In honor of Ellis Island’s 120th anniversary, 1892-2012
Originally published in the National Italian American Foundation’s (NIAF’s) Ambassador Magazine
How do you wipe out a myth that is so pervasive, so persistent, so popular, that if it were a book it would’ve spent a century on the bestseller list? Maybe you can’t, but I think we owe it to the next generation of Italian Americans to try.
A myth is born…
Once upon a time…someone, somewhere, said their last name was changed by the evil overlords at Ellis Island, and a great American myth was born. (OK, I added the “evil overlords” part, but you get the point).
It made for a great story—one that often sounded a lot better than the truth—so it was repeated by Aunt Maria and Uncle Dominic as well as the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker.
Remember that famous scene from the Godfather: Part II? You know the one. Vito Andolini arrives in New York from Sicily and the careless inspector at Ellis Island mistakes Vito’s last name for the name of his hometown of Corleone. The inspector scribbles the new name down and from that point on Vito Andolini is known as Vito Corleone.
That movie came out almost forty years ago and clients still reference that scene when they call me for help tracing their Italian roots.
“It’s hard to shake the myth”, says President and CEO of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation and fellow Italian American, Stephen A. Briganti, who seemed both thrilled that I was making an attempt to “shake” it and cautiously optimistic at the same time.
Briganti offered one explanation for why the legend has not only survived, but thrived, for so long, (other than the fact that it’s hard to disbelieve sweet, old Aunt Maria), stating that “Ellis Island was closed for a long time so for years there was no one to rebut it”. So on that note, let’s get to the rebutting…
“It simply couldn’t have happened”
About 100 million Americans, or roughly a third of the U.S. population, can trace at least one ancestor to Ellis Island. Many of those descendants have their own version of this myth, so if you’re one of the ones who’s heard—or even passed on—the story, you’ve got a lot of company.
In fact, Briganti himself confessed that he “thought that was the case” before he started working there. But he quickly added that “when you have an understanding of how the whole process took place, you know that it simply couldn’t have happened”.
It would be impossible to detail the “whole process” in this article, but let’s hit some of the highlights. See if any of the tales below sound familiar.
Top 3 Ellis Island tales
“Ellis Island changed my name because…_____________”
Tale #1: “My ancestor’s name is written wrong on the ship manifest.”
Truth: This one’s easy. Ellis Island did not create ship manifests—ever—so if a name’s misspelled on a passenger list, (or appears to have been misspelled), it wasn’t done by anyone at Ellis Island.
Manifests were created by the ship’s purser (clerk), who almost assuredly spoke the immigrant’s language. And they were usually completed in the immigrant’s home country before the ship set sail. So while mistakes did happen, they were quite rare.
More often than not, the “mistakes” people find are actually not mistakes on the manifest but transcription errors that were made many years later as people (in recent decades) tried to decipher that old, cursive handwriting.
Tale #2: “My ancestor didn’t speak English.”
Truth:This is one of those myths that makes a lot of sense on the outset, but quickly loses credibility when you know the facts.
Inspectors cross-checked information provided by each immigrant in their verbal interview with what was written on the passenger list. They also had the manifest tag to refer to, which was created by the steamship company and pinned to each immigrant’s clothing.
A number of inspectors were immigrants themselves and knew at least one foreign language, but Interpreters were also on staff as a back-up. All interpreters had to pass reading, writing, and oral exams in their language(s) of expertise.
Italians were the single, largest immigrant group to come through Ellis Island so you can bet
your bottom dollar they were prepared for that, and between all those employees, someone could communicate with your ancestor.
Tale #3: My ancestor was illiterate.
Truth: The immigrant did not write their names down during processing at the port, and neither did the inspector. Contrary to what you might have seen in the movies or heard in a story, no written document was produced at Ellis Island. Inspectors merely checked off the manifest as passengers were processed.
So, how could the names have been changed? Verbally?
For more Ellis Island facts, visit: www.rootsintheboot.com/EllisIsland
“We don’t hire spaghetti-eaters here”
You may be thinking, “So if Ellis Island didn’t change names, who did?” The answer to that may be a bitter pill to swallow: more often than not, it was our beloved ancestors—the immigrants themselves—who changed the spelling of their own names. Mr. Briganti says these intentional changes were the “number one reason” for names being altered.
Why would our ancestors, many of whom were so proud of their Italian heritage and their names, intentionally change them? The answer is simple: They lived in a much different time and place than we do now. Anytime we look at historical events, it’s essential to put them into context. It would be nonsensical to judge a 19th or early 20th century decision from a 21st century point of view.
And oftentimes, when we do look at things from their point of view, that view isn’t pretty. During the height of Italian immigration (late 1800s-1924) and the decades immediately following, prejudice against Italians was at an all-time high. Discrimination was a leading cause—if not the cause—of the intentional name changes Briganti mentioned. And when you read the story below, you’ll see why many immigrant families were only all-too eager to Anglicize their names.
I’ve heard dozens of stories of Italian discrimination as a genealogist, but Karen Fato’s story struck me to my core when I heard it. Karen’s father Gildo Fato, now 84, is the son of Italian immigrants. He learned the value of hard work from his father who worked as a janitor in Chicago.
Gildo started working at the age of eight to help support the family. He put himself through college, earning a degree in Chemical Engineering.
He was so proud of how much he accomplished and thought he’d finally made it when he was called in for an interview with a well-known engineering company. Gildo sat down for the interview, only to almost immediately be told “we don’t hire spaghetti-eaters here”.
“It was like they called him in just to humiliate him,” Karen commented.
Not surprisingly, Gildo stuck with the name “Gil” from then on. “Gil” pushed on to earn a law degree while raising a family and working full-time. He was so dedicated to achieving his American dream that the librarians nicknamed him “old faithful” because he showed up every weekend at the same time, like clockwork.
“Old faithful” ended up becoming a successful patent attorney. He may have lost his given name, but in the end, it was the company’s loss.
What was your name again?
Discrimination and the desire to assimilate in their new environment certainly played a big role in those intentional name changes, but there were other reasons too.
My Great Uncle Al Giammatteo, seen playing golf with President Eisenhower, changed his surname to Jamison to make it easier to make his way in country club circles. The height of discrimination against Italians had passed, and with his natural talent for golf, he probably could’ve made it just fine keeping the name Giammatteo, except for one, crucial thing: How do you make a name for yourself if nobody can say or spell your name? So Jamison it was.
Quite a few immigrants, or descendants of immigrants, changed their names for similar reasons, even if they weren’t playing golf with the President of the United States. It just made life easier. And especially during tough times like the two world wars or the Great Depression, anything that made life easier was a good thing.
What a difference a “.” makes!
While the majority of name changes were intentional, there were also plenty of unintentional name changes as immigrants started their new lives.
To see just how easy it was for a name to be accidentally changed—again, after arrival—take a look at the provided image. You’ll notice that the “Famiglietti” name is spelled correctly on the ship manifest, so there was no mistake upon arrival.
But sometime after Ellis Island, someone saw the name written in that old, cursive handwriting and didn’t notice the dot on the second “i” so the “gli” looked like “gh” and the name was changed to “Famighetti”.
Many Italian immigrants were illiterate and spoke limited English. So if they were applying for a job, for example, they might have just handed someone a piece of paper with their name written on it instead of spelling it.
All it took was for one person to misinterpret the writing and a name could be forever changed.
Why it matters
As much as I’d love to finally set the Ellis Island record straight as a family historian, this isn’t about me, or you, or even Ellis Island, for that matter; It’s much bigger than that.
People tend to have a short memory when it comes to history and they often end up paying a price for that forgetfulness. If our ancestors’ names were changed, that change in all likelihood came about as a result of the trials and tribulations they suffered as newcomers trying to navigate their way in a new world in a new language—a world where they were not always welcome.
Many immigrants had to swallow their pride and change their names so they could put food on the table. They did it so we could have a chance at a better life. Oftentimes, the story of their struggles, the humiliation they endured, were not passed down to us. They didn’t want to burden us with those stories so they kept them to themselves. The Ellis Island myth thrived for so long, in large part, because we never knew the real story so we substituted the fairy tale for the missing facts.
But we have the facts now. We can tell that story for them, and it’s high time we did. We owe them that. The best way to honor Gildo Fato, or “old faithful”, and all the others like him, is to tell their real stories. So for their sake and ours, the next time you hear someone’s name was changed at Ellis Island, set the record straight.
Aliza Giammatteo is the owner and lead genealogist at Roots in the Boot, an Italian heritage firm headquartered in Las Vegas, NV. She’s a syndicated columnist and feature writer for Italian American publications across the United States. To learn more about your Italian roots, email: firstname.lastname@example.org or call (702) 750-0247.