Friday, February 19, 2010

My Ancestor's Name Was Changed at Ellis Island?

I can't tell you the number of people who have told me that their ancestor's name was changed at Ellis Island. It seems that many people believe that all immigrants came through Ellis Island in New York. Well, that is the first piece of misinformation. Immigrants arrived at several ports including Boston, Philadelphia, New Orleans, San Francisco, Baltimore, Seattle, and others.
Since immigrants entered the United States through many ports, how is it that so many people believe that it was the officials at Ellis Island that changed their relative's name? Simply folklore, urban legends, etc.! The truth is the immigrants changed their own name at some point after arriving in the United States. Neither the officials at Ellis Island nor officials at the other ports of debarkation were responsible for name changes. Go to the Ellis Island Website ( to see examples of ship manifest lists that were presented to the officials at Ellis Island.
Changing one's name wasn't just a phenomena of the late 19th and early 20th century. It holds true today as well as the early history of our country. I have friends who are Indian, Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese who have Americanized their names.
While looking at many old records of the 17th and 18th centuries, I saw that the early Dutch and Huguenot people in New York changed their names too. Catryntje and Tryntje became Catherine, Jacobus became James, Aefje became Eva, etc. Even English sounding names were transformed. For example, Maritje became Maria/Mary and later Polly; Johanna to Hannah and later Anna; Sarah to Sally; etc.
It didn’t end with changing one’s given name. Even the surnames became more Anglicized. So why is it not conceivable that an immigrant in the later centuries and decades would not Americanize given names and surnames?

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