10 February 2017

Know Them at a Glance: Immigrants at Castle Garden

Without a doubt the most common myth in immigrant genealogy is the name change at Ellis Island. Family stories usually include the notion that staff at Ellis Island could not communicate effectively with confused immigrants. When asked for their names, the immigrants might say something odd and the Ellis Island staff member, not knowing any better, would say, "That will be your name from now on!" 

The immigrant, not knowing any better, would keep the newly assigned name in perpetuity [I do find it interesting that the communication was bad enough to generate new names, but good enough that immigrants understood they had to keep their new American names!].

I cannot count the times I have had to try to dispel this myth with those who heard it from their grandmother or grandfather. I am never quite sure I have been successful. Many people just do not want to believe that Zeidie did not tell the truth about how and when the family name was changed.

We do know that passenger manifests were created by shipping company clerical staff at ports of embarkation and that information for each immigrant was provided when tickets were purchased - whether in the United States, in the immigrant's hometown, or at the port of embarkation. 

Ellis Island staff were told to check information with the immigrant. They were not authorized to change any information on the manifests provided by the shipping companies. I have read that about 45 languages were represented among the Ellis Island staff. And since the staff knew which ships from which ports were to dock on a particular day, the processing center would have had staff with the appropriate skills on hand. 

A couple of days ago I searched for historic articles about immigration on some newspaper websites and located the following 1889 article from the Beverly Citizen on Genealogy Bank.

This article talks about Castle Garden, the precursor to Ellis Island (which opened in 1892). Castle Garden, run by authorities in New York, was known as chaotic place. Ellis Island, a federal facility, was designed to remedy some Castle Garden short-comings as a processing center. So, it is safe to assume that Ellis Island actually improved the processing and experience of immigrants as depicted in this article.

Citizen (Beverly, Massachusetts), 30 November 1889, p. 3; image, Genealogy Bank (http://www.genealogybank.com : accessed 29 January 2017).


  1. Thank you for this excellent post debunking yet again one of those persistent myths. Thank you!

  2. Thank you for your comment, Marian. This newspaper article was just too good not to share.


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