Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Ellis Island: Did They or Didn't They?

Ellis Island Museum
I've always heard family historians say that their ancestors' names were changed by the clerks at Ellis Island. And I've heard numerous talks by professional genealogists disputing this fact. They say that name changes did not occur at Ellis Island.  In my own probate talks I've demonstrated how many people did change their names - in the court system.

Recently I was browsing through my mother's collection of genealogy books. I happened to stumble upon Ancestry's Guide to Research: Case Studies in American Genealogy (Ancestry, 1985) by Johni Cerny & Arlene Eakle. I decided to pull it out and give it a read.

Imagine my surprise to find this nugget (p. 14) about Ellis Island:

"Cerny, a Slovakian surname that is spelled Cierny, denotes the color black. Jan Cierny (pronounced chair-nee) had his name changed when he arrived in the United States to John Cerny (pronounced sir-nee) by Ellis Island processing clerks. His wife had her name changed to Theresa Zahorec."

Both Johni Cerny and Arlene Eakle are respected professional genealogists. Are they right or is this a mistake?

So I ask - What is the definitive answer about name changing at Ellis Island? Did name changes occur or not?

Photo Credit: photo by Jeff Pearce and used under the creative commons license.


  1. As always, I argue that name changes did not occur at Ellis Island and the story is apocryphal. But it is hard to prove a negative. So I ask if anyone can prove it the other way?
    Does the book cite a documentary source for this claim?
    Has anyone ever produced any documents proving such a name change (documents similar to the probate records)?
    How, exactly, was the name change performed at Ellis Island?
    How did the immigrant know he was supposed to adopt a new name, and how did he know the new spelling?
    How did Ellis Island officials ensure the new immigrant used the new name after leaving the island?
    I've been asking these and a host of related questions on this topic for over 20 years and have yet to see one shred of evidence to prove the name change ever happened. It is an American folk tale that explains the immigrant practice of Americanizing or entirely changing their name after arrival. Few of them resorted to the court to document the name change. The Ellis Island story is a simple and convenient explanation, and nothing more. - Marian Smith

  2. I wonder if we'll ever find out the truth. We get told that it didn't happen all the time, but then family lore (or family depending on age) say that it did. Ah well! Great post!

  3. Marian -

    I rely on the information from the historians at Ellis Island and the USCIS (formerly INS), who dispute that names were changed at Ellis Island.

    Experience also indicates that many researchers simply seem to overlook the obvious: the clerks at Ellis Island did not prepare the passenger manifests. The manifests were lists of the passengers boarding, not embarking from, the ships. The lists were prepared by clerks of the shipping lines at the port of departure.

    You will see names lined out on manifests - those are normally the passengers scheduled to sail who did not board.

    But if a clerk at Ellis Island were to change a name on arrival, how would he do that other than to write over the original name on the manifest? And how often have you seen that on a passenger manifest?

    Jim Warren

    1. Thanks Jim, and Sharon.
      One thing to note: You will occasionally find names crossed out (the name only) on a manifest with another name carefully written above it. This is an official correction, a process for which there is legal authority, published instructions, and surviving documentation (unlike the name change claim). It began when an immigrant requested correction because their name on the manifest had been spelled or given wrongly. The problem only arose if they arrived after 7/29/1906 and later had trouble getting the certificate of arrival for naturalization due to the name difference. - Marian S.

    2. Oops - the date above should be 6/29/1906.

  4. See "American Names: Declaring Independence"
    by Marian L. Smith,0808-smith.shtm

  5. There are always exceptions to a rule. They could have changed the name themselves, then told folks "it was changed at Ellis Island", which would give it an air of officialdom.

    And picture this - a clerk fills out a roster as a ship pulls in, and the line stretches on for an eternity. I tend to doubt - though there are always exceptions - that he would have time to address the request of one immigrant (who may or may not have spoken English) who wanted a name change.

  6. My mother-in-law told the story for years that her father's name was changed at Ellis Island. In my research, I was able to find him on a passenger list (see A Jewish Genealogy Journey) and she realized that his name must have been changed in Romania before immigrating.

  7. My great-grandfather's full Slovak name was Pavel Chodur anovy-oh Dolinsky. In Slovakia at the time, double last names were used to distinguish two separate lines of families with the same agnate surname. In this case Chodur is the surname and Dolinsky the descriptor (literally of the valley). So, after Ellis Island he was Paul (English of Pavel) Dolinsky. I'm NOT saying a clerk changed it, but why would my great-grandfather choose the descriptor over the surname? I knew about this because my grandmother even knew that Dolinsky was not the family name Chodur was. I'm just saying. I wasn't there and I can't believe someone can prove or disprove this claim. However, I do have a birth certificate from 1877 with the full Slovak name and a marriage certificate from 1903 with his name as Paul Dolinsky.

    1. Hi Martin,
      Of course I do not know why Paul chose Dolinsky over Chodur, but can suggest two possible explanations. Both use the example of a Paul Dolinsky I found in the census living in Carbon County, PA.
      #1 - This Slovak coal miner likely came to that destination because people he knew had already migrated there and worked at the mines. As soon as he arrived they directed him to the mine company office to sign up for a job. At that time he would still have the steamship ticket documents & receipt bearing his name as the SS Co. wrote it on the manifest. If he presented those documents for the foreman or clerk to complete his initial paperwork, his name on the payroll would be as it was on the manifest. And if that is the name on the paycheck, that will be the name on the bank account. And so on, and so on. In that scenario, the Steamship Company "changed his name."
      #2 - I see living in the same town another man born about 1885 named Paul Chodur with his wife Susan. Perhaps Paul Dolinsky of Mauch Chunk, PA, felt a continuing need to distinguish himself from someone else of the same name?
      Those are just the most obvious possibilities. I never said that immigrants' names did not change in the immigration process. I only contend they were not changed by officials at Ellis Island.
      Marian S.

  8. That's him, btw. And Paul Chodur was his cousin.

  9. With regard to the last name - it would have been spelled Cerny (the C would have had a hacek), so that Cerny would have looked correct, while Cherny would have been likelier to have been pronounced correctly by speakers of English. The pronunciation sir-nee probably resulted from the way Cerny was pronounced by speakers of English rather than a deliberate choice by Jan Cerny.

  10. To Martin,
    My ancestors immigrated from French Canada where "dit" names were very popular. I often wonder why Latour dit LaForge became Latour dit Forget which became, in the U.S., Forget/Forgea when their original surname was Latour. The "dit" name was a tacked on name to distinguish from another with a similar name. LaForge was a smithy, so Pierre Latour, the smithy, was his name.
    Although they were illiterate, I am sure they new what "dit" meant as it is a legitimate French word meaning "also known as" or "called".
    Perhaps had they known that Forget (pronounced For-jay) would become Forget (forget in English), they would gladly have chosen LaTour. That one seems to be pronounced properly in both languages, sigh.

  11. Please follow this link to see a very thorough discussion of name changes by Judy G. Russell -