It is a very common tale of immigration to America, a family arrives at Ellis from a far off land, with little command of the language, and the inspectors “Americanize” the their identity from whatever exotic surname they brought with them to something easier on American ears.
We’re all heard the story, and many people no doubt have it as part of their personal family history. Except is is almost all a load of baloney! Historians of the period have poured over countless records, and found next to nothing that indicates such changes were actually pressed upon the new arrivals. In fact, they didn’t write anything down, but rather just confirmed the name off of the passenger manifests.
What researchers take from this is that any changes made to the names of immigrants stemmed either from earlier or later. In some case it might have been a mistake on the part of the ticket counter in Europe, with the name written down wrong on the manifest and never corrected upon arrival, but the vast majority of changes came from the immigrants themselves, who, hoping to assimilate into their new homeland, changed the name out of their own volition. Despite the well entrenched myth, there is nothing to suggest any sort of policy forcing it upon arrivals.
Well, almost a myth. There is evidence for at least one “name change” happening at Ellis Island. Records show that Frank Woodhull, who upon arrival was found to be a woman traveling in men’s clothing, was properly amended in the manifest and recorded as Mary Johnson.
(For further reading, story sourced from the NYPL, Photo from Library of Congress, Submitted by G.K. Zhukov)