It’s a common story in many American families, the one about how the family surname changed from Hanstein to Hanson, or Fuchs to Fox. “It was changed at Ellis Island,” you may hear by way of explanation. But was it really? Like any other question in genealogy, the answer lies in the archives. And in this case, the archives tell a different story.
In 1921, journalist Elizabeth Heath described a typical contemporary scene at Ellis Island for the New York Times: “Here are rather humble people, who have left all they knew or had, and have come a long journey to a new country from which they hope much. Here they meet the last obstacle before their goal,” she wrote, trying to capture the emotional drama of the moment.
“Fear of deportation is before them all until they are safely through the mill. It seems to them the whim of a mysterious power.”
New York Harbor’s Ellis Island was not the only point of entry to the United States, but it came to symbolize the American promise of immigration. Approximately 12 million people were processed there between 1892 and 1954. It is now the National Museum of Immigration, open to the public for tours of the facility as well as researching family history.
While immigrants arrived on Ellis Island from all over the world, their descendants often begin their research with the same question: Was my ancestor’s name changed when they passed through Ellis Island?
No matter where they’re from, the answer is always the same: If your ancestor’s name was drastically changed, it probably didn’t happen at Ellis Island. It’s an unpopular answer and one many find hard to accept because the legend of Ellis Island renaming immigrants is so widespread.
One element of the mythical name change that’s rarely questioned is the premise of the exchange of information between an immigrant and an immigration clerk. Somehow many of us got the idea that the immigrant walked up to the window, spoke their name, and the clerk simply wrote down a version of what he heard, often ending up with a more “American-sounding” name. Sometimes the transaction is framed as a benign misunderstanding, such as in the 1972 film The Godfather, when the young orphan Vito Andolini arrives on Ellis Island with a name tag pinned to his vest. The clerk mistakes the name of the boy’s hometown, Corleone, for his surname, and writes that down in the big book. Thus, Vito Corleone is reborn in the United States.
Sometimes the mythical name change story becomes a tale of insensitivity and outright hostility to foreigners, with the clerk imposing an Americanized name on an immigrant. In this case, an Italian family with the name Cuccia might be informed that they would henceforth be known as Cook. In this narrative, the Ellis Island experience becomes the first step in the erasure of the immigrant’s national and/or ethnic culture.
In recent decades scholars have pored through the Ellis Island archives and one of their major discoveries was this: Immigrant names were rarely changed at Ellis Island. How do we know? Because it was not the clerk’s job to transcribe the name of every immigrant. Instead, the clerk was handed a copy of the incoming ship’s manifest, a document created by the shipping company before leaving its home port. Manifest in hand, the clerk simply attempted to confirm the data that was already listed for each passenger. They often also made corrections to incorrect information.
Elizabeth Heath’s 1921 article supports this. Here, Heath describes the process. “Upstairs, in the great main hall of the building, the straggling crowd is skillfully split into a dozen long lines, each leading to the desk of an inspector,” she wrote. “Before him is spread the manifest of the steamship company, giving the required information about each steerage passenger - religion, relatives in America, amount of money, etc.”
The clerk was reading a name written by the shipping company, which was incentivized to get it right. The United States government assessed a fee to the company for every immigrant deemed unfit for immigration, for reasons that changed depending on the era, but included illiteracy, tuberculosis, and “idiocy,” among other factors. Immigrants provided the names and paperwork for the manifest when they boarded the ship.
But what about the whims of the clerks? According to its own employment records, the Department of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, between 1892 and 1924, a third of the immigration inspectors at Ellis Island were themselves immigrants and they spoke an average of three languages. New York City was itself a city of immigrants, publishing newspapers in dozens of languages to serve the city’s diverse population. The employees of Ellis Island were probably the least likely to blanch at the appearance of an exotic surname.
The most likely explanation for why the Ellis Island name-changing myth persists is the change in perception in American culture over the past century regarding issues of assimilation. Letters reveal thousands of immigrants who, once established in their new community, typically picked a name that would help them blend into the group. One man from Eastern Europe wrote to change his name to a Swedish surname, because he had moved to a Swedish neighborhood in New York City.
Tracking down a name change is not the only reason to visit Ellis Island, of course. The National Museum of Immigration is housed in the restored Main Building of the Ellis Island immigration facility, a grand, Beaux-Arts edifice of red and cream bricks, with a majestic tiled ceiling vaulting over the Great Hall, or Registry Room. Virtually every person passing through Ellis Island once stood in this Hall, from your own ancestors to actor Cary Grant, Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay, and Irving Berlin, among thousands and thousands of others. Standing in the Great Hall can be an emotional and deeply meaningful experience and a way to personally connect with the courageous people who came before us, whatever they chose to call themselves.
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Attempting to Cross the Pond Too Soon, an All-too-common Mistake
Finally, after months (or even years) of searching, you find a document which provides your immigrant ancestor’s location of nativity! You are elated, to say the least, and immediately you mentally begin to make plans to conduct research in the motherland. The document says that your great-great grandfather, Joseph Bennet, was born in Italy in 1892. That’s all you need to know, right? Wait a minute, not so fast! Joseph Bennet may have actually been born Giusseppe Benattii, which may have been a very common surname. Also, like many European countries, records in Italy were maintained at the town, village or parish level.
To avoid needle-in-a-haystack research and ensure the smartest use of both your time and budget, as well as accuracy of findings, additional information must be identified within United States records prior to diving into the wonders held in archives around the world. Normally there is not one easily accessible record which provides you all of the information necessary to begin research in the country of origin, but instead a compilation of the facts gleaned from multiple records will create a strong foundation for ascending further back in the family tree.
Passenger manifests are a common source of information for immigrant ancestors, as they can be rich in genealogically-pertinent details, such as name, age, occupation and nationality. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these passenger records were expanded to include even more information, such as marital status, whether the passenger had made prior visits to the United States and even race, physical description, closest living relative, final destination in America, among other facts. One should remember that not all ancestors arrived at the port of New York. Other major ports include Boston, Baltimore and San Francisco, as well as the two with some of the oldest surviving records, New Orleans and Philadelphia. It is common for researchers to stop researching the passenger manifest once they believe that they have found their target ancestor; however, they may not realize that the more modern lists include a second page that can be a biographical gold mine.
Though immigration and naturalizations were recorded in the 19th century, the World War I and World War II time period saw increased monitoring and recording of immigration and alien residents in the United States, resulting in several genealogically-rich record types. Enemy Alien records were a result of increased scrutiny and regulations in regard to non-citizen residents of the United States, or in some cases naturalized citizens native to targeted nations or female citizens who married men from these countries. These records can be accessed at various state, federal and online repositories, as well as the National Archives.
War Relocation Authority Records, commonly referred to as internment camp files or Alien Enemy Detention Files, are another war-time record and center around individuals of Japanese ancestry who were relocated to one of 10 “centers” during the Second World War. These records included not only the evacuees names, but also the birth location and year, prior residence and occupation, marital status, age, as well as occupations of their father, and other genealogically-pertinent information.
The U.S. Department of State is the Federal department responsible for issuing passports and they have been doing so for American citizens traveling internationally since 1789. The passports of foreign-born individuals can prove to be especially enlightening in regard to ancestral research. Though more modern passport applications are held by the U.S. Department of State (beginning in 1925), The National Archives holds passport records from as early as 1795, and extending into 1925, images of which are available online. Many of these records not only provide biographical information, but they also include the added bonus of a photograph of the applicant.
Not to be forgotten are naturalization records. Naturalization is the process in which an alien resident becomes a United States citizen and can include records such as the Declaration of Intention (sometimes referred to as “first papers”), Petition for Naturalization (commonly referred to as “second papers”) and the Certificate of Citizenship (provided after the petition was granted). The depth of information included in these documents can vary greatly depending upon the year of creation, with early documents recording only the country of origin and evolving to very specific locations and dates of birth, as well details of immediate family members. Until 1906, these records could be filed in any “court of record,” including county, municipal, district, state or Federal and to make matters even more confusing, the filings took place years apart and it was not required to file in the same court. Beginning 27 September 1906, naturalization became the responsibility solely of the Federal courts; however, as with any new mandate the transition took some time. This extends the need to search in the records of various court jurisdictions when seeking an ancestors’ naturalization record. As a general rule, the National Archives holds naturalizations filed in Federal courts at the various NARA locations serving the state in which the Federal court was located and these records do not normally include the Certificate of Citizenship. Records filed with the lower courts are normally held at the local level. Naturalization records can also be found within multiple collections in online databases, such as Ancestry.com.
The records detailed here are not comprehensive, but are among the many records which may provide the insight and facts necessary to ensure success in your ancestral quest across the oceans. Happy hunting!
Learn more tips for researching your immigrant ancestors with past articles, Swedish Migration, Galveston: The Ellis Island of Texas, Italian Migration to the United States, Irish Migration Patterns and Resources, as well as Jewish Emigration and Immigration.
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Alicia Ault, Smithsonian Magazine (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/ : accessed 15 April 2021), “Did Ellis Island Officials Really Change the Names of Immigrants?”
Philip Sutton, New York Public Library (https://www.nypl.org/ : accessed 15 April 2021), “Why Your Family Name Was Not Changed at Ellis Island (and One That Was).”
The Statue of Liberty - Ellis Island Foundation, Inc. (https://www.statueofliberty.org/ : accessed 15 April 2021), “Family History Center.”
Elizabeth Heath, New York Times (https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/ : accessed 15 April 2021), “To Be or Not to Be American.”
National Archives (https://www.archives.gov/ : accessed 15 April 2021), “Passport Applications.”
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, digital images, Library of Congress (https://loc.gov : accessed 15 April 2021), digital image of original photo, “Emigrants coming to the "Land of Promise,” digital id cph 3a09957.
“New York, U.S., Arriving Passenger and Crew Lists (including Castle Garden and Ellis Island), 1820-1957,” database with images, Ancestry.com (https://ancestry.com : accessed 15 April 2021), Arno Ewald, Europa, 1937, list 63; citing, “Passenger and Crew Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, New York, 1897-1957,” Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, National Archives, Records Group 36, National Archives at Washington, D.C., microfilm publication T715.
National Archives, Photographs and other Graphic Materials, digital images, National Archives Catalog (https://catalog.archives.gov/ : accessed 15 April 2021), digital image of original photo, “San Francisco, California. Residents of Japanese ancestry file forms containing personal data, two...,” Records of the War Relocation Authority, 1941-1989, Record Group 2010, NARA identifier 536056.
National Archives, Photographs and other Graphic Materials, digital images, National Archives Catalog (https://catalog.archives.gov/ : accessed 15 April 2021), digital image of original photo, “San Francisco, California. Exclusion Order posted at First and Front Streets directing removal of p . . .,” Records of the War Relocation Authority, 1941-1989, Record Group 2010, NARA identifier 536017.
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