The Myth of Ellis Island

23 Sep 2012

Perhaps the most iconic symbol of immigration to the United States is Ellis Island. Although only open for a little more than 60 years, it is the best known of all immigrant ports of entry in the U.S. During the time it was open, more than twelve million immigrants were processed. Originally only about 3.3 acres, Ellis Island expanded over time to 27.5 acres.

Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island.

People are often surprised to discover that Ellis Island was only opened in 1892. Prior to that, the immigration center at New York was Castle Garden, which was in operation from 1855 to 1890. In 1807 New York city ceded land at the Battery for a fortification. Castle Clinton was built, and was a primary defense through the War of 1812. Later it became the headquarters for the Third Military Division. In 1824 it became Castle Garden, a resort theater and restaurant. In 1855 Castle Garden was leased to the New York Commission of Emigration. The land of the Battery was extended, attaching the island to Manhattan. For the next 35 years, Castle Garden served as the immigrant processing station for New York.

In addition to serving as the largest immigration port in America, Ellis Island is home to perhaps the largest pervasive myth in American history. What is this myth? The fact that anyone’s name was ever changed at Ellis Island. Despite the widespread family stories, you will discover through your genealogy search, there is not a single documented occurrence of such a thing ever happening.

Most frequently, one hears the comment that the immigrants could not communicate with the English-speaking staff. The Anglo is accused of changing the name because he (and it is almost always a he) couldn’t spell it properly. Nothing could be further from the truth. Ellis Island was staffed by professionals who spoke dozens of languages from around the world. If the staff were unable to communicate with the immigrants, imagine the total chaos that would have reigned. Personally, I think such charges are an insult to the men and women who made Ellis Island their career.

I compare Ellis Island to taking a vacation on a cruise ship today. Those who have ever taken one know that you have to sign out whenever you leave the ship in port, and sign in when you come back aboard. That includes your final disembarkation. Now, what do you think would happen if you tried to get on the ship with one name, and use a different one when you went to get off the ship? Probably wouldn’t go over well, would it? The same thing happened at Ellis Island. You had to use the same name to get off as you had getting on.

This is not to say that the names of immigrants weren’t changed. It happened all the time. It just didn’t happen at Ellis Island. Once the immigrant settled in the United States, they might desire to Anglicize their name to fit in better. Or, perhaps they got tired of Americans not spelling the name the same way and chose a shorter or easier-to-spell name. As one whose last name sounds differently to Anglo ears than it is spelled, I can sympathize with this last group. All of these changes, however, happened after leaving Ellis Island, not during the immigration process.

What is most unfortunate is that despite the volumes that have been written by professionals on the myth, there are those who still will not see the truth. They are more committed to a false family tradition than to reality. Many people will read this very article and agree with everything I have said, but will say to themselves “He is completely correct. Except that it really did happen in my family.” I assure you it did not. In the 120 years since Ellis Island opened, not a single person has ever been able to find documentary proof of a name change at Ellis Island. 12 million entries, and not a single documented case. If the incidents of names being changed were as pervasive as family traditions would have us believe, it would seem that the documentary evidence would be plentiful. Yet it does not exist.

If you do find documentary evidence during your ancestry search that your ancestor’s name was changed at Ellis Island, please, by all means, let me know. I would be extremely interested. And you will become somewhat of a celebrity, for you would be the first to do so.