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Thread: Favorite Genealogical myth exposed

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    Favorite Genealogical myth exposed

    We have all heard the myth of the family name change when emigrants came to the US and went through Ellis Island. This name change was often put down to sloppy, poorly educated or ignorant immigration clerks. Of course, this same process was assumed in all of the new world counties such as Canada and Australia. This myth was best illustrated in the film 'The Godfather' when a little Vito was given the surname of his home town due to an impatient clerk.
    Here is a fascinating article that certainly seems well researched that claims to debunk this myth...what you you guys think of it?

    Why Your Family Name Was Not Changed at Ellis Island (and One That Was)
    http://www.nypl.org/blog/2013/07/02/...s-ellis-island

    ***Note-none of the pictures will be copied below so readers are urged to use the link, but there are some that might not be able to so for them....

    by Philip Sutton, Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building
    July 2, 2013

    Between 1892 and 1954, over twelve million people entered the United States through the immigration inspection station at Ellis Island, a small island located in the upper bay off the New Jersey coast. There is a myth that persists in the field of genealogy, or more accurately, in family lore, that family names were changed there. They were not. Numerous blogs, essays, and books have proven this. Yet the myth persists; a story in a recent issue of The New Yorker suggests that it happened. This post will explore how and why names were not changed. It will then tell the story of Frank Woodhull, an almost unique example of someone whose name was changed, as proof that even if your name was changed at Ellis Island (it wasn't), it wouldn't have mattered. Confused? Read on...



    The legend goes that officials at Ellis Island, unfamiliar with the many languages and nationalities of the people arriving at Ellis Island, would change the names of those immigrants that sounded foreign, or unusual. Vincent J. Cannato's excellent book American Passage: The History of Ellis Island explains why this did not happen:

    Nearly all [...] name change stories are false. Names were not changed at Ellis Island. The proof is found when one considers that inspectors never wrote down the names of incoming immigrants. The only list of names came from the manifests of steamships, filled out by ship officials in Europe. In the era before visas, there was no official record of entering immigrants except those manifests. When immigrants reached the end of the line in the Great Hall, they stood before an immigration clerk with the huge manifest opened in front of him. The clerk then proceeded, usually through interpreters, to ask questions based on those found in the manifests. Their goal was to make sure that the answers matched. (p.402)

    Inspectors did not create records of immigration; rather they checked the names of the people moving through Ellis Island against those recorded in the ship's passenger list, or manifest. The ship's manifest was created by employees of the steamship companies that brought the immigrants to the United States, before the voyage took place, when the passenger bought their ticket. The manifest was presented to the officials at Ellis Island when the ship arrived. If anything, Ellis Island officials were known to correct mistakes in passenger lists. The Encyclopedia of Ellis Island states that employees of the steamship companies,

    …mostly ticket agents and pursers required no special identification from passengers and simply accepted the names the immigrants gave them. Immigrant inspectors [at Ellis Island] accepted these names as recorded in the ship's manifests and never altered them unless persuaded that a mistake had been made in the spelling or rendering of the name. Nonetheless the original name was never entirely scratched out and remained legible. (p.176)

    Although it is always possible that the names of passengers were spelt wrong, perhaps by the clerk when the ticket was bought, or during transliteration, when names were translated from one alphabet to another, it is more likely that immigrants were their own agents of change. Cannato, for instance, suggests that people often changed their name in advance of migration. More commonly, immigrants would change their names themselves when they had arrived in the United States, and for a number of reasons.



    Someone might change their name in order to make it sound more American, to fit in with the local community, or simply because it was good for business. There is at least one instance of a small businessman arriving in the United States from Eastern Europe changing his name, at least his public name, to something that sounded Swedish, because he had settled in a Swedish neighborhood in New York City. Immigrants would sometimes officially record their name change, when naturalizing for instance, but often, as there was no law in New York State requiring it be done, no official record of a name change was made. People would just start using a different name.

    John Colletta, in his book They Came in Ships, describes the immigration process at Ellis Island in more detail:

    [The] Inspector [in the immigration receiving center] had in has hands a written record of the immigrant he was inspecting and, asking the same questions over again, could compare the oral statements with it. The inspectors therefore, read the names already written down on the lists, and they had at their service a large staff of translators who worked along side them in the Great Hall of the Ellis Island facility. (p.12)

    Contemporary descriptions of Ellis Island do not mention name changes at Ellis Island. A search of historical newspapers using the ProQuest Historical Database produces only one story about name changes written during the time that Ellis Island was in operation.

    Leonard Lyon's entertainment column Broadway Potpourri, in the Washington Post of April 10th, 1944, states that Harry Zarief, "the assistant concert master for Morton Gould," and famously a father of quadruplets, had recently changed his name back from Friedman.

    Friedman. His name originally was Zarief, but when his family arrived at Ellis Island the immigration inspector told him that Zarief was too complicated, and recorded his name as "Friedman." Many years later the "Friedman" was changed back to the original Zarief. (p.9)

    There are hundreds of stories about the immigration inspection station in the newspapers of the time that do not mention names being changed. In a 1922 article, titled To Be or Not to Be American in the New York Times, journalist Elizabeth Heath describes a visit to Ellis Island, and the Great Hall where immigrants were processed.

    Upstairs, in the great main hall of the building, the straggling crowd is skillfully split into a dozen long lines, each leading to the desk of an inspector. Before him is spread the manifest of the steamship company, giving the required information about each steerage passenger - religion, relatives in America, amount of money, source of passage money, literacy, occupation, and the positive statement that the candidate for admission does not believe or practice polygamy or anarchy. It is a seeming miscellany of information, but each item has a direct bearing on the legality of admission. (p.41)

    A letter to the Chicago Tribune advice column The Legal Friend of the People, dated September 16, 1912 discusses name changes and an application for citizenship, and mentions Ellis Island.

    After having lived in the United States for five years I changed the spelling of my name. When I made my declaration to become a citizen of the United States, about a year and a half ago, I gave my name as I now spell it. Will this cause any hitch in my taking out final citizenship papers six months hence? [...] I understand that all declarations of intention to become a citizen are forwarded to New York and verified by the records at Ellis Island. When it is discovered that my name, as I spelled it when I took out my first papers, is not on the books [the ships manifests] there, will this interfere with my taking out my final naturalization papers?

    The advice given in reply:

    On making the application for final papers, you should spell your name as in the original application. You have the right to change the spelling without a court process. (p.6)

    The idea that names were changed at Ellis Island raises lots of questions. For instance, if names were changed, what happened to the paperwork? And if inspectors were charged with changing names, why are there no records of this? Where are the lists of approved names? Where are the first hand accounts, of inspectors and immigrants? If immigrants had name changes forced upon them, why did they not simply change their name back when they entered the country? Or, if they could not, where is paperwork describing the roles of Federal officials charged with making sure that names were not changed back?



    All rather silly, perhaps. Yet the myth persists, almost exclusively in family lore. One explanation might be that we live in more enlightened times. People migrating to the United States no longer feel that they have to change their name to fit in, and so it seems strange that people would voluntarily change their name generations ago.

    Marian L. Smith, in her essay American Names: Declaring Independence, suggests that another interpretation of the Ellis Island myth might be:

    That an immigrant is remembering his initial confrontation with American culture. Ellis Island was not only immigrant processing, it was finding one's way around the city, learning to speak English, getting one's first job or apartment, going to school, and adjusting one's name to a new spelling or pronunciation. All these experiences, for the first few years, were the "Ellis Island experience." When recalling their immigration decades before, many immigrants referred to the entire experience as "Ellis Island."

    There is always the exception to the rule. The clipping below is from the passenger list for the steamship S.S. New York, which arrived at the Port of New York, from Southampton, England, October 4th, 1908. It shows that a passenger's name has been crossed out and replaced with another, that of Mary Johnson. The clipping below that is from the United Kingdom Outward Passenger Lists and confirms that the passenger had described himself as Frank Woodhull, a clerk, and alien in the United States.

    S.S. New York (American Line) Sept 26th,1908
    List or manifest of alien passengers: S.S. New York (American Line) Sept 26th,1908

    S.S. New York (American Line) Sept 26th,1908
    United Kingdom outward passengers: S.S. New York (American Line) Sept 26th,1908
    The S.S. New York's passenger list includes an addendum, a page titled Record of Aliens Held for Special Inquiry. This was a list of the names of passengers disembarking from the S.S. New York, who were detained at Ellis Island. The reason given for "Mary Johnson" being held for further inspection is that "she" was travelling as Frank Woodhull "in male attire." Mr. Woodhull proved that he would not be a financial burden on the United States, and was allowed to continue his journey to New Orleans.

    S.S. New York (American Line) Sept 26th, 1908
    Record of aliens held for special inquiry: S.S. New York (American Line) Sept 26th, 1908
    The incident generated headlines in newspapers all over the country, and Frank Woodhull gave a number of interviews, where he told his story, a story that tells us much about the times. Here it is as told to the New York Times, October 5th and 6th, 1908.

    My life has always been a struggle. I come of an English-Canadian family, and I have most of my fight to make all alone. Thirty years ago, when I was 20, my father died and I was thrown entirely on my own resources. I came to this country a young girl and went west to make my way. For fifteen years I struggled on. The hair on my face was a misfortune. It was often the subject of rude jest and caused me endless embarrassment. The struggle was awful, but I had to live somehow, and so I went on. God knows that life has been hard, but of the hardness of those years I cannot speak.

    Then came a time fifteen years ago when I got desperate. I had been told that I looked like a man, and I knew that in Canada some women have put on men's clothes do men's work. So the thought took shape in my mind. If these women had done it why could not I, who looked like a man? I was in California at the time. I bought men's clothes and began to wear them. Then things changed. I had prospects. My occupation I have given here as canvasser, but I have done many things. I have sold books, lightning rods, and worked in stores. Never once was I suspected that I was other than Frank Woodhull. I have lived my life, and I tried to live it well. Most of the time I have been in California, but now I am going to New Orleans, where there are chances of employment. I have never attempted to take citizenship papers. I knew to do so would be either to reveal my sex or else become a law breaker. I have never been the latter. I did not know that there was a law against women wearing male attire in this State or I would have sailed to another port. My folks come originally from England and it had long been my wish to go there and take a look about. So with a measure of success the longing grew and I began to save up for my holiday. I went over in the steerage two months ago and returned the same way.

    On October 8th, 1908 Woodhull returned from Europe, and passing through Ellis Island, as an alien, despite having lived in the United States for a number of years, was pulled to one side by an official who thought that he might have Tuberculosis. Erica Rand, in her book The Ellis Island Snow Globe, quotes an article that appeared in the New-York Tribune, describing "what happened when Woodhull was called for further examination:

    […] Woodhull told the surgeon "Oh, please don't examine me!" She pleaded. "I might as well tell you all. I am a woman, and have traveled in male attire for fifteen years." "(p.80)

    Woodhull was brought before a Board of Special Inquiry at Ellis Island, who according to the New York Times, October 6th, declared him a "desirable immigrant [who] should be allowed to win her livelihood as she saw fit." (p.6)

    Woodhull talked about how women were expected to behave, dress, and of the types of work open to them.

    Women have a hard time in this world. They are walking advertisements for the milliner, the dry goods stores, the jewelers, and other shops. They live in the main only for their clothes, and now and then when a woman comes to the front who does not care for dress she is looked upon as a freak and a crank. With me how different. See this hat? I have worn that hat for three years, and it cost me $3. What woman could have worn a hat so long? Bah! They are the slaves to whim and fashion. What could I do when fifteen years ago I faced the crisis in my life? There was only housework to which I could turn.[…] Men can work at many unskilled callings, but to a woman only a few are open, and they are the grinding, death-dealing kinds of work. Well, for me, I prefer to live a life of independence and freedom.

    The New York Times goes on to add that the individual identified at Ellis Island as Mary Johnson, was freed, to "face the world as Frank Woodhull." (p.6)



    A thorough search of Ancestry Library Edition provides no clues as to Frank Woodhull's whereabouts after leaving Ellis Island, though the internet does include references to his settling in New Orleans, becoming an American citizen, and dying in 1939: citations are missing. Perhaps, after the furor, Frank decided to change his name, to avoid further publicity. This story illustrates one thing. Once Woodhull left Ellis Island, he was no longer obliged to be known as Mary Johnson, but was free to resume his life, complete with the name and identity of his choosing. Ellis Island could not impose a name upon him.


    Mike
    Furthest Y line=Patrick Whealen 1816-1874, b.Tipperary Co. Ire. d. Kincardine Ont.

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    Ellis Island was for relatively modern times. Most of my ancestors slipped in before then, along with New Orleans and Baltimore after the Civil War. The only prominent one of my ancestors who came via Ellis Island was my maternal grandfather from Austria just prior to WWI. And he did not change his name (Schrotz).

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    The last of our clan to come through Ellis Island in 1906 changed his forename from Edmond to Edward. He also 'aged' himself three years, from sixteen to nineteen. His sisters, who preceded him to the US, 'lost' a few years somewhere between Counties Tipperary and Cork. By the time the siblings reunited in Chicago, they were all the same age! Many immigrants were afforded the opportunity to reinvent themselves, with the purchase of a ticket to America.
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    I don't know of any of my ancestors who came through Ellis Island. I wish I did; that would make things easier. It's possible that some of them came through Ellis Island: there are holes in my pedigree on both sides that I cannot fill with any information. All of the lines I know about have been in North America a long long time, which is why so many of them lost track of who the immigrants were and where they came from. It's hard for me to imagine not passing that information on, but no doubt the Grim Reaper took a lot of my ancestors and relatives by surprise; he seems to have especially selected the ones who had all of the answers.
    Last edited by rms2; 01-09-2015 at 01:01 PM.

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    The Red Star Line-Antwerp(Belgium)-New York:

    Between 1873 and 1935 the Red Star Line-shipping company,transported almost three million people from Antwerp to America and Canada.

    The new Red Star Line Museum in Antwerp opened on 28.09.2013:

    http://www.redstarline.be/en

    The Red Star Line Museum in Antwerp is preparing a travelling exhibition through the U.S which will open at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum in 2016.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Nas View Post
    The Red Star Line-Antwerp(Belgium)-New York:

    Between 1873 and 1935 the Red Star Line-shipping company,transported almost three million people from Antwerp to America and Canada.

    The new Red Star Line Museum in Antwerp opened on 28.09.2013:

    http://www.redstarline.be/en

    The Red Star Line Museum in Antwerp is preparing a travelling exhibition through the U.S which will open at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum in 2016.

    Nas
    My paternal grandfather grew up next door to a Flemish family named Vermeesch. A fair number of Flemish people came to the Prairies around the beginning of the 20th century, some like the Vermeesches to work on the railway, but I believe most were dairy ranchers.
     

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    Exhibition:

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    Ellis Island Immigration Museum.

    The Red Star Line Museum(Antwerp-Belgium) wants to bring its story to the US.

    http://www.redstarline.be/en/exhibit...d-ellis-island

    Nas

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    This "myth" is also prevalent with Italian-Americans. The typical story goes that for a surname like "Napolitano", it would get reported by an impatient Ellis Island clerk because the immigrant was from Naples etc. Of course, when folks finally find their ancestors in Italy, they find that those toponymic surnames were given hundreds of years earlier and were due to intra-Italian migrations during the Middle Ages. As a "for instance", the great majority of American men with the surname "Lombardi" came from Sicily... and during the Middle Ages their male ancestors migrated from Lombardia to Sicily.
    Last edited by R.Rocca; 02-19-2016 at 12:18 AM.
    Paternal: R1b-U152 >> L2 >> FGC10543 >> PR5365, Pietro Rocca, b. 1559, Agira, Sicily, Italy
    Maternal: H4a1-T152C!, Maria Coto, b. ~1864, Galicia, Spain
    Mother's Paternal: J1+ FGC4745/FGC4766+ PF5019+, Gerardo Caprio, b. 1879, Caposele, Avellino, Campania, Italy
    Father's Maternal: T2b-C150T, Francisca Santa Cruz, b.1916, Garganchon, Burgos, Spain
    Paternal Great (x3) Grandfather: R1b-U106 >> L48 >> CTS2509, Filippo Ensabella, b.~1836, Agira, Sicily, Italy

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    Quote Originally Posted by Richard A. Rocca View Post
    This "myth" is also prevalent with Italian-American. The typical story goes that for a surname like "Napolitano", it would get reported by an impatient Ellis Island clerk because the immigrant was from Naples etc. Of course, when folks finally find their ancestors in Italy, they find that those toponymic surnames were given hundreds of years and were due to intra-Italian migrations during the Middle Ages. As a "for instance", the great majority of American men with the surname "Lombardi" came from Sicily... and during the Middle Ages their male ancestors migrated from Lombardia to Sicily.
    was it ethnic
    Lombards from Lombardi and not just any people from Lombardi

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lombards_of_Sicily

    not everyone from Lombardy was a lombard , as in, a migrator of lombard tribes from east austria into the region of lombardy in Italy

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gallo-Italic_of_Sicily


    My Path = ( K-M9+, TL-P326+, T-M184+, L490+, M70+, PF5664+, L131+, L446+, CTS933+, CTS3767+, CTS8862+, Z19945+, BY143483 )


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    Quote Originally Posted by vettor View Post
    was it ethnic
    Lombards from Lombardi and not just any people from Lombardi

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lombards_of_Sicily

    not everyone from Lombardy was a lombard , as in, a migrator of lombard tribes from east austria into the region of lombardy in Italy

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gallo-Italic_of_Sicily
    I'm sure Lombards that would have moved to Lombardia and then to Sicily hundreds of years later would have been the extreme minority. Either way, I think it irrelevant to the thread... the point is that they already had toponym-based surnames in Italy before they arrived in Ellis Island.
    Paternal: R1b-U152 >> L2 >> FGC10543 >> PR5365, Pietro Rocca, b. 1559, Agira, Sicily, Italy
    Maternal: H4a1-T152C!, Maria Coto, b. ~1864, Galicia, Spain
    Mother's Paternal: J1+ FGC4745/FGC4766+ PF5019+, Gerardo Caprio, b. 1879, Caposele, Avellino, Campania, Italy
    Father's Maternal: T2b-C150T, Francisca Santa Cruz, b.1916, Garganchon, Burgos, Spain
    Paternal Great (x3) Grandfather: R1b-U106 >> L48 >> CTS2509, Filippo Ensabella, b.~1836, Agira, Sicily, Italy

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