25 October 2010

The myth of Ellis Island name changes

Ask any Ashkenazi American Jew about his family’s arrival in the United States, and you’re likely to hear a certain story. With minor variations, it goes something like this: “My great-grandfather was called Rogarshevsky, but when he arrived at Ellis Island, the immigration officer couldn’t understand his accent. So he just wrote down ‘Rogers,’ and that became my family’s name.”

Most American Jews accept such stories as fact. The truth, however, is that they’re fiction. Ellis Island, New York City’s historic immigrant-absorption center, processed up to 11,000 immigrants daily between 1892 and 1924. Yet despite this incessant flow of newcomers, the highest standards of professionalism were demanded of those who worked there. All inspectors—many of whom were themselves immigrants, or children of immigrants — were required to know at least two languages; many knew far more, and all at the native-speaker level. Add to that the hundreds of auxiliary interpreters, and together you’ve covered nearly every possible language one might hear at Ellis Island. Yiddish, Russian, and Polish, in this context, were a piece of cake.

Nor were inspections the brief interactions we associate with passport control in today’s airports. Generally they lasted twenty minutes or more, as inspectors sought to identify those at high risk of becoming wards of the state. But perhaps most significantly, Ellis Island officers never wrote down immigrants’ names. Instead, they worked from ships’ manifests, which were themselves compiled by local officials at the point of embarkation. Even overseas, passenger lists were likewise not generated simply by asking immigrants for their names. Rather, they were drawn from passports, exit visas, and other identification papers. The reason for this was simple: Errors cost the shipping company money. A mistake on a manifest, such as a name that was not corroborated by other documentation (whether legal or fraudulent), would result in the forced deportation of the person in question back to his point of departure—at the shipping company’s expense. Of course, many Jewish immigrants’ names were changed upon coming to America. Without exception, however, they changed their names themselves.
The rest of the (long) story is at Azure, which "presents the best in Jewish thought from Israel and around the world."


  1. i think my family simply got tired of explaining to americans how to pronounce "krc" and just gave up. it apperas they used "krc" and "kress" kind of interchangeably, depending on audience.

    i'd always thought that my great grandfather really changed his name, since his descendants took the name kress, but long after his death we found his fire shield on which he was krc.

  2. My family's myth is that one of my ancestors grew up in a small Swedish town, and was a Johanson until the army came through, recruited a bunch of young men, and found out every last one of them was named Johanson. "Okay, everyone pick a new last name!"

    It's probably a myth, but it's a fun one. That story came from the same great-grandfather who claimed to have come through Ellis Island on the 4th of July, and was astonished to see how enthusiastically Americans welcomed new immigrants. I suppose it'd be easy enough to check the records if it's true.

  3. Same anon as above... Holy crap, it's easy to check immigration records! It just took me about 15 minutes to confirm both of those stories.

    I searched for my grandfather's name (1 year old at time of entry), and found the manifest for the family. They entered the country on July 1, so my Great-grandfather might have been stretching that story a bit, but not too much.

    And apparently his father's name was Herman Johannson. The 'new last name' my great-grandfather picked and I grew up with was Hermanson. So who knows if the bit about the army is true, but the name change is. I wonder how available the turn of the century Swedish army records are.

    Way cool. Thanks for the kick in the butt to go check those records!

  4. Glad you did that. I looked up my family's arrival dates, ports of origin, and destinations too. It's quite interesting.

    For those who haven't done this yet, the link is -


    You have to sign in. They try to sell you copies of the documents, but it's otherwise free.

  5. I did have an English teacher, whose family name was 'Nuremberg', supposedly from immigration mixing up their hometown and the family name.

  6. I never understood the change one of my ancestors made. The family name was Karlinsky, but they changed it to Levy. Tobalsky to Tobey in another part of the family made much more sense. The Kesslers and Luxes didn't change their names. I've always wondered what made them want to change or not. The Luxes wound up using an Americanized pronunciation, instead of the Hungarian one (with an 'oo' sound).

  7. Well...this seems to be a bit of propaganda giving the Ellis Island folks more credit than due. My cousin did some serious genealogical research over the past ten years. She gathered a ton of documents.

    My last name is "Fine" but the name was originally "Nurick." The name of my great-grandfather was clearly on the ship manifest as such but when they entered him with his name at Ellis Island, it was entered Maxmillian Fine.

    My cousin also documented (journals, letters,etc.) that he tried to get it changed back after arriving but too his frustration, the paperwork he had made him "Fine" the rest of his life.

  8. This is for the Swedish-American with the question about Johanson and Hermanson.

    The Swedish Army, until about 1900, used an "allotment" system where soldiers were recruited and assigned a small farm (soldattorp) where they lived (and farmed) when they were not engaged in military training.

    Until the mid-1800s, the usual naming system in Sweden (and other Nordic countries) was patronymic: children took their fathers' first name and added "son" or "dotter" on the end.

    Since there were so many Johanssons and Olavssons and such, the Swedish Army assigned military names to soldiers with common patronymics. Usually the soldier name was related in some fashion to the name of the soldat torp where the soldier was billeted; often every soldier assigned there would be assigned the same last name, and often they would keep that name after leaving the Army, so there may be a dozen families with the same unusual name, related only by each family having an ancestor who was posted to the same soldier's allotment.

    Sweden passed a family name law around 1850 that was supposed to lead to everyone using a permanent family name, but patronymic names continued to be used for decades. So in your case it seems very likely that Hermanson (Hermansson to use the proper Swedish version) became the family name because it was the name your grandfather was given at birth.

    Ellis Island didn't change the family name, but American habits fixed it in the records.


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