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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