In a GQ Thread, someone bought up the story that it was common for the immigration officials at Ellis Island would rename immigrants with odd sounding names. I’ve seen it said that this was just a myth – it was hardly ever done.
So lets find out among the Dope.
Of your ancestors who may have passed through Ellis Island, how many had their last name changed there? You can also include spouses, friends, etc.
For me, none of my ancestors had their names changed. Same for my wife. My ex-wife may have had a name change a bit (they dropped the “von”), but I don’t know if that was at Ellis or, more likely, they decided to drop it themselves. (Or possibly, they never had the “von” in the first place.)
We’re in the maybe file. My father says it was, citing a conversation he had a long time ago with his mother. I asked her more recently and she said it wasn’t. He thinks she’s all confused about it. But in some countries where we have roots, the family name is a real name on its own. And while he insists the name was shortened from something Russian, he can’t remember what it was and just improvises. So there isn’t any hard evidence.
Some of my relatives’ surnames were recorded incorrectly on arrival, though they appear to have retained their European surnames, at least in my part of the family. (I’ve looked at the ships’ manifests.)
Our Italian surname was changed at Ellis Island when my great-grandparents came over. It used to end in ‘i’ but now it ends in ‘e’. I won’t give my surname, but it’s similar to changing “Villani” to “Villane”, but keeping the original pronunciation (that is, it is still three syllables, not two). My grandfather told me that it was changed so it wouldn’t look as Italian. I suspect that it was just a clerical error. Otherwise the pronunciation should have been changed, too.
My family name wasn’t changed, but it’s surprisingly simple, for a Polish name, so that’s not a surprise. What is more surprising is that my other relatives who came over, with those characteristic Polish names, filled with what look to the English-speaking eyes as superfluous and unlikely letters, got passed thropugh unchanged as well.
Some of my cousins in my own generation have changed the spellings, apparently having gotten tired of explaining to peopple that, yes, the name really does start with “Sz-…”
My ancestors almost all came in through Philadelphia, not Ellis Island, and I haven’t tracked down the entry documents for any of them (though I do have a microfilm printout of the ship ticket order for my maternal grandmother’s family, on which their name is already Anglicized - presumably the original Yiddish was something like Kornreich, but on the ticket order, which was filled out by my great-grandfather in Camden, NJ in 1911, it’s already Cornrich).
Out of curiosity, for those who say the name was or was not changed at Ellis Island, on what are you basing this determination? Oral history? Documents? Some combination? If documents, what kind?
FWIW I belong to a huge Jewish genealogy forum (www.jewishgen.org - check it out, especially if you have Jewish or East European ancestors), and the general consensus there is that name-changing at Ellis Island is largely a myth.
Two Ellis-island ancestors, zero name changes. (Italian, and the spelling does waffle between -i and -e, but both are common in Italy and I have no reason to assume malice when illiteracy will do.)
I also have a family story that “Von Karlenheimer” was shortened, but this is errant nonsense because the ancestor’s German records show the same name in Germany as in America.
I suspect that this is a common family legend for Americans, and that even some of the examples cited above may be revised on examination of the evidence (no offense). Many immigrants did voluntarily Americanize their names, and I am not disputing that; what I have yet to see evidence of is that this was something immigration officials did.
My grandfather’s last name was definitely changed (from the original family name to the town he came from) but we’ve always suspected he, rather than immigration officials, was the one who initiated the change.
Family legend is that he left the old country – and one specific woman in the old country – in a hurry. He never confirmed or denied it.