Raise your hand if you were told that your immigrant ancestors’ names were changed at Ellis Island (or whichever port they arrived through?)
::Both My Hands Are Raised::
I’ve been told this both by my clients, my own family, and just talking about geneology to anyone that wants to talk about it!
The truth is, this is a VERY common MYTH.
So what DID happen?
Long story short, it was your relative who changed it, either before leaving port or after arrival.
There were usually no IDs, so when your ancestor bought the ticket in the “old country,” he would give the ticket agent his/her name. It’s a possibility that your ancestor(s) may have wanted to change their name (either first name, family name, or both), knowing that it may be difficult to pronounce, wanting to sound more American or knowing that their original name may cause issues once they came to the US.
These names that were found on the tickets were the names recorded on the passenger manifests at the port where they initially boarded.
So, when they first arrived, they were questioned by immigrant clerks (and often had translators or interpreters doing the work or working with the clerks). Neither your ancestor nor the clerk wrote down any names. They used the names that was on the manifest.
The only person that changed their name was your ancestor.
After arrival, if your ancestors’ name(s) were not changed, they may have tried different surnames to see what they liked, and then during the naturalization process, your ancestor may have decided to change their name. Other times, they may do the name change after the naturalization process.
Again, the only person that changed their name was your ancestor, no clerk or ticket officer.
A Personal Name Change Story
My maternal great-grandfather eventually became Louis Kaplan. Before and when he arrived, his name was Welwel (pronounced: VEL-vuhl) Usemetsky (try to say that 3x fast). He arrived to New York from present day Lithuania when he was about 4 or 5 years old. After he arrived, his father and his siblings all decided to take on different last names. When Louis first went to school, he told his teacher he was Louis Rabinowitz (no one else took this name). Having a different last name got him into trouble with the law at 8 years of age (that’s a story for another day). Louis’ uncle convinced Louis’ father to change the family’s name to Kaplan because it’s easier to pronounce than Usemetsky. Baddabing, Baddaboom- Welwel Usemetske became Louis Kaplan between 1900 and 1905 through a legal name change procedure by his father.