No, your family name was NOT changed at Ellis Island!

Every American Jewish family—and a few Gentile families as well—have a family story that they’re convinced is true: the family name had been changed by an immigration official at Ellis Island more than a century ago. In my case, the story went something like this: in the 18th and 19th Centuries, Jews in Romania were not allowed to have surnames because they were second-class citizens; when my paternal grandfather Louis immigrated to the U.S., the immigration agent saw that he had no surname, asked him for his father’s name, which turned out to be David, so he became Louis Davidson.

It’s a fine story.

I believed it until last week.

Expert Henry Louis Gates Jr., a.k.a. “Skip” Gates, explained to a guest on his wonderful Finding Your Roots show why these stories turn out to be apocryphal.For now let’s just look at a single paragraph by Philip Sutton of the New York Public Library:

Between 1892 and 1954, over twelve million people entered the United States through the immigration inspection station at Ellis Island, a small island located in the upper bay off the New Jersey coast. There is a myth that persists in the field of genealogy, or more accurately, in family lore, that family names were changed there. They were not. Numerous blogs, essays, and books have proven this. Yet the myth persists; a story in a recent issue of The New Yorker suggests that it happened. This post will explore how and why names were not changed. It will then tell the story of Frank Woodhull, an almost unique example of someone whose name was changed, as proof that even if your name was changed at Ellis Island (it wasn’t), it wouldn’t have mattered.

OK, so what’s going on here? For specific evidence about Jewish families, check out “The Ellis Island Name Change Myth,” by Joel Weintraub. More generally, you can find out what actually happened in a short piece by Arika Okrent, written in her usual lively and informative style. (You will recall my reference to Okrent in this blog a few months ago.) Alternatively, an article in Trace summarized three common myths and then debunked them, the three myths being as follows:

Myth #1: Clerks Incorrectly Spelled Immigrant Names

Myth #2: Clerks Americanized Immigrant Names

Myth #3: Immigrants Couldn’t Comprehend English-Speaking Clerks

Finally, I recommend these two sources:

  • A piece in Ancestral Findings, “They Changed Our Name at Ellis Island,” about what really happened at Ellis Island.
  • An informative post by Schelly Talalay Dardashti, asking whether your name was changed at Ellis Island. I quote the beginning of her post:

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 US who firmly believe this myth and, despite the best and continued efforts of prominent genealogists and immigration experts, this myth seems impossible to stamp 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 myth?

It didn’t help that Vito Corleone (“The Godfather, Part 2”) had his name changed at Ellis Island when he arrived. And that even some tour guides at Ellis Island perpetuate this myth. And that a recent New Yorker story (October 9) detailed how TV personality Rachel Maddow’s family (originally Medvedyev) received their new name from an Ellis Island clerk.

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.

So if my family’s name was not changed to Davidson at Ellis Island, when and where was it changed? Surely it was changed at some point, as it is neither Romanian nor Yiddish, and those are the only possible native languages for a Romanian Jew in the 19th Century. As we used to say when I was in college, this bears further research.

Categories: Life