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Was Your Surname Really Changed at Ellis Island? 

Schelly Talalay Dardasht

Schelly Talalay Dardashti

MyHeritage US Genealogy Advisor
Was Your Surname Really Changed at Ellis Island? 

Was your name changed at Ellis Island? The simple answer is no. It never happened.

Today there are millions of descendants of immigrants to the U.S. who firmly believe this myth and, despite continued efforts of prominent genealogists and immigration experts, it seems impossible to stamp it out.

Whenever I speak to societies or at conferences, I usually start by asking “Was your ancestor’s name changed at Ellis Island?” Many people raise their hands.

Why do so many people believe this?

It didn’t help that Vito Corleone (“The Godfather, Part 2”) had his name changed at Ellis Island when he arrived. Or that even some tour guides at Ellis Island perpetuate the myth. Or that a New Yorker story (October 9, 2017) detailed how TV personality Rachel Maddow’s family (originally Medvedyev) received their new name from an Ellis Island clerk.
The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library (1905). Mother and child, Italian Ellis Island, 1905

Some say that their beloved great-grandmother (insert any other immigrant relative here) told them it happened. When you ask how old their great-grandmother was when she arrived, they say she was 6 months old. If she was that young, she was not a credible witness to the supposed change, but was told by other relatives.

Others claim that because their ancestor had a heavy accent or couldn’t speak English, the immigration clerk could not understand them and simply gave them a new name.

This could not have happened for the following reasons:

  • The only thing the clerk did was check off the names on the passenger manifest that was compiled before the ship sailed from Europe. The Ellis Island clerk never asked the immigrant his or her name.
  • In any case, some 30% of the immigration clerks were themselves multi-lingual immigrants and some 60 languages were spoken, with translators available at all times.
  • There was no name change form or any process for an immigration clerk to change a person’s name. It was not a court of law.

This myth has become so completely incorporated into the immigrant experience that even writers for major newspapers have mistakenly referred to it, and even best-selling novelists include name-change scenes in novels. One author has a name-change scene where two Italian immigrants are taken into a room by a clerk (an immigrant himself) and shown a list of “American” names and told to choose one to make it easier to make their way in the New World.

Recently, in one large Facebook genealogy group, numerous posts about how ancestor’s names were changed at Ellis Island garnered many comments, and genealogists who know the truth faced off against people who absolutely believe their ancestors’ stories.

According to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service senior historian Marian L. Smith:

The report that the clerk “wrote down” the immigrants surname is suspect. During immigration inspection at Ellis Island, the immigrant confronted an inspector who had a passenger list already created abroad. That inspector operated under rules and regulations ordering that he was not to change the identifying information found for any immigrant UNLESS requested by the immigrant, and unless inspection demonstrated the original information was in error.

Back in the golden age of immigration to the U.S., immigration was a fluid process. You bought a ticket with your own funds or were sent one by a relative already in the U.S. You provided travel documents of some kind (varied by country) to get that ticket. Remember that travel documents were written in a variety of alphabets and languages that had to be translated and transliterated so that ship personnel could prepare the passenger manifest. Changes could have occurred at this point, but this was before the ship sailed.

Once you arrived in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, or any of the other 30 U.S. Ports of Entry, you could change your name to anything you wanted the minute you stepped into the city. Requesting a name change did not require a court process or form. However, naturalization papers often included information on the person’s original name and, in some cases, required evidence of arrival and the original name on the manifest from the steamship company. If you are really lucky, depending on the date of arrival or filing of papers, there might even be a photo of your immigrant ancestor!

In some cases, the name was actually changed by the immigrant. This was the case in my own family: an earlier Talalai arrival (1898) changed the family name. The story handed down through the generations was that he had met a man on the ship who knew some English. He advised our immigrant ancestor to change his name, as no one would give a job to Mr. Tell-a-lie.

Max (formerly Mendl) wrote home to Mogilev, Belarus from his new home in Springfield, Massachusetts and said that the new name was Tollin. Many back home heard his message and, when they arrived, decided on one or another of the “new” name variations, including Tollin, Toll, Tall, Taylor, and even Feinstein (that’s a long story for another time!). My great-grandfather Aron, who arrived in 1904, went through a few surnames, ranging from Tolini (making himself Italian) to Tolin, before finalizing as Tollin, while his brother David — who lived only a few blocks away in Newark, New Jersey — decided on Tallin. But no Talalai/Talalay ever claimed his or her name was changed at Ellis Island.

You can search Ellis Island and other New York Passenger Lists on SuperSearch™. The collection is of great significance for anyone looking to trace their immigrant ancestors’ arrival in America. You can search it for information about your ancestors who immigrated to the U.S., including their original name.

Here are some articles detailing the process and confirming that names were not changed at Ellis Island or the other U.S. Ports of Entry:

Marian L. Smith, senior historian, U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, offers her thoughts here.

An excellent article from the New York Public Library is here.

If you would like to read additional articles dispelling this myth, click here.

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