Thursday, December 9, 2010

Your Family's Name Was Not Changed at Ellis Island

This week we had some people over for dinner. During the course of our discussion, I asked one of them about the origins of his surname. (What can I say? I’m a genealogist – I’m always fascinated by where people’s names come from.) He told me that it had been spelled differently in Sweden, but then his family immigrated and they changed it at Ellis Island.

If you are a genealogist, you are cringing now. I know you are. I had to concentrate to not actually cringe when he said it.

If you’re not a genealogist, then maybe you don’t know why we are all cringing. Maybe you even have a similar story for your name.

Well, I hate to be the one to break it to you then: Your family’s name was not changed at Ellis Island. And neither was this person’s name. This may be the number two myth in genealogy (next only to the “I’m-descended-from-royalty/Indian-princess/Charlemagne/noble-who-fell-in-love-with-a-peasant-girl-and-stowed-away-on-a-ship-to-America-in-order-to-escape-the-Prussian-military-myth”).

First, many of the people who say this didn’t even have family that came through Ellis Island. Ellis Island didn’t open until 1892. Immigrants who came to New York prior to this probably came to Castle Garden which served as the port of arrival from 1855 until 1890.

Second, there was not a conspiracy by the officials at Ellis Island to change as many names as possible and make it difficult for their future descendents to ever trace their heritage.

Have many family names changed in spelling from their “original” spelling in Europe? Absolutely. But it wasn’t because of a massive change at Ellis Island. So why have these spellings changed then?

Well, there are several things to keep in mind. First, often there never was a “correct” way to spell the name in the first place – even in Europe. Our ancestors spelled phonetically – based on how things were pronounced, how they sounded. They were not overly concerned with what exact letters were included. You will often find names spelled multiple ways within one record. Also our ancestors, and even record keepers, were often only semi-literate. They had bigger things to worry about in life besides “i before e, except after c.”

The other piece of this is that things got more complicated when our ancestors came to the US and another language was involved. These foreign names were unfamiliar to US record keepers. The recorder heard the name – as it was spoken in its original language – and recorded it as he heard it in English.

Yes, sometimes names were written “incorrectly” (which is actually impossible since if there isn’t a “correct” way to write a name, then there can’t really be an “incorrect” way either) at Ellis Island. But, this is usually just another warping of a name that had been – and would be – warped into many forms. Just because an official wrote a name a certain way in the passenger arrival records, did not mean our ancestor was forced to spell his or her name that way forever afterward.

In fact, names usually continued to warp and change after Ellis Island. If you collect a stack of records throughout an immigrant ancestor’s life, you will most likely see the name morphing over time – not a sudden break at Ellis Island (or Castle Garden). Some of ancestors made conscious choices to change their name’s spelling in order to make it sound more “American.” Sometimes, it just gradually drifted to a more “American” spelling. Then of course, some people’s names shifted drastically into a name that appears to be completely unrelated to the name they had before. Sometimes there are reasons for this that we can figure out when we understand naming patterns. Other times, there appears to be absolutely no logic behind the change at all.

Those ancestors are the most fun of all, right?

For more information on name changes, you can read my article about it here from Everton’s Genealogical Helper. Or, if you have a special interest in patronymics, read my introductory article from Ancestry Magazine here.


  1. I never thought about it like that but it makes sense.

    My mom's family name is Rometo, which was changed from Romito when my great-grandfather got tired of people mispronouncing it after he got stateside.

    I don't remember the details but it didn't work so he offered the family the choice to leave it with the e or go back to the i.

    Spurring mild family conflicts ever since. I might be getting the details wrong since its been a few years since I've heard the story.

  2. Like Stephen said, my family certainly falls into the Americanizing of the name category.

    To clarify Steve's comment, in Italian the i has a long e sound so people were calling my grandfather RomIto with a long i sound. He started writing his name in cursive with an e but he put a dot over it like it was an i. This was intentional confusion as my grandfather tried to straddle the pronunciation dilemma.

    Although my father's birth certificate has his last name spelled with an "i" he and all but one of the younger family members adopted the Rometo spelling. Unfortunately, as a society we have learned a lot about pronunciation and more often than not my name is mispronounced Ro met o with the short e sound.

  3. How interesting. That makes me laugh that he tried to spell it both ways at once! Thank you for sharing that example.

  4. We had this exact same conversation over Thanksgiving dinner at my husband's aunt's house! I was told that the family name used to be suchandsuch, but it was changed when they came through Ellis Island. They didn't come through Ellis Island. I had to smile and grit my teeth, like you said. Amazing how so many people believe this story.

  5. That's the title I chose for my class this winter for Greenfield community College: They Didn't Change his Name at Ellis Island!

  6. The explanations are even crazier for those of us who descended from slaves. I love the arguments about how our branch spells the name correctly and another branch of the family spells it incorrectly. Of course the former slave owning family has the same variations in the spelling also because people tend to spell it how it's pronounced. I've just learned to say nothing when these conversations come. My attitude is whatever way the person whose name it is spelled it is the correct way.

  7. I have several lines that changed their name after immigration as well. They definitely didn't change it at Ellis Island or any port of New York, as their original surnames are written correctly on the manifests. Gombás became Gombash, Stümpges became Stuempges, Schondelmaier became Meyer. Some with little changes, some with extreme.

  8. Elizabeth - you did well to smile. I am always unsure of how much correcting to do. I think smiling and nodding is sometimes all you can do! And Nick - that last example of a name change would have been particularly difficult because the first part of the name changed so drastically. Would you mind if I used that as an example in my name change lecture? It's perfect.