"My great-grandpa's name was changed at Ellis Island!" How often have we genealogists heard this statement? Sadly, this is a commonly held misconception. There is not one shred of evidence to support the claim that officials changed the names of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island.
Officials not only did not have the time to start assigning new names to incoming passengers they didn't have the authority to do so.
Check how many ships were arriving daily and how many passengers on average were on each one, then think about the lineups of immigrants waiting to be cleared. Yes, it’s about the math, it’s about the sheer numbers of immigrants arriving in any one day, month or year. There was no time for officials to do more than process each immigrant as quickly as possible.
Sometimes an arriving immigrant used an incorrect name such as the surname of a stepfather rather than the biological father, or a name the family had adopted for other reasons. It is also important to remember that names of passengers were taken at the port of departure. These were entered on the ship’s manifest (which we commonly refer to as a passenger list). How the name was entered when the immigrant left their country is how the name was received at the incoming arrival port.
Sometimes an immigrant deliberately falsified their name and arrived under the name of someone else. Often these falsified arrival names were changed by the immigrants themselves later in life, such as when they applied for naturalization papers, or some form of pension, or they wanted to vote in elections.
If an immigrant's new name did not match that shown on their official immigration record such as a ship's passenger list, he or she might face difficulties voting, in legal proceedings, or naturalization.
One of the most common reason that an ancestor's name on the manifest does not match the surname your father and grandfather have used, is that it was a name unfamiliar to English speaking clerks, and was entered phonetically in other documents, such as census records. For example the surname Przybyszewskl is not only challenging for North Americans to spell, but also to pronounce. It can easily be incorrectly recorded and eventually may become the standard and new name.
Sometimes an immigrant chose to "Americanize" their surname themselves and simply began using a new name a year or so after settling in America. Americanizing a surname usually meant making it more familiar to English speakers and spellers. Many of these Americanized names were simply shortened from their original version, for example Kohnovalsky could become Cohn.
First names can also be inadvertently or intentionally changed by the immigrant himself or by a clerk recording the name phonetically. My husband’s Belgium born great grandfather’s name was Archie. Or so we thought. But baptism records in Belgium proved it was Achilles, which is pronounced Aw-shee. That sounds like Archie and so he became Archie to his friends in his new land of Canada.
Names in other countries and non-English languages are often changed to their English equivalent. My sister’s father-in-law was baptised as Waclaw in Poland. He is found under that name on his 1927 passenger list. But one year later he was recorded under the English equivalent of Walter as he crossed the border from America to Canada.
Another reason why an immigrant’s name can be different than his birth name is when a nickname was the name given by the immigrant himself. My grandmother’s original legal name was Ruth, but her family called her Dolly. She gave that name on official records but it was her decision, and was not arbitrarily assigned to her by immigration officials. My husband’s grandfather was Leon Thomas but he was always called Charlie and was the name he used on all official documents.
Below are some sample letters representing typical cases of immigrants who made their own decisions to change their surnames.
How Diamond became Cohen
How Kohnovalsky became Cohn
How Bahash became Amber
How Shukowsky became Zakotsky
How Asszony became Miazaroz
An excellent article on this topic called "American Names / Declaring Independence" can be found at Immigrant Name Changes
Lorine McGinnis Schulze is a Canadian genealogist who has been involved with genealogy and history for more than thirty years. In 1996 Lorine created the Olive Tree Genealogy website and its companion blog. Lorine is the author of many published genealogical and historical articles and books.