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.
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.