I burst another bubble yesterday. In speaking with a television producer about a segment on genealogy, I mentioned the biggest myth in American history — that anyone ever had their name changed at Ellis Island. Despite the numerous families with this tradition passed down, there is not a single documented occurrence of this ever happening. She was quite surprised to hear this.
I’m certain that a number of people reading this are even now thinking “That may be true, but in the case of MY family it really did happen!” I’m sorry to disappoint you, but such is not the case. And this makes complete sense. Think of your ancestor, most of them poor or working class. They have left the only home they have ever known for better opportunities in America. They did not make this decision lightly. In most cases they had no desire to return. Indeed, many of them were quite terrified of being forced back to their homeland. Imagine the fate of a Russian Jew trying to escape the pogroms at the turn of the century, making it to the shores of the new world only to be forced to return to Russia. If you were that immigrant, would you do anything that might jeopardize your ability to stay in America?
Have you ever taken a cruise? Try getting off the ship using a different name than the one with which you boarded. I don’t think you would make it past the security gate, let alone off the ship and onto shore. You showed your papers when you got on board, and showed the same papers when you disembarked.
The tradition in many families is that they arrived and nobody at Ellis Island spoke their language. This is hogwash. The staff of Ellis Island spoke languages from around the world. They processed up to 11,000 immigrants per day. Many of these staff were themselves immigrants or the children of immigrants who spoke their parents’ native tongue. Together with hundreds of interpreters hired to work with them, communication was not an issue. (Well, no worse than communicating with any other bureaucrat, I’m certain.)
Some immigrants changed their name prior to arriving in the United States. A friend of mine’s great-grandfather was a Russian Jew, probably escaping the pogroms at the turn of the century. He did not come directly to America, but went first to England for a time. Between the time left Russia and the time he boarded the ship in England, bound for Ellis Island, he changed his name from Moishe Cohen to William Smith. The point is, he got on the ship as William Smith and left the ship as William Smith. The name change did not occur during passage.
More common is that the immigrants changed their name once they had arrived in America. Many were trying to settle in and feel more “American.” Some may have been trying to escape the ethnic prejudice rampant in America. Others may just have tired of spelling their Eastern European names to Americans.
Indeed, spelling is, I believe, the crux of the issue for many. Remember that at this time of massive immigration, literacy was not very prevalent. People were more concerned with putting food on the table, clothes on their backs, and a roof over their heads, than with how to properly spell their name or any other word. Standardized spelling of names is a twentieth-century concept that came with greater education of the public. This is why we find so many spelling variations in names. It wasn’t that people didn’t know how to spell their name, it was that there was no “proper” way to spell a name, and for the most part they didn’t care.
After a time, the family’s name would change from the original and that would be that. It wasn’t a big issue. In my own family, the spelling of my surname varies among the descendants of my great-great-grandfather. Variations include Leclair, Le Clair, LeClair, Leclerc, LeClerc, and Le Clerc. Which one is the “correct” spelling, and who am I to tell another family member that their spelling is not the "correct" version?
Despite all that has been written to dispel the myth (try Googling “myth of name changed at Ellis Island”), it continues to be handed down in some families. I feel bad for people who are more connected to their family myths than learning the truth. And the truth is usually there to be found if one examines the records closely.