"His name was changed at Ellis Island" #names

Peter Cohen

Smoke pours from the ears of veteran genealogists when they hear “his name was changed by the immigration authorities”. Numerous analyses of the experience of immigrants through Ellis Island and Castle Garden offer convincing evidence that US immigration authorities used ship’s manifests and the landing card pinned to the immigrant’s clothing to determine their name and did not change anyone’s name.


So, why is the “my grandfather told me his name was changed at Ellis Island” so widespread?  Either an entire generation of immigrants conspired to lie to their children about how their name changed, or SOMETHING actually happened.


Consider the case of my grandfather, who arrived via Castle Garden in 1891. All I know for sure is that his name was KEMAK on the 1891 manifest and COHEN on his 1895 marriage certificate. The story my uncle told me was “when they asked his name, he gave his full Hebrew name, including HaKohain and they wrote down Cohen.” My uncle would have heard this directly from his father, who was the actual immigrant. So where does the story come from?


A possibility:

The day he arrived, my grandfather was 19 years old, alone in a strange country, whose language and customs he did not know.  It seems likely to me that, when he left the immigration hall, tired and bewildered, he would have been relieved to find a helpful Yiddish speaker from an immigrant aid society (perhaps HIAS?) outside the building. That person would have given him advice and direction. Part of that advice might have been “no one here can pronounce your name, your name should be _______.” It could have been as simple as the aid society person writing down the immigrant’s name in Roman letters, so that the immigrant would know how to write it. (Note that the stories often say “they wrote down…”  Wrote down where? Apparently, immigrants left the customs hall with no documentation from the US government. So, if their name was written down and given to them, someone other than a government agent did the writing.)  In my grandfather's case, the name KEMAK was easy enough to pronounce, so that would not be a reason to change it.  I lean in the direction of someone writing his name in English, based on his Hebrew name and not his civil name. I do not know who that someone was, but it almost certainly was not a representative of the US government.

While we think of our grandparents as worldly and wise, at 19 years old, they would have been neither, and could easily make the false assumption that the HIAS person had some kind of government authority.

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