30    Nov 201111 comments

Ellis Island: 57 years later

On November 29 - 57 years ago-  the greatest monument to a proud history of American immigration was closed. I am talking, of course, about Ellis Island.

The Great Hall

During a 2008 trip to New York, I visited Ellis Island (I’m from the UK) with my family.

Many visitors to New York take the ferry to the Statue of Liberty for that iconic photograph. Fortunately, we had the foresight to remain on the ferry and visit Ellis Island. It was worth it.

Although the architecture of the Main Building (now the Immigration Museum) does hint that Ellis Island comprises an important part of American history, it isn’t until one enters The Great Hall that you realise the sheer number of immigrants that Ellis Island handled. It is very substantial - to anyone’s eyes!

Immigrants were processed in The Great Hall from 1892-1954, and those who passed through constituted a very large percentage of the American population. Today ,more than 40% of Americans have at least one ancestor who arrived at Ellis Island.

Aerial View of Ellis Island - Click to enlarge

Now it is time to remind researchers that not one immigrant’s name was ever changed at Ellis Island, despite the stories told in many families. According to senior NARA officials, not one documented case has ever been found.

Immigrants’ names were written on passenger manifests by officers of the ship or the shipping line before departure from a European port. Manifests were checked again before passengers disembarked and reflect deaths that occurred onboard, babies that were born, or passengers supposed to be on that ship but who never appeared to travel (for a variety of reasons).

Italian immigrants at Ellis Island

Clerks – who spoke some 60 languages and were likely immigrants themselves – checked off the names on those manifests with the people in a line in front of them. There was no way for a name to be changed as all they did was check off a name on their list.

However, there was nothing stopping a new immigrant, arriving in the Golden Land, to adopt a new Americanized name the minute he stepped into New York City.

We are sure that many of you have heard these myths of how your family name was changed by officials at Ellis Island. If you’d like to share them, we’d like to read them! But remember that those stories are myths!

The records of the immigrant passengers are available free of charge from World Vital Records, a company now part of the MyHeritage family.

Below is a great photo of immigrant belongings taken on a recent trip to Ellis Island by Denie, The Netherlands Community Manager at MyHeritage.

This post was co-authored with Schelly, US Head of Genealogy at MyHeritage.

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Comments (11) Trackbacks (0)
  1. I would like to know the name of the ship my parents arrived on.

    came here at Ellis Island on Dec7th 1947 from the Ukraine.
  2. definately one OF THE MOST FASCINATING AND SAD PLACES I HAVE EVER VISITED but such a small world, we inhabit,
    as I met 4 different parties during that trip of just a few hours, small world or what!!
  3. very interesting post and so relevant to so many people
  4. Thank you very much, very interesting.
  5. I came through there 1949 sailed from Southampton on the Queen Mary with my mother. My daughter Claire. who lives in New York, had our names inscribed on the wall.
  6. It should be noted that MANY names were changed during the digitization of the Ellis Island records. Just within my family, I have more than one documented case of the Foundation correcting their records at my request.

    One should always use the document images rather than the textual database as a source of information.
  7. Yes, many changes happened due to transcription errors. I've often noticed though that there *were* subtle differences with my family's surnames within the family itself--I am not sure why that happened other than perhaps some subtle variances with translation from another language into English. We need to be mindful of a couple of things: 1) those who came here were not English speaking and 2) not all were literate so they were unable to 100% verify that their name as spelled on official papers was correct.
  8. Dear Robert,

    The names were not changed during digitization of the Ellis Island records - digitization only captures the image of an original document so there is no way to change those names. What did happen was that the army of volunteers who did the transcriptions from the original manifests could not read the names clearly for a variety of reasons. Another reason for error was that the volunteers did not have a background in specific ethnicities to understand the spellings they were seeing.

    Digitized records are not changed, only the transcriptions were inaccurate. That is why Steve Morse set up his much better One-Step pages to find passengers who would never have been found due to transcription error.

    However, you are absolutely correct in that researchers should always look at original document images and not rely on transcriptions, which are often inaccurate due to human error.

    with best wishes
  9. Dear Donna,

    Thank you for your comment. Throughout history, people have changed their surnames in various ways for many reasons. They wanted to make it easier to spell and to say and recognize than the original ethnic spelling. In the early days of immigration, there were no hard and fast rules about spelling. Anyone could adopt another name or variation whenever he or she wanted.

    Some did so immediately when they left Ellis Island. Some took time to do it. And, of course, transcriptions of phonetic sounds from one language (let's use Polish for example) to English, made spelling much more simple for life in the new country, dealing with employers, with schools, in business and in other aspects of life.

    In later years, when an immigrant applied for naturalization, he often had to submit proof of his arrival (ship, date and manifest information; sometimes a photo). The court process also asked if the immigrant was known by another name, and then the immigrant needed to put down the original name. There were different rules at different times, and researchers will find variations on all of this depending on when their ancestor arrived, applied for naturalization or had other official dealings.

    Interesting sources to see how surnames and variations were used are in city directories (the pre-telephone directories published in many communities). In my own family, checking city directories showed that my great-grandfather went from the original TALALAY to TALLIN, TALIN, TOLINI, TOLIN and finally settled on TOLLIN, while his brother living in the same city settled on TALLIN.

    with best wishes
  10. Schelly,

    Thank you for the insight. The subtle differences I've noticed were just that: minor spelling variations. I can't account for those. For example, Plencner rather than Plenzler or Mirzejewski instead of Mierzejewski. I suspect some of that may be related to pronunciation, given that my maternal family emigrated from Poznan and there were variations between German and Polish versions of the name (in German civil records, often spelled Plencner, in other records as Plenzler). It depended I suppose on how the immigrant gave the name to the record-keeper. As for the paternal name, Mierzejewski, it has likely Russian influences (they were from Russian dominated Poland). And undoubtedly, it is difficult to spell in English if you did indeed hear it pronounced by an American. Other languages often use characters, accents, inflections different than we do. I'm more familiar with Polish immigrants and there is a need to be mindful there that influences other than just Polish speakers had on the names (Poland would have had Austrian, German, or Russian influences). Knowing too a few of my family were noted as unable to read or write both on Ellis manifests and on census records likely made for more room for error. They likely were unable to ascertain that there name was indeed spelled correctly. Also as you've stated, many did just select on version and worked with it, despite how others in the extended family spelled it. I have instances of that as well in my family.
  11. Hi, Donna

    Most immigrants had tickets (sent to them by relatives in America or elsewhere) or bought tickets from local shipping representatives and they would likely be written correctly. If they traveled the direct route, got onboard and arrived where they planned to settle, there was less chance of human error.

    If the passenger traveled an indirect route. Say for example, Libau to Hamburg or to Rotterdam and then to a UK port, and then to the US, there was much more chance for error as passenger manifests were written for each leg of the journey by people with different languages. Imagine a Polish immigrant with a name spelled with "scjzk" which was "read" by a German or Dutch-speaking official, and then by a UK official, there was more chance for error. And there were of course transcription/transliteration problems between languages written in different alphabets (e.g. Cyrillic to Roman).

    Plencner (Polish form) and Plenzner (German form) are phonetic variations as is the other example. There was a lot of this when people came from geographical regions in which an original language was then changed due to border changes.

    Researchers just need to be aware of the different variations in different regional languages. None of them are wrong, just variations on a theme, written at different times by individuals with different perspectives on transliteration.

    with best wishes

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