Why ancestor surnames were not changed at Ellis Island by inspectors is today’s post.

Today is the anniversary of the busiest day in Ellis Island’s history.

One hundred and seven years ago, 11,747 individuals arrived to begin new lives in America. An average day saw 5,000 immigrants processed through Ellis Island.

Most genealogists who have worked with immigration records know ancestor surnames were not changed at Ellis Island by inspectors.

Mistakes happened and the process was flawed, but immigration officials were most probably not the source of name changes. Is Hollywood to blame for this misperception?

I don’t have scientific proof, but I think this misperception is widespread because of The Godfather Part II. It has been 40 years since this movie was released. In that time, the idea has spread that Ellis Island inspectors would change an ancestor’s surname. Here is the passage in the script for The Godfather Part II:

THE NEW YORK HARBOR - DAY

SILENCE.  We glide past the Statue of Liberty.

VIEW on the IMMIGRANTS standing on shipboard silently;
looking.  Vito is standing with them, his eyes wide.

CAMERA MOVES IN on the statue, then MOVING PAST, on to the
beautiful buildings of Ellis Island.

EXT. ELLIS ISLAND - DAY

A tugboat pulls a barge brimming with immigrants into the
Ellis Island harbor.  Uniformed officials of the Immigration
Service load them up toward the main building.

INT. ELLIS PROCESSING HALL - DAY

The hundreds of immigrant families sit on rows of benches in
the great hall.  Various painted lines lead to the steps and
processing rooms above.

There is the babble of many interviews going on
simultaneously, uncertainly, in different languages.

Vito is bundled in an old coat, with a large tag pinned on
it: "Vitone Andolini -- Corleone, Sicilia."

He stands, moves up in the line, when several other immigrant
boys, older than he, rush up an push him back in the line.
Weak from the trip, he falls to the floor.  The boys laugh,
derisive in a language he cannot understand.  He struggles
to his feet, lifting his makeshift bags; staring at them in
an icy hatred.

INT. PROCESSING ROOM - DAY

Three or four interviews are crowded into the small room;
they are conducted in English.  From the expression on
Vito's face, and from the fragmented of the English, we
realize that he doesn't understand a word of it.

				OFFICIAL
			(English)
		What is your name?

The man waits, impatiently.

				OFFICIAL
		Your name?

Vito doesn't answer.  The Official pulls the tag pinned onto
his coat and copies to down on his form, using a typewriter.

				OFFICIAL
			(speaking as he types)
		Vito...Corleone.  Step up, over
		there.

He hands the form to another official.

CLOSE VIEW on the form.  The name has been entered as Vito
Corleone.

INT. MEDICAL EXAM - DAY

Vito is stripped to the waist, as other immigrants wait.

The DOCTOR is just finishing his examination.  He shakes his
head, and then writes on the medical form.

				DOCTOR
		Can you understand me?

Vito stares blankly.

				DOCTOR
		You understand?  Smallpox.  Smallpox.

He doesn't understand.  The doctor turns to the Immigration
Official.

				DOCTOR
		Quarantine...six months.

UNDERGROUND PASSAGEWAY - MOVING VIEW - DAY

Officials move a group of immigrant men, including Vito, to
the quarantine section of the Island.

INT. QUARANTINE HALLWAY - DAY

The official stops at each doorway, and reads off a name.

				OFFICIAL
		Salvatore Ormenta.

The man moves into the room, and the group proceeds.

				OFFICIAL
		Vito Corleone.

No one responds.  The guard moves to the boy, reads his new
name tag.  And then, not unkindly:

				GUARD
		That's you.

He opens the door, and Vito enters the room.

If your immigrant research has reached a brick wall, or if you just want to know more about your immigrant ancestors and their experience, Sassy Jane’s Guide to Discovering Immigrant Ancestors is coming in about two weeks. It covers departing from Europe, the immigrant experience in steerage, arrival at Castle Garden or Ellis Island, and the records that are available to help you find your immigrant ancestors.

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