Immigration: was your ancestor’s name changed at Ellis Island?

The Ellis Island immigration officer lazily changing your ancestor’s name is an American story so enshrined in our collective imagination about European immigration to the United States, it even makes an appearance in the Godfather II.

There are some truths in that clip.

Notice how the future Godfather Don Corleone was accompanied by an immigration officer who spoke Italian? And how the other immigration officer’s accent showed he was born in Ireland. The U.S. government deliberately hired immigrants who spoke languages other than English to make sure there were no communication challenges.

Also, remember the tag around Vito Andolini’s neck with his name and place of birth? Well, I don’t know if those tags were a thing, but ship captains were required to provide detailed and accurate passenger manifests, or their passenger might be turned away. And those captains didn’t want to waste cargo space on humans when American goods and resources were far more profitable for the return journey.

What is fiction is the idea that an immigration officer would change Vito Andolini’s surname to Corleone, the name of his village. Immigration officers were trained and paid to be accurate, and they had the linguistic resources to get it right.

So if your family has a story about an immigration officer at Ellis Island or Castlegarden unilaterally changing your ancestor’s name, it’s almost certainly fiction.

But surnames did change, and for four main reasons:

  1. Other government clerks couldn’t manage the foreign name.
  2. Literacy and government standardization formalized more flexible spelling.
  3. Cultural pressures prompted your ancestors to anglicize their name.
  4. Your ancestor changed their name for a reason.

The first two are tough to provide examples for, because the change can be gradual, and vary from place to place. My wife’s surname, Raser is a decent one: the original 1600s immigrant to Pennsylvania was a ship captain, and thus literate: he spelled his name Roeser. Over the course of the following centuries, though, his descendants ended with several different spellings, including Raser and Roser.

Regardless, the story is one of increased government record-keeping which began in the 1800s, and ended when governments provided social benefit programs and collected taxes on income.

The third, cultural pressures, are much easier to identify, and fall into two big groups.

The first group is that, in moments of nationalist fervor (and the bigotry that often came with it), people anglicized their names.

For example, around World War I, German-Americans were the targets of bigoted nationalist fervor in the U.S. You’ll see quite a few names such as Schmidt and Mueller change to Smith and Miller between 1910 and 1920.

The Revolution saw a similar shift: for example, the Dutch Van Vliet family, which first appeared in New Amsterdam in the 1600s, and had spread across New Jersey, New York Virginia and Ohio in the subsequent four or five generations. The entire extended family spontaneously changed their surname to VanFleet by 1800.

The second imposition of cultural pressures were more subtle: having a name that’s difficult to pronounce. I like the example of Jay Yantosh, my first cousin once removed. When his paternal line came to Pennsylvania in the late 1800s, they carried the Czech name of Yantoshik.

That may have been a mouthful, however, and one branch of the family dropped the final ik, while others retained the full name. I saw a similar pattern in the Zuckschwerdt family: one descendant of the immigrant changed his name to Sexworth while the rest kept it the same.

But in the end, the idea of personal renewal in America may have prompted your ancestor to change their name before they reached Ellis Island or a precursor.

Take Jim Bigej, a relative of ours: when his Bigej ancestor came to America from Bosnia, he wanted an American-sounding name, and decided to abandon whatever his family name, traveling as Bigej.

And the practice stretched back to the earliest days. I was fascinated by the surname of a co-worker, Dana Rambo. I had encountered it while researching an ethnic German surname in my wife’s tree.

I had assumed that Rambo was ethnic German as well, but when I looked it up, I was shocked to discover that the original Rambo arrived with the first Swedish colonists in what later became Pennsylvania. But Rambo wasn’t his surname: he’d made it up.

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