Between 1892 and also 1954, over twelve million civilization entered the United states through the immigrant inspection station at Ellis Island, a small island located in the upper bay off the brand-new Jersey coast. There is a myth the persists in the ar of genealogy, or an ext accurately, in family members lore, that household names were adjusted there. They were not. Many blogs, essays, and books have actually proven this. Yet the myth persists; a story in a recent concern of The brand-new Yorker suggests that it happened. This write-up will check out how and why name were not changed. It will then tell the story of open minded Woodhull, an practically unique example of someone whose surname was changed, together proof that even if your name was changed at Ellis Island (it wasn"t), the wouldn"t have actually mattered. Confused? read on...

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The legend goes that officials at Ellis Island, unfamiliar through the countless languages and nationalities of the people getting here at Ellis Island, would change the name of those immigrants that sounded foreign, or unusual. Vincent J. Cannato"s excellent book American Passage: The history of Ellis Island explains why this did no happen:

Nearly all <...> name adjust stories are false. Names to be not adjusted at Ellis Island. The proof is discovered when one considers that assessors never composed down the names of just arrived immigrants. The only list that names come from the manifests that steamships, filled the end by delivery officials in Europe. In the era prior to visas, there to be no main record of entering immigrants except those manifests. When immigrants reached the finish of the heat in the great Hall, lock stood before an immigration clerk v the substantial manifest opened up in former of him. The clerk then proceeded, usually with interpreters, come ask questions based on those uncovered in the manifests. Your goal was to make sure that the answer matched. (p.402)

Inspectors did not develop records the immigration; rather they confirm the names of the world moving through Ellis Island against those taped in the ship"s passenger list, or manifest. The ship"s manifest was produced by employee of the steamship service providers that brought the immigrant to the joined States, prior to the trip took place, once the passenger bought their ticket. The manifest to be presented to the officials in ~ Ellis Island when the ship arrived. If anything, Ellis Island officials were recognized to correct mistakes in passenger lists. The Encyclopedia that Ellis Island states that employee of the steamer companies,

…mostly ticket agents and also pursers forced no one-of-a-kind identification native passengers and also simply accepted the names the immigrants provided them. Immigrant inspectors embraced these surname as recorded in the ship"s manifests and never changed them unless convinced that a mistake had actually been made in the order or calculation of the name. However the initial name to be never entirely scratched out and also remained legible. (p.176)

Although it is always feasible that the name of passengers were spelt wrong, possibly by the clerk as soon as the ticket to be bought, or during transliteration, once names were analyzed from one alphabet come another, that is an ext likely that immigrants were their very own agents that change. Cannato, for instance, argues that world often readjusted their surname in development of migration. An ext commonly, immigrants would change their names themselves as soon as they had actually arrived in the unified States, and for a variety of reasons.


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Immigrants being registered at one end of the key Hall, U. S. Immigration Station.

Someone might change their surname in stimulate to make it sound an ext American, come fit in through the regional community, or simply since it was an excellent for business. Over there is at the very least one circumstances of a small businessman showing up in the United says from east Europe an altering his name, at the very least his publicly name, come something the sounded Swedish, because he had worked out in a Swedish ar in new York City. Immigrant would periodically officially record their name change, as soon as naturalizing because that instance, but often, together there was no regulation in brand-new York State request it be done, no official record that a name change was made. Human being would simply start using a different name.

John Colletta, in his publication They came in Ships, defines the immigration process at Ellis Island in more detail:

Inspector had in has actually hands a written record of the immigrant he to be inspecting and, asking the same inquiries over again, could compare the oral statements v it. The inspectors therefore, check out the names already written down on the lists, and they had actually at their organization a huge staff the translators who functioned along side them in the great Hall the the Ellis Island facility. (p.12)

Contemporary explanation of Ellis Island execute not cite name changes at Ellis Island. A find of historic newspapers utilizing the ProQuest historic Database produces only one story about name changes written during the time the Ellis Island was in operation.

Leonard Lyons" entertainment column Broadway Potpourri, in the Washington Post that April 10th, 1944, says that bother Zarief, "the assistant concert master for Morton Gould," and famously a dad of quadruplets, had actually recently adjusted his name earlier from Friedman.

Friedman. His name originally was Zarief, but when his household arrived in ~ Ellis Island the immigrant inspector called him that Zarief was also complicated, and recorded his name together "Friedman." countless years later the "Friedman" was adjusted back to the original Zarief. (p.9)

There are hundreds of stories around the immigrant inspection station in the newspapers of the time that carry out not point out names being changed. In a 1922 article, title To it is in or not to it is in American in the new York Times, reporter Elizabeth Heath defines a visit come Ellis Island, and the good Hall whereby immigrants were processed.

Upstairs, in the an excellent main room of the building, the straggling crowd is skillfully separation into a dozen long lines, each causing the workdesk of one inspector. Before him is spread out the manifest of the steam boat company, giving the required information around each steerage passenger - religion, loved ones in America, amount of money, source of i money, literacy, occupation, and the optimistic statement that the candidate for join does not believe or exercise polygamy or anarchy. It is a seeming miscellany of information, however each item has actually a straight bearing top top the legality the admission. (p.41)

A letter come the Chicago Tribune advice obelisk The Legal friend of the People, date September 16, 1912 discusses name changes and also an application for citizenship, and also mentions Ellis Island.

After having lived in the United states for five years I readjusted the assignment of my name. As soon as I made my declaration to become a citizens of the united States, about a year and also a fifty percent ago, I offered my name as I currently spell it. Will this cause any hitch in my taking out final citizenship documents six month hence? <...> I understand that all declarations of intention to come to be a citizen space forwarded to new York and verified through the documents at Ellis Island. Once it is discovered that my name, as I spelled it as soon as I took the end my very first papers, is not on the publications there, will this interfere v my acquisition out my last naturalization papers?

The advice offered in reply:

On making the application for final papers, you should spell your name together in the original application. You have the ideal to adjust the spelling there is no a court process. (p.6)

The idea the names were adjusted at Ellis Island raises several questions. For instance, if names to be changed, what occurred to the paperwork? and also if inspectors were charged with transforming names, why room there no records of this? Where space the lists of authorized names? Where are the first hand accounts, of inspectors and also immigrants? If immigrants had name changes forced upon them, why did they not simply change their name ago when they gotten in the country? Or, if they might not, where is paperwork describing the roles of commonwealth officials charged through making certain that names were not adjusted back?


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Immigrants sit on lengthy benches, key Hall, U.S. Immigration Station.

All quite silly, perhaps. However the legend persists, almost exclusively in family lore. One explanation might be that us live in an ext enlightened times. Although world still adjust their names, particularly when naturalizing, many civilization immigrating come the United says no much longer feel the they have to adjust their name to right in, and also so it appears strange that civilization would voluntarily change their name generations ago.

Marian L. Smith, in her essay American Names: heralding Independence, argues that another interpretation the the Ellis Island myth could be:

That one immigrant is mental his initial confrontation with American culture. Ellis Island to be not only immigrant processing, it was finding one"s method around the city, discovering to speak English, gaining one"s very first job or apartment, going to school, and adjusting one"s surname to a new spelling or pronunciation. Every these experiences, because that the first few years, were the "Ellis Island experience." when recalling your immigration decades before, countless immigrants described the entire experience as "Ellis Island."

There is always the exemption to the rule. The clipping below is native the passenger perform for the steamer S.S. New York, which came down on the port of new York, native Southampton, England, October 4th, 1908. It reflects that a passenger"s name has been overcome out and also replaced v another, the of mary Johnson. The clipping listed below that is indigenous the unified Kingdom outward Passenger Lists and confirms that the passenger had explained himself as Frank Woodhull, a clerk, and also alien in the joined States.

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List or manifest of extraterrestrial passengers: S.S. New York (American Line) Sept 26th,1908

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United Kingdom outside passengers: S.S. New York (American Line) Sept 26th,1908The S.S. New York"s passenger list contains an addendum, a page titled record of Aliens organized for unique Inquiry. This to be a list of the surname of passengers disembarking from the S.S. New York, that were detained in ~ Ellis Island. The reason provided for "Mary Johnson" being held for more inspection is that "she" to be travelling as Frank Woodhull "in masculine attire." Mr. Woodhull verified that he would not it is in a financial burden on the joined States, and also was enabled to proceed his trip to new Orleans.

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Record the aliens held for special inquiry: S.S. New York (American Line) Sept 26th, 1908The incident created headlines in newspapers everywhere the country, and Frank Woodhull offered a variety of interviews, whereby he told his story, a story the tells united state much around the times. Here it is as told come the brand-new York Times, October 5th and 6th, 1908.

My life has always been a struggle. Ns come of one English-Canadian family, and I have actually most of my fight to make all alone. Thirty year ago, once I was 20, my father died and also I to be thrown entirely on my own resources. I involved this country a young girl and went west to make my way. For fifteen years i struggled on. The hair ~ above my face was a misfortune. The was often the topic of crude jest and caused me endless embarrassment. The struggle was awful, yet I had actually to live somehow, and also so i went on. God knows that life has been hard, yet of the hardness the those years i cannot speak.

Then come a time fifteen years back when I acquired desperate. I had been called that i looked choose a man, and I knew the in Canada some women have put top top men"s clothing do men"s work. So the believed took form in mine mind. If this women had actually done the why could not I, that looked prefer a man? I was in California at the time. Ns bought men"s clothes and also began come wear them. Then things changed. I had actually prospects. My occupation ns have provided here together canvasser, however I have done many things. I have actually sold books, lightning rods, and also worked in stores. Never ever once was ns suspected that i was other than frank Woodhull. I have actually lived mine life, and also I tried to live it well. Most of the time I have been in California, but now i am going to brand-new Orleans, whereby there are opportunities of employment. I have actually never attempted to take citizenship papers. I knew to perform so would be either to reveal my sex or else become a legislation breaker. I have never to be the latter. Ns did not know that there was a law versus women wearing male attire in this State or ns would have actually sailed to one more port. My folks come initially from England and also it had actually long to be my wish to go there and take a watch about. So v a measure of success the longing grew and also I started to save up because that my holiday. I discussed in the steerage two months ago and changed the exact same way.

On October 8th, 1908 Woodhull returned from Europe, and also passing v Ellis Island, as an alien, despite having resided in the United states for a variety of years, to be pulled to one side by an official who believed that he could have Tuberculosis. Erica Rand, in her publication The Ellis Island snow Globe, price quotes an article that showed up in the New-York Tribune, explicate "what happened when Woodhull was called for additional examination:

<…> Woodhull said the operated doctor "Oh, please don"t study me!" She pleaded. "I might as well tell friend all. I am a woman, and have travel in male attire because that fifteen years." "(p.80)

Woodhull was brought before a board of unique Inquiry in ~ Ellis Island, that according to the brand-new York Times, October 6th, asserted him a "desirable immigrant should be permitted to success her livelihood as she saw fit." (p.6)

Woodhull talked around how women were supposed to behave, dress, and of the species of work-related open to them.

Women have actually a tough time in this world. They room walking advertisements because that the milliner, the dry goods stores, the jewelers, and other shops. Lock live in the main only for their clothes, and now and also then as soon as a woman involves the front who does not treatment for dress she is looked upon as a freak and also a crank. With me exactly how different. Watch this hat? I have worn the hat for three years, and also it cost me $3. What woman could have worn a cap so long? Bah! They room the slaves to whim and fashion. What could I do when fifteen years ago I faced the crisis in mine life? over there was just housework to which I might turn.<…> Men can work at numerous unskilled callings, however to a woman only a few are open, and also they room the grinding, death-dealing kinds of work. Well, for me, I like to live a life the independence and freedom.

The brand-new York Times goes on to include that the individual identified at Ellis Island as mary Johnson, was freed, to "face the world as frank Woodhull." (p.6)

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A thorough find of genealogy Library Edition provides no clues as to Frank Woodhull"s whereabouts after ~ leaving Ellis Island, despite the net does incorporate references to his settling in brand-new Orleans, ending up being an American citizen, and dying in 1939: citations room missing. Perhaps, ~ the furor, Frank decided to readjust his name, come avoid more publicity. This story illustrates one thing. Once Woodhull left Ellis Island, he was no longer obliged come be known as mar Johnson, but was totally free to resume his life, finish with the name and identity the his choosing. Ellis Island might not impose a surname upon him.

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Further reading

Copies that ship"s manifests, or passenger lists, are avialable at new York publicly Library, via the database genealogy Library Edition.

If girlfriend would prefer to read much more about Ellis Island, try searching for materials in the Library"s catalog. You have the right to use the complying with subject terms: