There are a lot of stories out there that give details about how an ancestor’s surname got changed when he or she arrived at Ellis Island. The typical story includes a part where an officer at Ellis Island wrote the ancestor’s surname down incorrectly, or shortened it, or otherwise altered it. It turns out that the majority of those stories are not true.
Over twelve million people entered the United States through the immigration inspection station at Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954. They arrived on steamships that came from Europe.
Genealogists realize that steamships required passengers to have their names listed in a manifest. Those manifests come in handy when a genealogist is looking for information that states exactly when an ancestor immigrated to the United States. It also tells what country they immigrated from (or, at least, where they boarded the ship).
It is the job of someone on board those steamships to write the names of passengers into the ship’s manifest. In other words, an employee of the steamship would be given the task of creating the passenger list. Sometimes, the names of the passengers wouldn’t be written down correctly.
The errors weren’t due to negligence or maliciousness. In some cases, the mistakes were made due to translation difficulties. Someone wrote down what they heard and perhaps didn’t get the spelling quite right.
Vincent J Cannato wrote a book called American Passage: The History of Ellis Island. In it, he notes that some immigrants chose to change their names before they boarded the steamship. There could be any number of reasons why a person would decide to do that. The name change might have been done in an effort to sound more American.
The passenger lists were important once immigrants arrived at Ellis Island. Immigrant inspectors at Ellis Island used them to determine exactly which passenger name connect to which person. Translators helped to make the immigrant, and the inspector, understand each other. The inspector would ask questions and check to see if the answers a person gave matched the manifest.
Keep in mind that these immigrants came to America long before there were visas. The only document of record was the passenger list. It wasn’t like today where people have driver’s licenses, passports, and other forms of identification.
Another thing to realize is that people had the right to change their names after they arrived in America. They didn’t have to fill out paperwork or go to a court in order to do it. There were some immigrants who took it upon themselves to drop their original surname and select a new one. It is easy to see how starting a new life, in a new country, could inspire a person to pick a new name go by.
Image by Chris on Flickr.
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