RC-NT: Ellis Island Name Changes
Ellis Island: Name Changes
Ellis Island is a place of immense historical importance to the United States. One of the most iconic sites of immigration in America. It is remembered vividly by those who visited it on their way to becoming American citizens, and a symbol for new beginnings. It is, however, the source of a somewhat negative rumor regarding immigration. It is a widespread belief that many immigrants had their name from their native language changed. It is often blamed on language issues and miscommunication between translators and immigrants. This has been particularly burned into the minds of Americans by the famous scene from The Godfather Part II, where the young Vito Andolini’s name is forever changed to Corleone by an official mistaking his hometown for his name. How much truth is there in this commonly-held belief, though? Some quick research on the internet shows that this myth may be little more than that – a myth.
This belief, according to the National Italian American Foundation’s Ambassador Magazine, was born mostly of simple rumors throughout the immigrant community. It reached new heights of interest with the release of The Godfather Part II, as stated above, becoming a common household story. “That movie came out almost forty years ago,” says genealogist Aliza Giammatteo, “and clients still reference that scene when they call me for help tracing their Italian roots.” It was said that vindictive or negligent immigration officials would change immigrants’ names to versions that they considered “simpler,” forever changing the name of the family involved. According to the Ambassador, however, these name changes were rare, and more often the result of clerical errors and personal choices on the part of the immigrants. Some knew they would face discrimination due to their foreign origins, choosing to adopt a more “American” name. Others were altered due to misspellings and handwriting difficulties, like the Famiglietti family, whose name was written in documents in a way the looked closer to “Famighetti.” In general, these changes were considered uncommon and unlikely to occur.
The Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter gives a similar argument, focusing more on the uncommon nature of names being changed on Ellis Island itself. It posits that much of the initial documentation for immigrants was filled out in their home countries, leaving little room for errors or misinterpretations. In addition, there existed large amounts of corroborating documents such as ship manifests and passenger lists that allowed for a generally seamless transition in terms of documentation. It also cites various laws and standards of the time that prevented such mistakes from being made on the part of the immigrants. Specifically, providing a different name from that of one’s records from their home country was grounds for denial, and after 1940, immigrants were required to update or confirm their listed name in the immigration records. The Newsletter asserts that while this story is popular among families whose ancestors passed through Ellis Island, that “there is little to no truth to these stories.”
The New York Public Library as well, claims that these instances were rare to the point of inconsequentiality. It holds that inspectors at Ellis Island did not create the immigration documents and records, but rather, “they checked the names of the people moving through Ellis Island against those recorded in the ship’s passenger list, or manifest.” Despite this, it does admit to the occasional instances of confusion, pointing to a particularly outrageous one as an example. The case was that of Mary Johnson, or Frank Woodhull, as she eventually chose to call herself, and the debacle that came as a result of her gender identity. Woodhull’s records, including birth certificates, were all in the name of Mary Johnson, and cited female attributes and attire. Upon arriving in the US wearing men’s clothing and using the new name, Woodhull was detained for questioning, though eventually released. Woodhull’s story became a subject of interest for a time, and several interviews were held on the experience.
Lastly, I looked at a documentary from the Great Museums series that focused on Ellis Island. While the majority of the documentary, which runs for roughly half and hour, was focused on the experiences of immigrants and the emotional impact of their arrival, there was some time dedicated to the renaming myth. Museum operators on Ellis Island brought up their computerized records as a major attraction for modern visitors who wish to trace their ancestry and learn more about those in their family who arrived in America. They did, however, note that much of the time, family names have changed over the decades. They note that this is not, in fact, the fault of the island’s inspectors, but often due to events after the immigrants settled in. This was corroborated by the previous articles, which noted that immigrants often altered or outright changed their names after arrival to avoid persecution and mockery, or simply to start anew.
The idea that one’s family name was changed at Ellis Island is, in a strange way, appealing. It gives a sense of importance, a feeling that one’s family has a unique history to it. An interesting twist in one’s history. However, while such name changes are fascinating, and often have their own interesting story to explain them, it is rarely the fault of Ellis Island. The immigration process was well-oiled and well-regulated, with little margin for error. Isolated instances aside, it was far more common for mistakes to be made in work and city documents than at Ellis Island.