from Queen Elizabeth I (Tudor), daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, that would not be correct. The Virgin Queen died without issue and unmarried on 24 March 1603 (totally different century from your Elizabeth Tudor).


    Jane Seymour, not Anne Seymour… my error!
    Henry VII married two women named Katherine/Catherine, two named Anne, one named Jane. Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard (first cousin of Anne Boleyn), and Catherine Parr (outlived Henry). Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived is how to remember who they were. Henry refused to consummate his marriage to Catherine of Aragon (he said she was ugly and smelled) got his marriage to Anne of Cleves annulled (not divorced), but that doesn’t go with the rhyme to remember who his wives were.


And sometimes, the “kernel of truth” may not be what it first appears to be! My grandmother always told me that my grandfather’s maternal grandfather had been a business partner of Gustavus Swift in Massachusetts, and that he had sold his share of the business to Swift (thus depriving our family of the opportunity to share in the wealth which Swift accumulated after he founded his meat packing empire in Chicago). When I became interested in family history, I did a little research, and I learned that early in his career, Swift did provide some financial backing to independent butchers on Cape Cod. I assumed that I had found the “kernel of truth” in my family fairy tale. It was only later that I discovered there was more to the connection — Swift’s wife was my 2nd great grandfather’s sister! Three years after Swift moved to Chicago, my 2nd great grandfather moved from Cape Cod to northeastern Massachusetts, where he operated a prosperous wholesale meat market, and he eventually served as the Swift & Co. agent for that area. So yes, there was indeed a “kernel of truth” in the old family story, but it was not quite what I had thought it to be!
Guy I. Colby IV


For another take on the Ellis Island name change see this publication by the New York Public Library. As an aside, I had a friend whose ancestors came from Norway. They used the patronymic Anderson when they immigrated, and they settled in Minneapolis. One day the postman knocked on their door and asked them if they would change their name to their farm name, because he was having difficulty with so many Andersons on his route.


    Vaughn Simon –
    In Denmark and Norway the suffixes for the patronymic names are sen or datter following the father’s first name. In Sweden the suffixes are sson or dotter. From ca 1349-ish through the late 19th to early 20th century the written language in Norway was Dano-Norsk (with regional dialects and very often alternate spellings for many words, depending on the whim or the educational background of the minister who wrote the record), so the written forms of both languages are almost identical. Only in America did the spelling change become son (totally excluding datter/dotter) for most Norwegian and Danish names unless the immigrant was educated and insisted on retaining the sen suffix to the patronymic name, and usually one s was dropped in Swedish names (depending on the name of the father). In written formats all three languages are mutually intelligible; when spoken Norwegian and Swedish sound closer and Danish becomes too guttural for me to follow or even try to speak; they drop vowels and pronounce words farther back in the throat like German (I think – or, at least that’s what it sounds like to me).
    Icelandic and Faroese are both Old Norse languages, not mutually intelligible, but Icelandic is closest to the Old Norse of the Vikings and still spoken there today (altho like the other Scandinavian countries, they start learning English as a second language from early grade school through high school and college).
    Today in Sweden the most numerous surname is Andersson. 🙂 My grandfather’s patronymic name in the official records was Andreasson, son of Andreas Andersson and Sara Andreasdotter. He immigrated in 1892. In 1902 Sweden, by law, went to permanent surnames, so Andersson became the surname of his mother and siblings in their records. By the 1895 MN state census both my grandfather and his eldest brother were listed as the American spelling Anderson, and that American spelling stuck (they didn’t have much schooling).


Wonderful article, Dick! And, timely for my research. I recently debunked a piece of family lore about a woman named Margaret. Some family members are glad that things “finally make sense.” Others just know that Margaret was a “full blooded Seminole” and possibly a “princess” or that her father was a “chief” and are hoping to prove these claims. In reality, Margaret was of African descent, just like a number of our other ancestors. She was from Florida, and it seems one of her sons may have started the myth when he relocated to Wisconsin as a very young man. All of us descendants who’ve had autosomal DNA tests have shown exactly zero Native American ancestry. But, we all have the expected African and European ancestry per the tests.


Great article, Dick. Keep up the good work!


Patricia M. Secrest August 13, 2020 at 4:51 pm

Great article! I had already figured out that my relative changed the spelling of his surname when he was naturalized–name change was not done at Ellis Island. He did work in a coal mine in Westmoreland County Pennsylvania for several years after emigrating and your insight about sponsorship gives me a new path for research. Many of the miners employed by coal mining companies there were from Eastern Europe and he was from Slovenia. Thanks.


Great description of the operations of Ellis Island. Thank you! I appreciate the warnings about family lore. One of my great grandmothers told everyone that she was born in Stirling Castle in Scotland. This was even printed in her obituary and no one in the immediate family seems to have questioned it. I’ve been suspicious, but the closest I’ve come to finding anything about it is that a young girl of the right name and age is listed in an 1841 census, residing in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, with an older woman of a different name. This is not immediately close to Stirling, Scotland. My suspicion is that my great grandmother may have been of illegitimate birth, but so far I haven’t found anything on her birth. Occasionally I try looking for evidence, but it’s not at the top of my “to do” list.


Wonderful article by Dick. Readers interested in debunking or proving family legends may want to check out Sustainable Genealogy. Separating Fact from Fiction in Family Legends, by Richard Hite


Richard Robert Elliott ran a passage and exchange office in Detroit, Michigan arranging prepaid passages to Quebec and New York for thousands of immigrants. He also handled foreign exchange for people wishing to send money abroad. Over $1,000,000 had been sent through Elliott’s business office from 1841-1868 (Detroit Advertiser and Tribune, 11 Apr 1868) .Elliott was Historiographer of the City of Detroit in 1908, an appointed position. Perhaps Elliott’s interest in history was the reason that he kept the original letters written to him about passage and money orders. These were sewn together in book form chronologically by year, starting in 1848 and ending in 1891. There are ten of these plus three receipt books, all held by the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Pubic Library. He had agents in various cities in Michigan. Many of those wishing to send money or arrange passage were Irish who would visit one of his agents and give the agent money and instructions. The agent would write to Elliott, who would arrange the passage or money exchange through his agents. Early firms with whom he did business were Abraham Bell and Son and Roche Company, New York and the Black Ball line of packets. His entire account entry book of arranged passages from 1851-1869 was transcribed by me in “Passage to America 1851-1869: The Records of Richard Elliott, Passenger Agent, Detroit, Michigan”, published by the Detroit Society for Genealogical Research. It listed the person booking the passage, the names of the passengers and the amount of money paid for ocean and/or inland passage. The thousands of letters written to Elliott are of great importance to genealogists as they give names and addresses of those in Ireland and often their relationship to the person sending money or arranging passage. I have included an example.
5 Jan 1848 Grand Rapids from L. Kilroy
I send you a enclosed a bill of $40 from Mary Farrel sent to her mother Catharine McCormick, widow of William McCormick. Catharine McCormick lives in the Town of Myvoor, County Westmeath
Quoting the same article from 1868: “Coupon tickets are now issued for the Channel passage from ports of Antwerp, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Bremen, the Norwegian and Russian seaport cities to Hull, thence by rail to Liverpool, connecting there with the several lines of steamers and sailing vessels sailing every day or two to New York . . . Instruction cards are provided in English, French and Dutch, informing each family to whom a passage ticket is sent, of the name and residence of the person here paying the passage, the point from which the passage is paid and the point of destination, together with the lines.. by which they are to cross the ocean. The tickets of each part of the journey are labeled in alphabetical order with printed directions upon each ticket showing when it is to be used, from what point he is to start and to what point it carries him, all of which is fully explained in the instruction sheet sent him with the passage tickets.” An agent of Elliott was informed of the names of the arrivals and their arrival in New York. He was supposed to meet them, pass on any money that was sent to enable them to reach their final destination and see them on their way. Letters show that the extra money was not always sent. Some additional information has been found in the Abraham Bell Collection, M.E. Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives, University at Albany Libraries, New York.


I have two such in my family, one that seems provably false, and one similar to the Witch Trail example: (1) One of my ancestors reportedly emigrated with his brothers, all sons of “Lord Douglas of Edinburgh”, and after arrival married “Lady Jane Ross, daughter of the Earl of Ross.” Detailed study of the Scottish peerage has turned up no matches for any of these people, and the title “Earl of Ross” didn’t even exist when this Jane Ross was born.
(2) One of my ancestors was reported to have “escaped” Schoharie colony (NY state) with a group that came to Pennsylvania by rafting down the Susquehanna River, led by Conrad Weiser (noted Pa. Indian scout). Turns out there was nobody with that surname in Schoharie colony, so I assumed the whole story was fabricated. I discovered later that the story was true, but it was about the maternal grandfather.


Another one I’ve heard several times about different families: “Three brothers” arrived (pick a place) and settled in Virginia (or wherever). Once in a blue moon, this proves to be true, but not in my family. I interviewed some elderly relatives back in 1976 who told me that they had always heard that three brothers arrived in Massachusetts and made their way to Virginia. This was supposedly my Kelley family, but no way was it true. Sometimes in the telling, the stories get moved from one branch of the family to others. In researching a friend’s ancestry, she had a family story about her great-grandparents participating in the Cherokee Land Rush in Oklahoma. It turned out to be true, but it was her great-grandparents in another branch of the family.


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