29 March 2008

Ellis Island: Myth and fact

Oy vey. If we only had a penny for each time someone writes about the myth of name changing at Ellis Island. Genealogists can't believe that people still think this happened, but every so often, a prominent writer at an even more prominent publication perpetuates the myth.

The most recent was in the Forward's Philologos column on March 14, Last Names, Lost in Translation.

The author discusses the name suffix "stein" and its permutations in pronunciation and spelling, and later brings up the Sean Ferguson story ... again (is there anyone left in the world who hasn't heard this?).

Another likely myth is the author's claim that "The Eastern European Jews themselves only knew how to write their names in the Hebrew characters used in Yiddish." This is a rather broad claim, covering people from many countries - some of whom were educated in the standards of the day and many of whom at least knew how to write their own names in the vernacular of their place of residence, be it Polish, Russian or other tongues.

He also neglects the facts that interpreters of many languages and dialects were on duty at Ellis Island to assist the immigrants and to help the clerks. Yiddish was a main language with many interpreters available at any hour.

However, the main myth of Ellis Island name changing is in this paragraph:

Although veytz (with the vowel like that of “ate”) means “wheat” and not “oats” (the word for which is hober) in Yiddish, I see no reason to doubt Mr. Gass’s mother-in-law. Once again, one has to put oneself in the shoes of a harried immigration official at Ellis Island who was obliged every day to hear dozens of strange-sounding Jewish names and make a hurried decision about how best to write them in English. Had the members of Mr. Gass’s mother-in-law’s family given such an official the German spelling of Weiz, or the Hungarian spelling of Vèc, this would have ended up on the their immigration form, but since they could only spell their name in Yiddish, they simply said “Veytz” out loud. The official, however, would have heard this as the more common “Veiss,” which — again under the influence of German (in which, as in Yiddish, weiss means white) — already had the conventional Ellis Island orthography of Weiss, and so the official would have written it down in that fashion.

Luckily, the eagle eyes of Forward readers did not let this go unchallenged, and the author's next column on March 27, Myths and Facts on Language, reveals he has been chastised by readers.

A common belief that turns out to be a myth, and an assumed myth that might be true: This is the balance sheet of my March 14 column, “Last Names, Lost In Translation.”

For believing in the myth, I have been properly chastised by Arthur S. Abramson of Mansfield, Conn., and the novelist Dara Horn. Mr. Abramson writes that he was “somewhat dumbfounded” by my account of the handling of immigrants by American officials on Ellis Island, and continues:

“The Ellis Island official did not depend simply on his understanding of a name as uttered by the immigrant. Rather, he had before him the vessel’s passenger list, which had been prepared well before arrival in New York harbor. Indeed, the lists were generally made up at the port of embarkation in Europe. Once a name was matched with a person from that vessel, the official just had to copy it from the list. The myth about the changing of names by Ellis Island officials has long been debunked in genealogical circles.”

To which Ms. Horn adds the additional corrective:

“By the time Ellis Island was up and running in 1892 (immigrants to New York in the decades prior to this were processed at a smaller facility called Castle Garden on Manhattan proper), the official apparatus was vast enough for there to be no shortage of translators for even the more obscure European languages (and Yiddish hardly qualified as obscure) — Fiorello LaGuardia was one of the more famous ones. Moreover, the immigration officials often didn’t even need to resort to translators, since they themselves were frequently multilingual in the relevant languages. The idea that immigration officers were simply overwhelmed rent-a-cops, filling out forms and accidentally turning Cohens into Kennedys on a daily basis, is a bobe mayse. What’s interesting about it is that our bobes themselves made it up, because names that were changed during the immigration process were almost always changed by the immigrants themselves. Many such changes, including the example in your column of Vaytz being changed to Weiss, most likely reflected Jewish social anxieties that we scarcely remember now, such as the desirability of a German-sounding rather than Eastern-European-sounding name. For many people, it was probably easier to blame Ellis Island for the loss of a family legacy than to take the credit themselves.”

Hooray for Abramson and Horn!

And, as I have always maintained, many name changes took place the minute the immigrant got off Ellis Island and stepped onto the New York streets; sometimes changes were planned in advance, as in my own family.

Letters home from earlier arrivals told prospective immigrants that a new name had been adopted. In our family, the story persists that the first Talalay, back in 1898, met someone on the boat who knew English and who advised Mendl to change his name, as no one would give a job to Mr. "tell-a-lie." He became the first Tollin; his letters home advised the new name and why; it was adopted upon arrival in America by the majority of following relatives.

The Philologos author, however, now takes the issue back a step to Europe and blames the shipping clerks in Europe for the misspellings, because they had to deal with Yiddish speakers who compiled the lists in Latin alphabets.

[They] would have had to make guesses similar to those mistakenly attributed by me to American immigration officials at Ellis Island, so that ultimately the same kinds of inaccuracies and mistakes would have occurred in some of them. These simply would have taken place at an earlier stage in the immigration process.

However, he neglects to mention that shipping lines had agents in many towns who sold tickets to the immigrants. These agents would have been necessarily literate in Yiddish and other languages to handle record-keeping and write tickets, and would have recorded the names properly on the travel documents.

The Sean Ferguson story from the March 13 column is expanded on as another reader of the column sent in an excerpt from "a genealogical website Avoteynu [sic], posted by a researcher named Gary Mokotoff."

Gary expounds on the Ferguson story's roots - back in the 1860s - before Ellis Island was a major port of entry. Do read this section.

And, as I've mentioned over the years, my grandfather swore he knew the real Ferguson ... and I met the man.

I was a young child and we were spending the summer, as usual, up in Kauneonga Lake (near Monticello in the Borscht Belt's Sullivan County, New York). One day, my grandfather, Sidney (Shaya) Fink (from Suchastow, Galicia, now Ukraine) had a visitor, an old friend in the travel business, called Ferguson. He proceeded to tell us the story of his strange name. He swore up and down that he was the real Sean Ferguson.

It was the first time I had heard the story and believed it until decades later when I heard other genealogists discussing the urban legend. I wish I knew who my grandfather's friend Sam Ferguson really was and the true story of his name.


  1. Anonymous3:32 AM

    I do not see the point of your post. Names were changed for many reasons, transcription errors among them. This occured at Ellis Island and any other place immigrants were officialy recorded.

    My grandfather was issued a work permit in Germany in 1905, when his surname ended with 'oza'. Looking at this handwritten document, I can see how it was later misread as 'oger', although I have not found his EI records yet, it may well have occurred there.

    The myth is not so mythical.

  2. Transcription errors in Jewish names appear in indexes on many subscription and free sites because they were made by transcribers unfamiliar with Jewish given or surnames.

    And, yes, immigrants could have changed their names the minute they got out of Ellis Island into New York. But not one immigrant's name was changed on Ellis Island.

    There has never been one documented case of a name changed at Ellis Island according to Marion Smith, senior historian of the immigration service, despite anecdotal claims of some.

    The clerks at EI merely checked off names on manifests that were compiled prior to arrival at US ports. There were multiple translators of every known language to help, and many of the clerks themselves were foreign born.