13 May 2013

Dear Abby, Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Name...

Will it never end?! Now we have Dear Abby perpetuating the myth that immigrants had their names changed by clerks at Ellis Island. [1]

I read the newspaper nearly from front to back each morning, but I usually don't even scan Dear Abby. This morning, however, the headline for the column caught my eye "Grandfather wants groom to change name." 

The question is a contemporary one regarding a grandfather who objects to his grand daughter's fiance's surname and is exerting pressure to have him change it. It is Abby's answer that continues the damage.

She describes the name changes that accompanied immigration a century ago and opines that while some people changed their names to Americanize and/or escape discrimination, others "had it done 'for' them by government officials" who didn't understand the pronounced names and, apparently, decided to wing it. [Yikes!]

Several researchers have already written about this myth so I will only summarize. [2] Many surnames and first names were altered with immigration. But it is likely that this was the result of personal choice and occurred after arrival, not as a result of big government ignorance or an American sense of superiority.

The fact is that manifests were created near or at ports of departure and not in the United States. [3] Clerks at Ellis Island checked the information on manifests, but did not change names. [4] The clerical staff at Ellis Island represented skills in more than 30 languages. Interpreters were available help emigrants upon arrival.

In my family I have relatives who arrived with their European names and never changed them (Garber and Liebross). I have others who changed their names after arrival (Mazewitsky --> Morris; Malzmann --> Myers; Wilensky --> Wilson). With subsequent chain migration, their loved ones sometimes followed under the new family name. Likely this was because the first family immigrant bought the tickets for the rest of the family.

One has to wonder how this myth arose and why it persists. There is an interesting article by Dara Horn in the Summer 2010 issue of Azure. She's analyzed the persistent name change myth against Jewish history. If one doesn't have the patience to read through the entire article and its discussion of Spanish and Polish Jewish history, after reading the first few paragraphs, skip down about half way through the article to get back to the Ellis Island discussion.  

I find this fascinating, but question whether the myth is really only Jewish. Other immigrant families seem to have embraced the same story. What do you think? Why did this Ellis Island name change myth start? and, why has it persisted?

1. Van Buren, Abigail (Jeanne Phillips), Dear Abby, syndicated column appearing in the Arizona Republic, 13 May 2013, page D6.
2. A selection of online posts:

Even better, read Marian Smith of the USCIS History Department:


3. Sack-Pikus, Sallyann Amdur.  “Just How Were Passenger Manifests Created?” Avotaynu XXV: 1 (Spring 2009), 7-12. 
4. Colletta, John P. They Came in Ships, third edition. Orem, Utah: Ancestry 2002, pages 127-128.


  1. Certainly some of it started by ignorant assumptions but some of it was probably based on an old joke that went "viral". The joke was that an inspector in the U.S. asked a man his name and he answered something like "Moram ići u kupaonicu" (which means "I have to go to the bathroom" in Croatian) so the man's name was written down as "Morris Cupon". Didn't happen but makes a cute story taken as "fact". :-)

  2. There is a similar Yiddish joke. A Jewish man at Ellis Island is nervous as he stands before the immigration official. When asked his name, he blurts out, "Sheyn ferguson" (I forget). He supposedly became Sean Ferguson.


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