Debunking many immigrant family legends

Ellis Island

Ellis Island (PHOTO: Vox Efx, Flickr CC)

Every year I read the names at the Hibbing Community College graduation ceremony. That means I’ve become unusually accustomed to pronouncing names that originate from areas all over Europe. In recent years, an influx of students from Africa have added new challenges to my elocution.

I am from a land of immigrants but walk around with the name “Brown.” That name wasn’t changed. That’s exactly what my family was called in Cornwall, England, probably for centuries before. But my mother’s family was called Johnson, and that wasn’t their name originally. It was a Norwegian name that I’ve never been taught how to pronounce or write correctly.

Families changing their name during immigrant is a common story among people all over Minnesota. And in many cases, the story involves an immigration official telling an ancestor that his or her name was too difficult to spell or say. You’d better change it to Smith or Mattson.

Well, a Arika Okrent story, “Why Your Family Name Did Not Change at Ellis Island,” at Mental Floss debunks that legend for most families.

Most stories of this kind are not true. Because, as Philip Sutton of the New York Public Library explains, the inspectors at Ellis Island “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.” No names were changed at Ellis Island, because no names were taken at Ellis Island.

So, in some cases, names were mixed up when immigrants bought their tickets, but in most cases they were corrected. If a name did change, and many did, it was a more informal process that each immigrant ultimately signed into official use.

In other cases, immigrants were given alternate names by neighbors, bosses, co-workers, or teachers who couldn’t pronounce the originals. Those alternate names were then adopted by the immigrants when they submitted their applications for naturalization. Though the idea for the new name might have come from someone else, the name did not become official unless the immigrant chose to make it official when becoming a citizen.

More often than not, our ancestors chose their own name changes. In fact, it’s not hard to find distant relatives on the Iron Range who spell their same name differently, or pronounce that same name differently as well.

Another example that history is full of small things that had big consequence for people down the generational line.

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