Ellis Island Isn’t to Blame for Your Family’s Name Change

A long-standing myth obscures the truth behind the Americanization of some European names

Ellis Island
European immigrants arrive in America. Lewis Wickes Hine/Brooklyn Museum/Corbis

You know that old story about how immigrants, fresh off the boat from their native countries and crossing through Ellis Island, had their names changed by xenophobic immigration officers in order to sound more American?  Turns out, it isn’t true.

Though the myth persists, workers at what was once America’s largest and busiest immigration hub had nothing to do with the names people assumed once they reached the states.

As Arika Okrent over at Mental Floss writes, “No names were changed at Ellis Island because no names were taken at Ellis Island.” Instead, inspectors only checked the people passing through the island against the records of the ship on which they were said to arrive. If the name was misspelled, it was done so on the ship’s manifest documents when a person bought their ticket in Europe. (Some immigration clerks on Ellis Island even helped correct these mistakes.) Regardless, these spellings didn’t typically follow people to their new lives in America.

The real culprits of migration-related name changes are likely to be the immigrants themselves, says Philip Sutton at the New York Public Library. Faced with the task of adapting to a new country and culture, many chose on their own to alter their surname. In other cases, immigrants used nicknames given to them by their new neighbors or friends when filling out applications for naturalization. Either way, that island on the Hudson River had little to do with it.

Now you have one more thing to blame on Great-Grandpa. 

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