Have you ever had an immigrant ancestor whose name appeared to change after they came to America? It was a very common occurrence, but the popular perception is that U.S. immigration officials deliberately changed a person’s name if they couldn’t understand the verbal information relayed to them by the immigrant. In fact, this is one of the biggest myths surrounding immigration history in the U.S. Federal immigration agents were never authorized to change anyone’s name–think about it for a moment, would it really make sense for an official to tell an immigrant, who might barely understand English, “Your name is now Joe Smith, don’t forget it!”
To further debunk the myth, most immigration passenger arrival lists that we have at the National Archives were not prepared by U.S. officials, they were instead filled out by the vessel master or shipping company BEFORE the vessel left Europe! Any mistakes in spelling or name alterations likely happened then, not after the immigrants arrived at Castle Garden or Ellis Island. I’m sure many people will persist in believing family traditions about how their ancestors’ names were changed after coming to America–it certainly makes for a good story–but the records rarely support the myth.