Names Changed at Ellis Island?

Do you remember the famous scene in the Godfather Part II, when the young Vito Andolini comes through the Ellis Island Immigration Processing Center and has his name changed to Vito Corleone by an immigration officer? A similar story is told by many descendants of immigrants in the United States.

If you’re an American, is there a story of your family name being changed at Ellis Island? Chances are overwhelming that it’s a myth. And if you are an American, there’s a very good chance that you can trace at least one ancestor to Ellis island. 100 million Americans can. It was an immigrant inspection station from 1892 to 1954. So the name change thing has become a very wide-spread myth.

Let’s take it from the top: officials at Ellis Island simply could not have changed your ancestor’s name, or written it down incorrectly (or phonetically or incoherently) for the very simple reason that Ellis Island inspectors did not record immigrants’ names.

That’s right, Buzzkillers. Ellis Island inspectors didn’t write anything down and they didn’t give immigrants any documentation to take with them. The inspectors simply double-checked the names of immigrant passengers against their ship’s original passenger list or manifest as they came through the processing hall.

The ship’s manifest was filled out in the port of origin (usually the immigrant’s home country, or very close to it). Mistakes or mis-transcriptions could creep in at the port of origin, especially when a traveler from one country left from another. A Portuguese national could have left from a French port, for instance. And name spelling mistakes sometimes did happen. We know this because corrections appear on ships’ manifests in the Ellis Island archives. Immigrants themselves probably told the processing officer about the mistake.

“But Professor,” you say, “my ancestors didn’t speak English. Their names probably got butchered by American officials at Ellis Island.” Again, the names were first recorded in the port of origin, which was usually the immigrant’s country of origin. Apart from the few mistakes just mentioned, the ship manifests were very accurate.

Further, Ellis Island inspectors were backed up by legions of interpreters and often spoke other languages themselves. One of the good jobs to get as a recent immigrant was as an inspector at Ellis Island. So it wasn’t rare that an immigrant was interviewed by an inspector who had been on the other side of the desk just the previous year.

So what were the Ellis Island inspectors looking for? They wanted to make sure that there had been no stowaways or criminals or people trying to get into the country under some other kind of false pretenses. They asked a number of questions along these lines. But if the name and origin you told them matched the name and origin on your ship’s manifest, there was no problem, generally speaking.

There were also health inspectors at Ellis Island looking for diseases and other health problems. The doctor examining young Vito said to the Italian speaking nurse/interpreter, “Tell him he has smallpox, quarantine three months,” and he was packed off to a hospital ward.

Why did the Ellis Island name-changing myth come about? It just began as an urban legend, and because the Ellis Island story is part of the history that most Americans learn. Subsequent generations probably thought of it as a processing center where you were given official paperwork to take into the US, which could have had changed names. Makes sense, right?

Well, no. You didn’t need nearly as much paperwork to get through life in the early 20th century as you have since the 1950s. You didn’t need Ellis Island paperwork to get a Social Security Card (SSN cards didn’t exist until 1935, ten years after the last great wave of immigration through Ellis Island). Driver’s licenses were rare, especially in the urban east. Birth certificates weren’t common until 1919, and they didn’t adopt a uniform format until the mid 1930s. And almost all other paperwork in your life would have been related to your church (baptismal record, bar/bat mitzvah records, marriage records, etc). There simply weren’t, generally speaking, important social records until governments started recording stuff regularly in the 1930s and 1940s.

Basically, you didn’t need any piece of paper from Ellis Island in order to stride into the United States and start your life as a starving immigrant.

But you had the right to change your name on your own.

And that’s where almost all name changes started. When immigrants applied for naturalization papers, the names did not have to match the original ship manifests. If you wanted to change your name, you could. And a great many immigrants did. They Anglicized them, they simplified them, they took out or changed letters that aren’t in the standard English alphabet, or they adopted names they thought were simply more American.

Let’s bring it back to Vito Corleone. Note that the Ellis Island clerk just made a hearing mistake. He wrote down the Italian name “Corleone” instead of the Italian name “Andolini.” He didn’t Anglicize young Vito’s first name (“Victor”) nor did he simplify his last name (“Anderson,” for “Andolini,” or “Cortland” for “Corleone”). Maybe the Godfather II wasn’t that far off base, Buzzkillers!

Buzzkill Bookshelf

Vincent J. Cannato, American Passage: The History of Ellis Island 

For most of New York’s early history, Ellis Island had been an obscure little island that barely held itself above high tide. Today the small island stands alongside Plymouth Rock in our nation’s founding mythology as the place where many of our ancestors first touched American soil. Ellis Island’s heyday—from 1892 to 1924—coincided with one of the greatest mass movements of individuals the world has ever seen, with some twelve million immigrants inspected at its gates. In American Passage, Vincent J. Cannato masterfully illuminates the story of Ellis Island from the days when it hosted pirate hangings witnessed by thousands of New Yorkers in the nineteenth century to the turn of the twentieth century when massive migrations sparked fierce debate and hopeful new immigrants often encountered corruption, harsh conditions, and political scheming.

American Passage captures a time and a place unparalleled in American immigration and history, and articulates the dramatic and bittersweet accounts of the immigrants, officials, interpreters, and social reformers who all play an important role in Ellis Island’s chronicle. Cannato traces the politics, prejudices, and ideologies that surrounded the great immigration debate, to the shift from immigration to detention of aliens during World War II and the Cold War, all the way to the rebirth of the island as a national monument. Long after Ellis Island ceased to be the nation’s preeminent immigrant inspection station, the debates that once swirled around it are still relevant to Americans a century later.

In this sweeping, often heart-wrenching epic, Cannato reveals that the history of Ellis Island is ultimately the story of what it means to be an American.

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