The Ellis Island Name Change Myth

Joel Weintraub, PhD

Dana Point, CA November 2015   Revised March 2017


Did officials change immigrant names at Ellis Island?   No.  “Don't family stories of inspectors writing down “American” or inappropriate surnames because they misunderstood what the immigrant’s answer to “What is your name?” prove it happened?”   No!   “Aren't there publications that state name changes happened at Ellis Island?”  Yes, but the current consensus, and more importantly, the lack of evidence, is that although many immigrants did change their names, it did not happen during their processing at Ellis Island.  It’s a myth that is difficult to dispel and is not associated with any other U.S. Immigration Station.  The Ellis Island Station operated from 1892 through 1954 including three years spent in temporary facilities on Manhattan due to an 1897 fire.

Let's follow a hypothetical early 1900s immigrant and the general history (and custody) of his or her “good” name on their way to and through Ellis Island.

Most immigrants had little money and needed to plan their trip carefully, with the minimum of travel days from their home town to their U.S. destination.  Thus, most travel arrangements should have been agreed to in advance.  Shipping company agents within the immigrant’s country sold steamship tickets and helped make travel connections.  Tickets were also purchased in advance in the U.S. for the immigrant who then received instructions and paperwork to fill out from the shipping company before going to the outgoing port or their pre-voyage facility.  Figure 1 shows part of the terms on the back of a U.S. purchased 1903 ticket with a stern warning that the immigrant must wait at home for such paperwork.    Some countries required an exit permit or other official documents, and immigrants might have used forged papers or permits of others to travel, and bought the tickets under those assumed names.  Those assumed names instead of the immigrants’ real names would then appear on the ship’s Manifest. 

Fig. 1. Instructions (right) on the back of a 1903 ship ticket contract (left) bought in Chicago for a one way ticket in steerage from Bremen to Chicago. From author’s collection.

As part of the process, the agent could prefill Declaration forms that asked the required Manifest questions, including the immigrant’s name, and would submit the forms and booking in advance to the shipping company.  The shipping company could also send the Declaration form directly to the immigrant.   One such form (see Figure 2) by the White Star Line  asked the Manifest questions including the immigrant’s name, and required the potential passenger to sign a statement that “I hereby certify that I have made true answers to the questions which were asked in language understood by me, and which answers have been recorded in this declaration”.  The form warned the immigrant that they “may be required to swear to the truth of the following answers, if it be called for by the Commissioner of Immigration at the Port of Arrival in the United States.  A false oath will subject the Passenger to fine or imprisonment”. 

Fig. 2. A “Declaration” form sent in 1936 from the White Star Line asking for information from a prospective passenger. From author’s collection.

The shipping company screened potential passengers to eliminate those who did not meet the U.S. entry requirements.   If an immigrant on arrival at New York Harbor was refused entry and deported, the cost of the return passage, meals in the U.S., and a fine were the responsibility of the shipping company, although the 1903 U.S. prepaid ticket previously mentioned tried to recoup those expenses by stating such fines were the responsibility of the ticket buyer.  Figure 3 shows that section of the ticket back.

Figure 3. More terms on the back of the 1903 ticket shown in Figure 1, warning buyer if their immigrant was returned to the origination port they would be responsible for the costs.

The answers on the Declaration form probably were used by shipping clerks to create the Manifest pages.  The large sheets were stamped at the top with a consecutive number or letter, and names added on numbered lines 1 to 30 (the usual number of lines on the form).  Thus every immigrant had a specific, searchable location on the Manifest of that sailing which contained their name and answers to questions.  Some Manifests sheets may have been constructed so that people of the same ethnic background (and language) were grouped together, making it easier for processing the subgroup by the clerks at Ellis Island.  The process of copying names from one document to another could also contribute to a surname being changed.

It is usual to see a Manifest page filled out with a single handwriting and done with a certain amount of uniformity.  Later, at least from the early 1920s, the information was typed on the official Manifest.  You may see Manifest pages with passenger lines crossed out, showing that those people may have missed their booked sailing due to transportation problems to the port, waited at the port until some health condition was resolved, changed their choice of accommodations (e.g. from steerage to second class and appear on a different Manifest page), were denied final passage by the shipping company, or perhaps just changed their mind about going. 

Once at the departure port or at designated control stations maintained by the shipping lines, the immigrants, several days before sailing, went through a vaccination/disinfection process, and were given a Medical Inspection Card (which clearly showed their names) to show the U.S. authorities, both at the port of departure (where the card was stamped by a U.S. Consular Medical Officer) and on arrival in the U.S. (stamped by a U.S. Public Health Officer).   It’s likely a clerk at the shipping company wrote the immigrant’s name on the card which should match the name on the ship’s Manifest.  Considering that about 20% of pre-1917 immigrants to Ellis Island were illiterate, it was imperative that the shipping company made sure all the necessary documents matched as to the immigrants’ names.  The Inspection Card also showed the Manifest page number and line of the immigrant, the ship name and date of departure.   On the back it certified the immigrant had been vaccinated and “disinfested”.

Figure 4 shows a Medical Inspection Card and a separate disinfection document for the same person.  I also acquired this individual’s elementary school grade evaluations which he apparently brought to the United States.  He is shown as Henrik Focht and later Heinrich Focht on the school evaluations, and Heinrich Focht on the 15 July 1922 disinfection document (he sailed 12 days later).  He is also shown on the handwritten Hamburg Passenger Lists, kept by German officials, as Heinrich Focht.  However, both the official typed Manifest list turned over to the Ellis Island officials, and his Inspection Card, show his name as “Emerik Focht”, an apparent error that continued, uncorrected, through the process.  I have seen other instances where name modifications occurred between the Hamburg List and the U.S. Manifest List of the same sailing.  The two lists did not have the same order of names for Heinrich’s sailing from Hamburg.

Fig. 4. Sixteen year old Heinrich Focht’s 1922 disinfection and Inspection Card (now with the first name of Emerik) stamped in Hamburg and at Ellis Island. From author’s collection.

When the ship arrived at New York Harbor, all steerage passengers, until the mid-1920s, were directly ferried to Ellis Island.  The ship’s responsible officer was required by U.S. law to certify and provide the original ship Manifest to the U.S. Immigration Officer at Ellis Island.  It was very much a legal document for both the federal authorities including the immigration inspectors and the immigrant.  It was used to document legal entry to the country (from 1906 on) for naturalization purposes, and for other legal actions against immigrants if their answer to the Manifest questions proved to be fraudulent.

Immigrants were divided into groups at the Station, all members usually from the same Manifest page.  They were usually given a landing tag, with instructions on the back in several languages, to prominently display the tag on their outer clothing.  The tag showed their ship name, their Manifest page and line number usually in large type, as well as their name. Consequently, immigration inspectors at Ellis Island didn't have to ask the immigrant for his or her name; they could have read it off the landing tag and matched the person to a specific line with that person’s name on the Manifest. However, asking an immigrant for their name may have been a way to detect hearing and speech problems.   Figure 5 shows a large immigrant family in 1907, all tagged.  In some cases only the head of family was issued a tag.  Figure 6 shows a tag from a 1923 arrival.

Fig. 5. The blended Glerum family from the Netherlands at Ellis Island, 1907. All members prominently show their landing tags. Source: National Park Service

Fig. 6. Front and back of a landing tag from 1923 with permission from GGArchives ( This passenger on her Manifest indicated she could not read or write.

The immigrants during the first phase of their Ellis Island inspection went through a quick visual medical screening, but those that were “chalked” with possible problems were pulled aside and evaluated more intensely by the medical staff.  Those immigrants suspected of not meeting entry standards were sent to a Board of Special Inquiry until their situations were resolved or they were deported (about 2% of all immigrants).   About one out of six immigrants at Ellis Island ended up in Special Inquiry, or in Detention waiting for relatives to pick them up or money telegraphed to them so they could resume their travel.  These two types of incarcerations were recorded on separate forms bundled with the ship Manifest starting in the early 1900s and microfilmed together.  If you see an “X” in front of your immigrant’s name on the Manifest, that usually means they were held in Detention, or an “SI” for Special Inquiry, and you should look for scans of those additional pages attached to the Manifest scans for more information.  If you compare an immigrant’s name on the Manifest (handwritten for most years and entered in Europe) to the same immigrant’s name on the Detention/Special Inquiry page (usually typed and entered at Ellis Island on the immigrant’s initial processing day), you shouldn’t see major differences between the two entries and certainly not a new “Americanized” or inappropriate name.  They had to match the Manifest name for the system to function properly to keep track of the immigrants through all steps of the process.

Sixteen year old Heinrich Focht was detained at Ellis Island along with his older brother, and his typewritten name on the Record of Detained Aliens page is basically the same as the Manifest, “Emerik Fockt”.  Mr. Focht applied for citizenship in 1924 in Philadelphia; his Declaration statement shows that “I, Henry Focht…”, and is signed “Heinrich Focht”.  Mr. Focht at the same time asked for a legal name change to “Henry John Ford” (no relation to the automobile maker) which was granted along with his approved Petition for Citizenship in 1928.  His brother became a citizen in 1928 as well, and retained his original surname.

 The people on the same Manifest page at the Registry Hall at Ellis Island were put in the same row that led to one of about 16 desks (at peak times) which held their particular list page.  Official U.S. Service translators were usually available during this process and many inspectors had experience with multiple languages.  In addition, a number of immigrant aid societies had a presence at Ellis Island to help the immigrants get through parts of the process.  Figure 7 shows the front of the Registry Hall with the inspectors and the Manifest pages in front of them, and three (presumed) government translators helping immigrants.

Fig. 7. The Ellis Island Registry Hall (above), with immigration clerks asking questions. They have the ship’s Manifest pages in front of them. You can see two badged individuals on stools in front of the desks, the second wearing an official hat. If you look closely, you can find another official wearing an immigration service hat helping immigrants in front of the third desk farther to the right. It is likely all three are U.S. immigration service translators. The middle official could well be William Goldberger, a known translator at Ellis Island, whose picture (right) is also in the archives at Ellis Island. Source: National Park Service.

The registry inspectors weren’t there to add information to the Manifest or to “Americanize” immigrants, but to determine whether the immigrants met the legal requirements of entry, and whether they had relatives or friends in the U.S., had transportation to their final U.S. destination, and possessed adequate funds and job skills.  How much average amount of time was spent by the Registry Hall clerks on questioning individuals?  On April 17, 1907, when a record 11,747 immigrants were processed at Ellis Island, my calculated answer (based on 16 operating stations with 734 immigrants/station and a normal working day of 7 hours) gives about 34 seconds per immigrant.

The Ellis Island inspectors had no reason, requirement, legal authority, time, or impetus to change immigrant names.  They had enough to do. The names on the Manifest, Inspection Card, and landing tag had to match or it would raise unwanted questions about the validity of the documents.  There was no paperwork that would record a possible name change, either given to the immigrant or stored as an official record.  The only document that immigrants should have retained was the Inspection Card filled out before sailing, with a warning statement in eight different languages on the card’s back to “Keep this card to avoid detention at Quarantine and on Railroads in the United States.“ Figure 8 is the back of the Inspection Card of “Emerik Focht”.  Some clarification of immigrants’ names, however, can be found on the Manifest. 

Fig. 8. The back of “Emerik”’s Inspection Card certifying he was vaccinated and “disinfested” and advising him to “keep this card” in several languages.

For much of Ellis Island's early time as an immigration station, there was no law that required immigrants to prove their identity or to use the name shown on the Manifest in the U.S.  Thus, immigrants could use any name they wanted after they passed through the immigration procedures and left Ellis Island; there was no legal reason that they continue to use their names as shown on any of the documents I’ve shown unless they wanted to prove they had been vaccinated.  Changing one’s name was apparently a personal decision.

There is one documented case where a 1908 Manifest page shows a name changed by the immigration authorities.  A woman traveling under a man's name (Frank Woodhull) and in male attire, for employment reasons, was detained and went through a Special Inquiry.  She was found to be a desirable immigrant and was allowed into the country (there was no law that prohibited what she was doing, nor her use of a male name).  However, her male alias was changed on the Manifest to her legal name (Mary Johnson) by the Ellis Island authorities.  Once released, she could use any name she wanted, including a male alias, and apparently she did, disappearing into anonymity. Figure 9 shows the manifest entry for Frank Woodhull / Mary Johnson.

Fig. 9. Frank Woodhull's name was changed to Mary Johnson after it was discovered that she was a woman traveling as a man.

The above paragraphs show how improbable and unlikely it is that Ellis Island officials would, could, or did regularly change immigrants’ names.  Hard documentation for name changes done by officials at Ellis Island is basically non-existent.  Additionally, immigrants had little reason or circumstances to acquire a new name during the process.  How did the myth of name changes at Ellis Island get started?  What conditions could cause immigrants to change their names either before or after coming to the U.S.?  That’s beyond the scope of this essay but the reader can find many online essays that discuss possible reasons, and some that discuss the basis of some of the name changes.

Acknowledgments:  I thank Robinn Magid for encouraging me to produce this essay.  Steve Morse provided comments on an earlier draft, and Gloria Weintraub helped proof the text.

Selected Annotated Bibliography


Case of Frank Woodhull/Mary Johnson:


Literacy of Immigrants at Ellis Island:

Bloch, Louis. 1920. Results of Two Years’ Operation of the Literacy Test for Admission of Immigrants.   Quarterly Publications of the American Statistical Association, 17 (131) pp. 333-335.


Logistics of Registry Hall processing of immigrants:


Manifest Information:

"The Creation and Destruction of Ellis Island Immigration Manifests," by Marian L. Smith. Part 1, Prologue, vol. 28, no. 3 (Fall 1996) pp. 240-45;   Part 2, Prologue, vol. 28, no. 4 (Winter 1996) pp. 314-18.


Name Change Information:

An essay suggesting the basis of some name changes


Photo of Landing Tag:

I have permission to use the low resolution photograph in this essay from a website that has a number of immigration process documents.

Photo of large tagged family:

There is an article at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette by Sally Kalson discussing the Glerum family from the Netherlands in 1907.  It’s actually a combined family;  the original spouses died, and then the surviving parents married.  This family can also be found on the 1910 U.S. census. 


Photograph of the Registry Hall Manifest stations, and Immigration Service translator from the National Park Service.


Pre-voyage protocols:

Protocols circa 1903 for handling immigrants embarking from Hamburg and Rotterdam.