The Ellis Island Myth

On last night’s episode of Genealogy Roadshow one of the many stories featured questioned the original spelling of a participant’s surname. While many of us have heard, “my family name was changed at Ellis Island,” I do want to spend just a few words in correcting that myth, which unfortunately was likely perpetuated by the way the segment was presented.

To begin, according to scholarship on the topic, clerks at Ellis Island were usually hired based upon their knowledge and skills in specific languages, to help ease the translation process. During their lifetimes new immigrants faced a variety of record creators who did not speak their native language (census enumerators, vital registrars, etc.) but at Ellis Island most likely met someone who did in fact speak (and write) their native language.

Second, and probably most important – the clerks were usually working from lists created around the time of departure, not necessarily at the time of arrival. The statement that a name then, “was changed at Ellis Island” is therefore not correct. It is possible a name was misspelled when an individual boarded the ship, though the chances of a name actually being changed at Ellis Island are certainly small.

As with all things in our past, there is so much to discover related to Ellis Island that has been expertly researched. I would highly recommend sitting down with American Passage – The History of Ellis Island by Vincent J. Cannato.

As an aside: Not having seen any of the footage from that specific segment until it aired, I regret that in condensing the nearly hour long filming and multiple takes into a short three-minute segment, these specific details were not clearly represented. It certainly was not my intention to perpetuate the myth – quite the opposite in fact! Packaging the complicated world of genealogy, as an entertainment product for the mass-market is not always as easy as we would like it to be, but we learn, make mistakes, and move forward.