Most of my weeks begin with me searching for a theme for my next article that is both timely and historical in nature. In this case, it was Jane Paley’s interesting Courier piece about the Snow family in Easton that gave me my direction. It was the third paragraph of that article that brought back the Ellis Island myth that has been so often repeated that most people now see it as fact: that names were changed, or at least Anglicized, by the immigration inspectors at Ellis Island.
“For starters, their name wasn’t Snow. The patriarch, Philip, came to the United States around 1901. Like most immigrants, he arrived at Ellis Island in New York, where one presumes the customs inspector changed his name to “Snow” owing to the weather that day. His birth name was Feivish Schnee.” With only a few notable exceptions, the immigration inspectors at Ellis Island never changed anyone’s name during the immigration process.
While I can’t tell you exactly why Feivish chose the surname “Snow,” I can tell you that it very likely had nothing to do with the weather on the day he arrived in New York. According to the passenger manifest of the Phoenicia of the Hamburg Line where his name was listed, the arrival date was May 24, 1899. But I can tell you with a great degree of certainty that Feivish’s (Philip’s) new name was not given to him by any government official at Ellis Island. Both Philip and his older brother Samuel had changed their surname to Snow by the time they moved from 193 Orchard Street in the Ukrainian Village section of lower Manhattan to Connecticut around 1901. Philip was naturalized while living in Redding in 1906 and Samuel while residing in Monroe in the 1902.
Debunking the myths that have become ingrained in our history is one of the most difficult jobs historical journalists must address. Telling folks those stories their elders have passed down over the generations are not accurate is never an easy nor pleasant task, but unless people are told the truth, urban myths become legends, and legends eventually become accepted as fact.
Prior to 1875, the federal government of the United States left the regulation of immigration in this country entirely up to the individual states. The Page Act of 1875 gave the United States the right to deny entry to immigrants from “China, Japan, and any Oriental country” who were transported here “without their free and voluntary consent for the purpose of holding them to a term of service.” The same act also specifically denied entry to prostitutes and convicts.
By 1890, feeling a unified approach would suit the nation’s needs better, the federal government had decided to take over the reigns of regulating and overseeing the policies of immigration from the states. One of its first priorities was taking control of the immigrant processing station at the port of New York.
Ellis Island began its life as a three-acre spit of land in the Hudson River just south of Manhattan. The Native Americans called it Kioshk. While under the early control of the Dutch, the name was changed to Oyster Island. In the 1770’s, a New York merchant named Samuel Ellis purchased the island and built a small tavern that served the men who fished for a living in Upper New York Bay. During the War of 1812, the United States War Department built a military fortification and ammunition storage facility on the island to protect the bay from enemy ships. Known as Fort Gibson, it was used off and on for that purpose until 1890 when the federal government decided to build a larger immigration facility to replace the smaller state-run one that had served the port of New York at Castle Garden since 1855.
With an initial appropriation of $75,000, the government first doubled the size of the island to six acres by using fill from the ballast of ships as well as materials from the railyards of several major rail hubs and eventually from the excavations of New York’s first subway line. It then built the first immigration station that opened January 1892 (it was lost to fire in 1897 and replaced with a much larger facility that reopened in 1900). According to the Ellis Island Foundation, the first foreign immigrants to pass through inspection were teenager Annie Moore from Ireland along her two younger siblings. Between 1892 and 1954 when the facility was shuttered for good, another twelve million immigrants would be processed there.
The vast majority of first and second-class passengers arriving at the port of New York were not required to board ferries to make the journey over to Ellis Island to be processed. Instead, those passengers received only a brief, cursory inspection aboard the ship prior to disembarkation. The assumption was a person who could afford to purchase a first or second-class ticket was likely more affluent and therefore far less likely to become a financial burden in the United States. However, regardless of class, passengers showing signs of illness or those with legal problems were sent to Ellis Island for further inspection.
It was a different story for third-class passengers who were more commonly referred to as “steerage.” Those passengers had made the trans-Atlantic crossing in crowded and often unsanitary conditions near the bottom of their ship. With no natural light and very little fresh air, many suffered from near constant bouts of seasickness. Others easily contracted communicable illnesses that went mostly untreated while they were still at sea. After docking in New York, steerage passengers would board a ferry bound to Ellis Island for a physical examination by members of the New York Board of Health, followed by a round of routine questions posed by immigration inspectors before being released and allowed to continue their journey to their new homes. The only identification that immigrants were required to produce before disembarkation and transfer to Ellis Island was the medical vaccination card that they had been presented prior to boarding their ship in Europe. They would wear that card around their neck or pinned to their clothing until they were released from Ellis Island.
Included in the medical examination was a brief assessment of their mental condition. Health inspectors looked for “rashes, fever, birth defects, signs of contagious disease such as tuberculous, and anything else that might indicate the immigrant in question wasn’t healthy enough to admit into the country.” If they noted nothing suspicious, the examination was usually concluded within about five minutes. Anyone with suspected health issues had their clothing marked with chalk and they were sent to the infirmary on the island where their condition would be further assessed and then treated. Aliens with undisclosed, pre-existing conditions were subject to deportation to their original embarkation point at the expense of the steamship company that had brought them to America.
After receiving medical clearance at Ellis Island, aliens were then assembled in a large hall to await their interview with an immigration official. Many of the inspectors were well versed in the native language spoken by the immigrants they would be interviewing. Those who weren’t had translators available to make certain that communications between the immigrants and the inspectors were clearly understood by both parties. No immigrants were left to fend for themselves because of a language barrier.
Prior to the more rigorous requirements of legislation enacted in 1917, the interviews were short and simple. In the decade leading up to the beginning of World War One, Ellis Island was a busy place. The Ellis Island Foundation’s records show that in 1907 alone, the station processed 1,004,756 immigrants. It’s busiest day ever was April 17th of that year when it handed 11,747 people. Getting them all through meant spending as little time as possible doing each interview.
The answer to every one of the questions that the inspector would pose was already indicated on the copy of the large ship’s manifest that sat in front of him. Information on those manifests had been supplied by agents of the steamship company that operated the ship. The names on those lists had been given directly by those immigrants making the trip prior to sailing; the only variation being perhaps in the spelling by the steamship agents who wrote down those names as they heard them.
Contrary to popular lore, inspectors did not write anything down nor did they fill out any forms. The only written notes on the ship’s manifest were corrections to the spelling of the immigrant’s given name, and those were only done at the immigrant’s request upon arriving at Ellis Island. Original spellings were not crossed out, the corrected information was simply noted above the original. Even if the immigrant had already chosen to Anglicize his own name, that was never noted in writing by the inspector.
If the immigrant being interviewed appeared at ease and satisfactorily answered the inspector’s questions, he or she was allowed to move on. Pre-1917, a satisfactory interview could usually be conducted in less than five minutes. Immigrants who acted nervous or suspicious, or who flubbed certain answers to simple queries could be detained and sent to another area where they would await their opportunity to appear before a board of inquiry to convince the panel that they should be allowed to stay. While that added time to the process, it was usually accomplished within the same day as the immigrant’s arrival.
In addition, ships whose manifests had multiple immigrants of a like profession who were headed to the same destination attracted the suspicion of labor inspectors who might pose additional questions that could also result in an immigrant’s detention and appearance before the board of inquiry. It was illegal for companies to contract with workers in a foreign land for employment in the United States. By the end of the 19th century, it had become common practice for large American employers to bring foreign workers to the United States with the sole intent of replacing their American counterparts with lower paid foreign labor.
Prior to 1917, the questions asked mainly consisted of: full name, age, sex, marital status, occupation or skill, literacy status, place of birth, original country of origin and nationality, last permanent residence – city and country, the port they were sailing to, the amount of money they were bringing into the country, their final destination in America – complete address if known, the name of the relative or friend in the United States, if they had a ticket to reach their final destination, by whom passage was paid, if they had been to America before, if they were under contract for employment, if they were a polygamist, if they were in good physical and mental health, and if they were deformed or crippled. A total of only nineteen questions. It is estimated that fewer than fifteen percent of the immigrants questioned were detained for further examination at the end of the initial interview.
While the entire ordeal of passing through the immigration station at Ellis Island might have taken as long as five or six hours, the time spent answering questions and receiving a physical examination seldom exceeded thirty minutes. In all, less than two percent of all the immigrants who passed through Ellis Island were detained there and then deported.
Historical evidence clearly shows that the immigrants who passed through Ellis Island during its first twenty-five years left the island bearing the exact same names as they had listed on the manifests of the ships they had sailed in on. They would carry no official papers bearing their name from the United States government because there had been none issued. Once on their own, they were free to use any name they chose without fear of being deported.
The first official documents alien residents would receive would come if and when they applied for naturalization. Naturalization was then a two-step process that took a minimum of five years to complete. After residing in the United States for two years, an immigrant could file a declaration of intent with the court, the first step towards becoming a citizen. After three additional years, the immigrant could petition for naturalization. Prior to the draconian immigration laws of 1917 and 1924, it was that simple to become a citizen of the United States.
The fact of the matter is that many eastern European immigrants did chose to change their names upon entry to the United States, or at least, shortly thereafter. There are several explanations as to why.
First, immigrants who read and wrote only in languages such as Russian or Yiddish were faced with a completely different alphabet in America than the one they had been taught. The Russian alphabet consists of thirty-three characters – twenty consonants and ten vowels. Anglicizing a Russian name in writing so that it sounded the same in both English and Russian could sometimes be impossible. It was much the same with Yiddish, where although like English there are twenty-six characters that comprise the alphabet, the letters of the Yiddish alphabet don’t all direcetly correspond to the ones used in English. Some single characters in Yiddish represent sounds that require two characters in English. Direct transitioning of names from one language to another was a daunting challenge.
Second, it should be noted that as many as twenty percent of the early adult immigrants (pre-1917) seeking and granted entry in the United States were illiterate. While they could all pronounce their own names, those folks could not even tell a prospective employer or landlord the proper spelling of it even if their native alphabet was the same as ours. Longer, multi-consonant names were both difficult to spell and sometimes harder to correctly pronounce. Simpler, Anglican sounding names were just easier to deal with.
Perhaps the most important reason that many immigrants decided on a name change had to do with the intolerance and bigotry so many had to endure after making the difficult decision to leave their homeland and families behind in the hopes of finding a better life on the western side of the Atlantic. In what had become almost an American tradition that had begun with the Irish earlier in the 19th century, the last in were the least tolerated.
Those who chose to make a new life outside of the comforting surrounds of the neighborhoods in so many American cities where immigrants could find jobs, converse in their native tongues, and find houses of worship where their family traditions were still practiced, found America a much less welcoming place than they had hoped for. They were often treated as second-class citizens the moment they told people their given names.
The Russian’s, Polish, Hungarian’s, and Czech’s all had a difficult time obtaining good paying jobs that didn’t involve dangerous working conditions and long hours. Many rural towns, including Easton, had no place for Catholics or Jews to worship. Local schools rarely employed multi-lingual teachers, so the children of many immigrants were on their own when it came to learning to speak, read, and write in English. Having names that the children of Anglican descent couldn’t pronounce earned immigrant kids a level of hurtful ridicule and disrespect they had done nothing to deserve.
The Jews from eastern Europe had it the worst. In many areas they couldn’t buy houses or farms. They were seldom welcomed, they had no place to worship, and their centuries old traditions were often scoffed at with disdain.
A partial solution was to change their family given names and keep their religious beliefs to themselves. How many immigrants did exactly that will never be known, but those numbers were surely in the many hundreds of thousands.
Which brings us back to the question, why did they pin their name changes on the inspectors at Ellis Island?
Marian L. Smith, in her essay American Names – Declaring Independence, suggests that one interpretation of the Ellis Island myth might be:
“Often, when asked by grandchildren why they changed their name, old immigrants would say “It was changed at Ellis Island.” That immigrant was remembering his initial confrontation with American culture. Ellis Island was not only about immigrant processing, it was finding one’s way around the city, learning to speak English, getting a first job or apartment, going to school, and adjusting one’s name to a new spelling or pronunciation. All these experiences… were the ‘Ellis Island’ experience.’ When recalling their immigration decades before, many immigrants referred to the entire experience as ‘Ellis Island.’”
From my memories of conversations in my much younger days with many older immigrants of that era, it could have also boiled down to shame. Many whom I spoke with regretted their early decision to abandon the names their parents had given them. Others were ashamed they had hidden their religious beliefs. But so many of them had fled persecution in pre-WWI Europe and didn’t want their own children to endure what they had experienced. So, they changed their names to mask their own heritage. As they grew older, admitting that became more difficult and more painful. It would make sense to put that onus on the immigration inspectors at Ellis Island, so it is certainly likely that is what some of them did.
Whatever the reason was for attributing those name changes to Ellis Island, the myth has endured longer than I have been alive and my desire to see it go away will likely do very little to change that. But the more who know the truth, the more likely that myth might be to fade as the years go on.
Sources for information in this article on Ellis Island include: They Came on Ships, by Vincent J. Cannato; JewishGen.org, The Ellis Island Name Change Myth by Joel Weintraub PhD; & the Ellis Island collection at the New York Public Library. Photos from the National Park Service, the Library of Congress, & the Ellis Island Foundation.