The “Ellis Island changed our name” myth is one of the most persistent myths
It has not only survived – but thrived – for about 100 years
But name changes did NOT happen at Ellis Island
They “couldn’t have happened”
How do we know that?
From the facts:
Fact #1: Ellis Island did not produce any written documents with immigrants’ names on them.
Contrary to what you may have heard, or seen in a movie, inspectors at Ellis Island did not write down the immigrants’ names during processing. Again, no written documents were produced.
So think about it, how could they have changed someone’s name? Verbally?
When you know the facts, the myth just doesn’t hold water.
Fact #2: Passenger lists were not written at Ellis Island either.
If your ancestor’s ship record is one of the rare* ones that does have an ancestor’s name misspelled, Ellis Island had nothing to do with it. Period.
How do we know that? It’s simple: Ellis Island did not create passenger lists. Ever.
Lists were created by the ship’s Chief Purser, usually in the immigrant’s home country, before the ship ever set sail. And the Purser almost assuredly spoke the immigrant’s language.
The manifest was a legal document that was not taken lightly. The Chief Purser, as well as the Chief Doctor and the ship’s Captain, had to provide a copy of the passenger list and swear an oath to its accuracy before being allowed entry to Ellis Island.
Providing false information was a criminal offense so great care was taken by the ship companies to provide accurate manifests. In addition to the threat of a criminal charge, ship companies could be made to deport the immigrant at their own expense if certain information was incorrectly reported.
So, yes, mistakes could happen, but they were rare*; and if they did happen, they were made by the ship companies, not by Ellis Island.
Fact #3: Most “mistakes” that people see on an Ellis Island passenger list are not mistakes.
Ever seen that old English handwriting where an “s” looks like an “f”? (See image below)
Then you can probably imagine how challenging it can be for someone in today’s day and age to decipher the old, cursive handwriting that we typically find on passenger lists.
Most “mistakes” that people claim to have found on passenger lists are due to someone – in modern times — misinterpreting that old handwriting, not to an actual mistake on the list. The “mistake” is commonly a result of someone transcribing the record, usually decades later, and again, it had nothing to do with Ellis Island.
TIP: Because the transcription errors are so common, it’s always a good idea to view a copy of the original manifest with your own eyes when you find a ship record online instead of relying upon someone else’s interpretation of what the record says.
If you find an ancestor’s ship record on www.ellisisland.org., always click on “ship manifest” to see the original instead of what a volunteer entered many years later so that that record could be made searchable online.
Here’s a perfect example of a transcription error:
See the last name “Gacino” in the link below?
The correct spelling of the name is “Iacino” with an “I”. So, Ellis Island changed the name, right? Wrong!
First, Ellis Island did not create manifests, remember? Second, when you look at the copy of the actual manifest (link below, lines 2 & 4), the name is spelled correctly as “Iacino”. But the way the “I” is written in that old handwriting is very similar to how we might write a cursive “G” today, so someone – again, in modern times – misinterpreted it.
This transcription error example probably took place within the last decade, about 100 years after the Iacino family arrived in 1908. So once again, if the family’s name was changed, it had nothing whatsoever to do with Ellis Island.
There are many other interesting Ellis Island facts that disprove the “Ellis Island changed our name” myth, but we’ll have to leave it at this for now. Thanks for reading!
Some notes from the author
President and CEO of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, Stephen A. Briganti stated in an interview with the author that “when you have an understanding of how the whole process took place, you know that it simply couldn’t have happened”.
The author has outlined some of that “process” above to promote a better understanding of what did and what did not take place on Ellis Island in an effort to separate fact from fiction and put a dent in this longstanding myth, once and for all.
Neither the author, nor her company, Roots in the Boot, have any affiliation with Ellis Island.
This page was created to provide additional details that could not be included in a feature article the author wrote about the Ellis Island name change myth for the NIAF (National Italian American Foundation, www.niaf.org). The article was published in the fall 2012 issue of Ambassador Magazine in honor of Ellis Island’s 120th anniversary.
The author wishes to thank the following for their assistance with her research:
- The National Park Service, in particular Barry Moreno, Historian and Librarian at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum (and walking encyclopedia of all things Ellis Island).
Barry is a national treasure himself.
- The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, Inc., in particular President and CEO, Stephen A. Briganti, Senior Vice President, Peg Zitko, and the Ellis Island team who spent time digging up images for her to share and the executives who gave her permission to share them.
Their generosity with their time and resources were more than any writer could ask for.
- Last but not least, thank you to all the families who have trusted the author to tell their family stories over the years and for permission to share them so that others may learn and grow from them too.
Without you, there is no story.
*True name spelling mistakes on passenger lists are quite rare**. In fact, ship manifests are so reliable that if you want to find out how a name was spelled in an immigrant’s home country**, obtaining that person’s passenger list is the next best thing to getting a record from their homeland.
That’s not to say there weren’t ever mistakes on passenger lists. There were no standardized spellings of names back then so there’s always a chance of a variation in spelling from any record from that time period (even in records from the immigrants’ homeland).
But all in all, the spellings on these records are extremely accurate**.
**Roots in the Boot works exclusively with Italian genealogy and the starred statements above are related to our experience in having traced thousands of Italian immigrants, the largest group of immigrants to come through Ellis Island. Experts in other areas of research can speak to the accuracy of the spellings of immigrants’ names who came from other countries.
Copyright notice: Information/images on this page cannot be used in any form without explicit permission from the author, Aliza Giammatteo, and/or other copyright holders of the work.