GovDocs to the Rescue! Debunking an Immigration Myth

Rosemary Meszaros, Katherine Pennavaria


One question that routinely comes up in genealogy research: why is the family’s surname different from its (presumed) original form? Most people have heard one explanation: those names were “changed at Ellis Island,” altered either maliciously or ignorantly by port officials when the immigrant passed through. The charge against immigration officials, however, is provably false: no names were written down at Ellis Island, and thus no names were changed there. The names of arriving passengers were already written down on manifests required by the federal government, lists which crossed the ocean with the passengers. Records kept by the government demonstrate conclusively that immigrants left Ellis Island with the same surnames they had arrived with. The idea that names were changed at the point of entry is a myth, an urban legend promoted by a popular film. Changes were made later, by the immigrants themselves, usually during the naturalization process.

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Barbara Kiviat. “Change Agents: Are You Sticky?”, October 29, 2006,,33009,1552029,00.html.

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Naturalization Act of 1906, 34 Stat. 596.

Victor Safford, Immigration Problems: Personal Experiences of an Official (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1925).



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