The Ellis Island Immigration Museum, Part III: Name Changes, Setting the Record Straight

New York.- By George D. Tselos and Vicki James Yiannias

An early scene in the “The Godfather Part II”, a 1974 film viewed by millions of people over the years, portrays an Ellis Island inspector misunderstanding a young immigrant, Vito Andolini, and mistakenly designating his last name as “Corleone”, which is actually Vito’s birthplace.  This portrayal of an involuntary name change is one example of the very persistent story that Ellis Island inspectors frequently changed the names of immigrants as they entered the country.

ellis-island“It is just one of numerous forms of the name change story,” says George D. Tselos,

Supervisory Archivist and Head of Reference Services at the Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island.   Another form of the story is jokes describing an immigrant from one ethnic group being given an odd name or a name typical of another group because he or she couldn’t answer the inspector’s questions in English, and another is allegations of such changes attributed to ancestors long dead.

“This widely believed story about the inspectors is a myth,” says Tselos, “at least in the form in which it is usually related: the powerful Ellis Island Immigration Station inspectors officially changing the poor, apprehensive, passive immigrants’ names as they entered upon their new life in this country.  Not only is there no solid evidence that these actions happened, but the whole immigration record keeping and inspection system worked against the inspectors doing this sort of thing.”

In the following text, Tselos explains the ways in which name changes occurred during immigration, such as in the country of origin, or name changes made by the immigrants the immigrants themselves after they left Ellis Island, and provides some possibilities as to how the erroneous belief about name changes arose.

“During much of the period of mass immigration through Ellis Island (1892-1924) the immigrants’ passage to this country began with showing identification papers to purchase a ticket for travel to a seaport and possibly also for a steamship ticket at the same time.  Up until the World War I era, passports and visas were generally not required for cross border travel, though some kind of local identification document often had to be produced by the traveler.  Nevertheless, immigrants sometimes traveled under assumed names if, for example, they feared retaliation for escaping obligations for army service.  The ticket agents would record the immigrant’s name and, either provide them with a ticket or a voucher to obtain a ticket at some point further on.

When the immigrants reached a seaport and embarked on the vessels that would take them to New York, the ship’s officers would prepare a document with the names of all the passengers on board, known as a passenger list or passenger manifest.  Ever since 1820, United States law required these manifests to be turned over to U.S. Customs and Immigration officials by every ship entering an American harbor.  In addition to the immigrant’s names, the manifest included the answers to a variety of questions relating to the immigrant’s status, occupation, money carried, town of origin, destination in the United States and so on.  The manifests were the basis for the “legal inspection” that each immigrant underwent upon arrival at Ellis Island.  Moreover, although many of the immigrants spoke no English, the inspectors could call for assistance from among an array of interpreters who, among themselves, could translate virtually all the major languages encountered among the new arrivals.

After the immigration officials finished with the manifests, these documents were eventually sent to Washington, D.C. where they were retained for future use.  To be eligible for citizenship through naturalization, immigrants generally had to wait five years after their entry into the U.S.  The manifest was their proof of date of entry that would be checked if and when they applied for citizenship.

Thus the passenger manifests were very significant legal documents.  Contrary to the folklore about inspectors changing the immigrants’ names, there are no examples of manifests in which inspectors have crossed out or changed people’s names.  Simply put, the inspectors were government bureaucrats entrusted with verifying that the new arrivals met the immigration regulations of the time.  The inspectors would have been in great trouble if they had been caught modifying the names listed there.

So how did this erroneous belief about name changes arise?  No one knows for sure, but several possibilities may explain it.  There is anecdotal evidence that some inspectors informally suggested that immigrants modify or change their names to avoid discrimination or “fit in” better in their new land.  For example, the descendent of an immigrant from Northern Italy told me that his great uncle reported that the inspector advised him that there was a lot of prejudice against Italians at that time.  This family member looked more fair haired and less swarthy than many of the immigrants from Southern Italy and Sicily.  The inspector suggested that he could pass for German or Austrian if he changed his name to one typical of that nationality, which the uncle proceeded to do.

Sometimes, the ships’ officers or ticket agents wrote modifications of the immigrants’ names on the initial manifests, particularly for immigrants coming from countries which used the Greek, Cyrillic or Hebrew letters.  Because the manifests were handwritten in the Roman alphabet, the names were written phonetically which introduced variations in spelling.   For example, my father’s name was written with two “Ls”.  The first time the immigrants might have become aware of these changes was when they faced the inspector during the examination and thus thought that the inspector was responsible.

Finally, the vast majority of name changes occurred among the immigrants after they left Ellis Island and made their way in their adopted land.  Often, Greeks and other nationalities chose to simplify their names to better “fit in”, avoid teasing or ridicule or on the suggestion of employers, teachers and other authority figures.  For example, the name “Pappadapoulos” was often shortened either to “Pappas” or to “Poulos.”   Many of these changes occurred by choice during the application process for naturalization.   In other words, the changes were made intentionally by the immigrants themselves, not because they were imposed upon them by the inspectors.  The immigrants were not the passive victims of bureaucratic whim, but striving individuals who sought to better their lives, though at times by bending to the dominant culture.”

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