Dispelling the Myth of Ellis Island Name Changes
Our family's surname was changed at Ellis Island...
This statement is so common it is just about as American as apple pie. However, there is little truth in these "name change" stories. While immigrants' surnames often changed as they adjusted to the new country and culture, they were very rarely changed upon their arrival at Ellis Island.
The facts of the U.S. immigration procedure at Ellis Island help to dispel this dubious myth. In reality, passenger lists were not created at Ellis Island - they were created by the ship's captain or designated representative before the ship departed from its port of origin. Since immigrants would not be accepted into Ellis Island without proper documentation, the shipping companies were very careful to check the immigrant's paperwork (usually completed by a local clerk in the immigrant's homeland) and ensure its accuracy to avoid having to return the immigrant back home at the shipping company's expense.
Once the immigrant arrived in Ellis Island, he would be questioned about his identity and his paperwork would be examined. However, all Ellis Island inspectors operated under rules that did not allow them to change the identifying information for any immigrant unless it was requested by the immigrant or unless the interrogation demonstrated that the original information was in error. Inspectors were usually foreign-born immigrants themselves and spoke several languages so communication problems were nearly non-existent. Ellis Island would even call in temporary interpreters when necessary, to help translate for immigrants speaking the most obscure languages.
This is not to say that the surnames of many immigrants were not changed at some point after their arrival in America. Millions of immigrants had their names changed by schoolteachers or clerks who couldn't spell or pronounce the original surname. Many immigrants also voluntarily changed their names, especially upon naturalization, in an attempt to fit better into American culture. Since the documentation of name changes during the U.S. naturalization procedure have only been required since 1906, the original reason for the name change of many earlier immigrants is lost forever. Some families even ended up with different last names since everyone was free to use the name he or she preferred. Half of the children of my Polish immigrant ancestors used the surname 'Toman' while the other half used the more Americanized version 'Thomas' (the family story being that the name change was suggested by nuns at the children's school). The family even appears under different surnames during different census years. This is a very typical example - I'm sure many of you have found different branches of a family in your tree using different spellings of the surname - or even different surnames altogether.
As you move forward with your immigrant research, keep in mind that if your family underwent a name change in America, you can be pretty certain that it was at the request of your ancestor, or perhaps because of inability to write or their unfamiliarity with the English language. The name change most likely did not take place at Ellis Island!