One hundred twenty-five years ago, the nation’s first federal immigration station opened on Ellis Island in New York Harbor, built to handle the throngs who were coming to America during the late 19th century to escape famine, war and poverty.
They hoped to settle in a promised land that was opening its doors to many, especially those capable of doing manual labor. But even though many may have had unusual names—at least to an English speaker—it is a persistent myth that Ellis Island inspectors altered birth names of the weary immigrants.
Ellis Island holds a special place in the American psyche, having been the fabled point of entry for 12 to 13 million immigrants during the 62 years it was open, from January 1, 1892 until November 12, 1954.
If an immigrant made it as far as Ellis Island, he or she would likely be allowed into the United States, at least in the first two decades it was open. Only those in steerage had to undergo inspection at the Ellis Island station. First and second class passengers received a quick inspection while aboard ship, based on the federal notion that “if a person could afford to purchase a first or second class ticket, they were less likely to become a public charge in America due to medical or legal reasons,” says the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation.
As mass migration began growing, immigration laws started changing. Contract laborers were allowed admittance in 1864, but barred in 1885, according to the Federation for American Immigration Reform. In 1875, prostitutes and convicts were barred entry, and in 1882, those convicted of political offenses, lunatics, idiots, and persons likely to become public charges were prohibited. Polygamists and political radicals were added to the no-go list in 1903.
The strictures reflected the views of the times, with anarchy and Bolshevism seen as particular threats, says Peter Urban, a National Park Service Ranger in the division of interpretation at Ellis Island, which is overseen by the Park Service. “There was a huge fear that immigrants were going to bring a whole new set of morals into the country that were going to degrade us,” Urban says.
The 500 or so employees at the station had to work quickly during those first waves of immigration, processing each immigrant in a matter of 4 to 7 hours. The inspectors interviewed 400 to 500 people a day—processing a million a year—during the height of the flow, says Urban. On the record-breaking day of April 17, 1907, almost 12,000 immigrants were processed, according to the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation.
While that seems like a set-up for fudging a difficult name into the record books, or maybe even just making the best guess on a name that perhaps a nonliterate immigrant might not know how to spell correctly, it didn’t go down that way at all, Urban says. Name changes “could happen, but they are not as likely as people have been led to believe,” he says.
Ellis Island inspectors were not responsible for recording immigrants’ names. Instead, any error likely happened overseas.
To leave the home country—whether Italy, Slovakia, Austria, Poland or elsewhere—immigrants had to purchase a place on a ship—whether bound for New York or one of the other U.S. ports accepting immigrants.
At the shipping line’s station in Europe, a clerk wrote the passenger’s name in the ship’s manifest, sometimes without asking for identification verifying the spelling. The shipping clerk also asked a set of questions, largely to determine if male immigrants could do manual labor, as that was the main reason they were being allowed into—and often, courted by—a burgeoning America.
“The American laws were pretty clear,” says Urban. If an immigrant made it to Ellis Island, but was found to be infirm by the U.S. inspectors, “the shipping company had to bring the immigrant home for free,” Urban says. The shipping lines were thus highly motivated to only take immigrants who weren’t going to be coming back.
The ship’s manifest was presented to Ellis Island inspectors after the boat docked. From there, the inspector would cross-reference the name on the manifest with the immigrant passenger, and also ask 30 questions to screen out rabble-rousers, loafers, or the physically and mentally infirm, but also to glean information on who they would be living with and where in America, says Urban. The inspectors also would see if the answers matched those recorded by the shipping clerk before departure.
“If anything, Ellis Island officials were known to correct mistakes in passenger lists,” says Philip Sutton, a librarian in the Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, at the New York Public Library, in a blog post delving into the name change mythology.
More commonly, immigrants themselves would change their names, either to sound more American, or to melt into the immigrant community, where they were going to live, says Sutton. If name changes happened with any frequency on Ellis Island, it was not noted in any contemporaneous newspaper accounts or in recollections from inspectors, Sutton says.
It is also unlikely a foreign name would flummox an Ellis Island inspector. From 1892 to 1924, “one-third of all immigrant inspectors were themselves foreign-born, and all immigrant inspectors spoke an average of three languages,” says the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
One of the island’s best-known interpreters was Fiorello LaGuardia, a U.S. congressman and three-term mayor of New York City, who worked at the immigration station during the day, while he went to law school at night. LaGuardia was the son of an Italian father and a Jewish mother from Austria-Hungary, and spoke Italian, German, Yiddish and Croatian, says the Park Service.
Common languages spoken at Ellis Island included: Italian, Polish, Ukrainian, Slovak, German, Yiddish, French, Greek, Hungarian, Russian, Ukrainian, Serbo-Croatian, Romanian, Swedish, Portuguese, Bulgarian, Czech, Spanish, Armenian, Arabic, Dutch, Norwegian and Chinese.
Workers would be assigned to inspect immigrants based on the languages they spoke, and if communications were still an issue, interpreters—often from immigrant aid societies, would be called in to help translate. Urban says some of those societies had offices in the Great Hall of the main Ellis Island building, which meant they weren’t far from the inspection process.
It is not known how many immigrants arrived in the U.S. bearing a name that differed from the one given to them at birth, says Urban. It’s also not clear how many may have changed their names on their own, at least before 1906.
The Naturalization Act of 1906 established the rule requiring documentation of any name changes, “because of the well-known fact that immigrants did change their names, and tended to do so within the first five years after arrival,” says the U.S. immigration office.
The lack of detailed records in many cases means that immigrants’ descendants often build their own stories about their names, sometimes holding Ellis Island inspectors responsible, says the immigration service.
That could be because for some, Ellis Island was a scary and hostile place, Urban says. Many migrants came from repressive regimes, where men in uniform were to be feared. At the island, uniformed officers marked immigrants’ clothing with letters signifying disease, or separated migrants from children or relatives for medical treatments or further questioning. “It could be terrifying,” he says.
But, he says, he believes that dehumanization—including a disregard of names—was “not a prevalent or overwhelming part of the culture” at Ellis Island. While the process could be cold, “it didn’t mean you didn’t have inspectors who treated people very kindly and compassionately,” Urban says.
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