Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A Post-Colonial Myth - Name Changes at Ellis Island

If there is one common myth I run into often as a genealogist, it is someone believing that their last name was changed by a clerk at Ellis Island. Often the person telling the story feels some sense of violation and loss of identity. I want to expound on this today.

Did name changes happend according to this popular lore?

Actually, it is highly unlikely that this happened. To begin with the clerks at Ellis Island didn't write down names. They worked from lists that were created by the shipping companies. What usually happened was the emigrant bought a ticket from an office near his home. So, the seller probably spoke the same language and transcribed the name correctly. In cases where the name was recorded incorrectly, it likely occurred in the old country, not at Ellis Island.

There are several questions to consider when talking about the accuracy of name spellings on records:

  • When the record was created, was there a standard ("correct") way to spell the name?
  • Did the individual know how to spell the name himself? (Was he or she literate?)
  • If he did not write the name himself, did the recording clerk ask him his preferred spelling? 

So much of the time, the answer to at least one of these questions was "no." However, let us assume that your immigrant knew how to spell his name and it was written correctly on the list created by the shipping company and used by the inspectors at Ellis Island. When he arrived at Ellis Island, he was checked against the list. With all the immigrants coming through the facility, many translators were employed so language problems were rare.

Bear in mind that name changes were often made by the immigrants themselves.

Remember Ellis Island was called Gibbet Island, after a few pirates that were hung there in Colonial Days! Ellis Island officially opened as an immigration station on January 1, 1892 and closed in November 1954.

Here is a story on the pre-colonial story, I feel is worth telling.

Whether your family came to this country during the Ellis Island period or the Colonial Period... 

I wish to welcome you to this great country. 

There truly is no other place like it in the world!

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