In A Nutshell
We’ve all heard the stories about names being changed as people passed through Ellis Island. It just isn’t true, though; immigration officers weren’t even responsible for writing down names, only checking them against passenger manifests. Most names were changed either when the manifests were written at the point of departure or by the families themselves when they were naturalized and officially made citizens of their new country.
The Whole Bushel
Ellis Island was one of the largest hubs for immigration into the United States. Families from all across Europe took their first steps on American soil there, and so the popular story goes, those were steps that often meant leaving pieces of their heritage behind. More than 12 million people passed through the immigration inspection stations at Ellis Island, and popular lore says that this is where a lot of people lost the correct, more ethnic spellings of their names. Names were “Americanized” when they were misspelled by authorities who couldn’t understand or didn’t care what people were saying. Families were left with new, more American names, spelled however immigration officials decided.
Only, it’s absolutely not true.
There’s no way that it could be true. The immigration process wasn’t one in which officers were recording names at all, and none were ever written down correctly or incorrectly. When people were filing through the lines at Ellis Island, they would approach an immigration officer who already had all the information on a ship’s manifest. It was his job to ask questions and make sure the people who were getting off the ship were the ones that had originally bought tickets and gotten their names on the passenger manifests.
The manifests that immigration was using were ones that came from the steamships, and most were compiled well in advance of the journey. Names were added as people bought their tickets, not when they got to the other side of the ocean.
Plenty of names were changed, of course, but it wasn’t Ellis Island that had anything to do with it. Reasons were much, much more interesting than an American who couldn’t understand an accent.
There are a number of records that indicate just why people would buy tickets and change their names. Some wanted to Americanize their names before they left, making it easier to fit in right from the first day of their fresh new start. Others knew what community they were going to be settling in, and there are plenty of examples of citizens from, say, Eastern Europe who changed their name to something a little more British in preparation for settling into an Irish neighborhood.
Others changed their names not when they came to the US but when they became citizens. It was the ultimate fresh start, after all, and many wanted to embrace their new country with full, open arms.
Changing names was incredibly easy, and there was absolutely nothing that was keeping people from doing it. When immigrants were naturalized, there was no law that stated they needed to officially change their names from what they were born with—they were just naturalized under their new name.
Name changes at Ellis Island did happen on a rare occasion and when they did, it was such a weirdly big deal that it often made the newspapers. Such was the case with a man named Friedman who had changed his name from Zarief at immigration. When he decided to change it back, it was a bit of a story.
Another case of name-changing was told in the New York Times, and it’s a fascinating look into the life of one young woman in 1908. Passenger manifests gave the name Mary Johnson, but it was crossed out. “Frank Woodhull” was written in its place. The confusion came because Ms. Johnson, who had always had a masculine build and hair on her face, had decided to embrace her fate. She donned men’s clothes and started doing the work of a man; she’d been living that way for 15 years when she was stopped at immigration.
Their response was something pretty surprising and pretty epic. It was determined that not only was Woodhull to be allowed into the country, but welcomed. Clearly, he was a strong individual who wasn’t afraid of challenge and hard work, willing to do whatever it took to make his way in the world—and those were the people that America wanted.
Show Me The Proof
New York Public Library: Why Your Family Name Was Not Changed at Ellis Island (and One That Was)
Smithsonian: Ellis Island Isn’t to Blame for Your Family’s Name Change