Genealogy Blog

Another Myth Perpetrator: Jefferson Fish and the Fallacy of Name Changes

22 Jan 2014

Yesterday I gave you some tips for researching nineteenth- and twentieth-century immigrants. I rarely write about the same issue two days in a row, but today brought something that I just cannot ignore.

Elizabeth Shown Mills posted an interesting article on her Facebook page today.  The article was published a couple of years ago in Psychology Today by Jefferson M. Fish, Ph.D. Dr. Fish is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at St. John’s University in New York City. He has published more than a dozen books dealing with race, culture, therapy, and drug policy among other subjects.

Back in 2011 he published a multi-part series in Psychology Today on names. The five articles dealt with:

Dr. Fish covers some interesting subjects. He addresses the many ways in which names create preconceptions for us. Just because someone is named Cohen, for example, he or she is not necessarily Jewish. Another problem he discusses is the issue of first names that produce gender ambiguity. As genealogists, we are, or course, quite used to this.

Unfortunately, Dr. Fish shows a lack of knowledge and research in the second part of the series, which deals with last names.  Partway through, he states: “Individuals do exist who haven’t changed their names, whose immigrant ancestors didn’t have their surnames changed for them at Ellis Island, and both of whose parents share the cultural ancestry suggested by the surnames.”

In this one statement, Dr. Fish serves to promote a tremendous fallacy. It is the biggest myth in American history that people’s surnames were changed at Ellis Island. This never happened. Ever. There is not a single documented case of anyone getting a name change upon entry.


Ellis Island


Passenger manifests were created when people were getting on board the ship. Upon their arrival, immigrants were processed at Ellis Island by a massive group of professional staff who spoke a multitude of foreign languages.

The reality is that names were changed AFTER the immigrants’ arrival. The reasons for changing one’s name were many and varied. Many wanted to sound more American. This was especially true in the first half of the twentieth century. With Germany as the enemy in World Wars I and II, many families with Germanic surnames changed to avoid the prejudice against them. Family with complicated names that were difficult to spell may have changed their name simply because they were tired of correcting people. And the English-speaking recordkeepers in America did not really care about how immigrants spelled their names, accounting for many varied spellings in the surviving records.

It is not just that individuals do exist whose immigrant ancestors didn’t have their surnames changed for them at Ellis Island. Every person whose ancestors arrived at that port has a name that was not changed there, whether it was changed later or not. Dr. Fish would have been better served had he done any investigative work among those who are the experts on names: genealogists. It certainly would help put more confidence in the rest of his work.

Are You Being a Cognitive Cheapskate?

28 Dec 2012

Do you find yourself imagining a fictional account of your ancestor’s life? Of course you do, that’s half the fun! What is much less fun is finding out later that you disregarded evidence that did not support your story and you have, in fact, been telling Great Aunt Gail’s story wrong all along.

The human brain has evolved to make decisions quickly, as was mentioned in another recent blog post. These decisions can be the difference between life and death sometimes, but they can also really throw you for a loop if they’re all you rely on. Look for the hard evidence in your research to support your claims, ideas or hypotheses on ancestors. If you don’t know the true story, it’s a good idea to hold on off on conjecture until you have ferreted out the truth.



Your brain is cognitively fiscal, meaning that it wants to conserve as much thinking power as possible. If you are presented with two different stories, your brain is more likely to accept the less complicated story simply because it’s easier. This can lead to some serious oversights in genealogical research. Records and evidence can confirm or deny hypotheses and it’s important to rely on this evidence to do so. As people who seek the truth in our ancestral stories, we have to be aware of these cerebral pitfalls. Simply being aware of the process your brain goes through when researching or seeking evidence can allow us all to be better researchers in the future.

Another way in which your brain is cognitively prudent is in regards to confirmation bias. With confirmation bias, we all favor information that confirms our beliefs and tend to subconsciously block out information that points us in another direction. Again, as researchers, it’s best for us to be aware of this bias and try to override it with solid evidence, objective observation and an open mind. Forming that story of your ancestor in your head is fun, just make sure it doesn’t lead you down the wrong path.



As those who seek the truth in our ancestral stories, we have to be aware of these cerebral pitfalls. Simply being aware of the process your brain goes through when researching or seeking evidence can allow us all to be better researchers in the future. These snap decisions can be helpful to us in some circumstances, but incredibly detrimental in others. When it comes to publishing information on your ancestors, I’m inclined to think snap judgments are useful in potentially pointing you in the right direction, but certainly not in confirmations. Leave that to the hard evidence.

Face to Face

14 Dec 2012

My favorite part of research has always been perusing old photographs. For some reason it makes me feel like I know those people so much better than when I look at a birth record. So I started to wonder, could I actually tell anything about these ancestors I’d never met, just from their faces?



Actually, recent scientific research suggests that we might be able to glean some real information about our family from seeing only photos of faces. From a recent article published in Psychology Today, I learned that there are many ways in which we judge a book by its cover, so to speak.  And sometimes these judgments can be accurate. Check out the full article here.

Humans make nap judgments as a result of a strong survival instinct. For example, clear skin represents health, so you’re more likely to be attracted to a mate who has pristine skin, so that your children will not inherit any genetic diseases. What else can we tell from a face?

Some assessments require less scientific research. If you see someone who has many stress lines around their mouth or on their forehead, for example, it’s not a huge leap to guess that the individual saw some hardship in life. Similarly, if you see strong laugh lines in your grandmother’s face, you can infer that she was a joyful person.


A freed slave, Bill Homer – Age 87


Something else you might be able to gather from a photograph is how other people initially perceived your ancestors. Due to the “halo-effect,” attractive people are usually rated higher in other positive traits, such as intelligence, agreeableness and gregariousness. This is a classic nature vs. nurture question, are attractive people more social because society dotes upon them? Or are attractive people genetically pre-disposed to exhibit other positive traits? In reality, it’s probably a combination of both. However, it’s important to remember that this is only the initial judgment of an ancestor, before people got to know them. Of course, after you meet someone, many things affect your perception of him or her, such as personality, behavior, etc.

Hormones such as testosterone and estrogen also manifest themselves in faces. Men with more testosterone have stronger jawbones, slightly smaller eyes and hollowed cheekbones. Higher levels of testosterone can indicate more aggression or dominance, but also leadership qualities. Male CEO’s of the top Fortune 500 companies have a higher tendency to display facial features that are characteristic of higher levels of testosterone.  Women with higher levels of estrogen have smooth skin, small chins and plump lips. More estrogen can indicate a predisposition towards nurturing, and high social status (being popular amongst their peers).

One interesting historical  note involves the practicalities of early photography. Before the early twentieth century, people having their picture taken needed to remain still for long periods of time. These subjects were told not to smile, to just relax their faces so they could maintain that pose. When you are that relaxed, lines (whether due to laughter or stress) may not be as prominent or may disappear altogether. And without smiling, it can be difficult to get an insight into that aspect of someone’s personality.

What’s in a face? Apparently quite a bit.  Maybe those old photographs can give you some context on an ancestor’s occupation, financial status or demeanor. However, take all of this with a grain of salt. These snap judgments can come back to bite us if it’s all we base our opinions on. If your great grandfather has a strong jawline in your photographs, does that mean he was aggressive or a natural-born leader? Not decisively. Just like everything else in genealogy research, it’s the culmination of a lot of different sources that allow us to discover the truth about our ancestors.


Pincott, Jena. “What’s in a Face.”  Psychology Today December 2012, 12 December 2012.