Once the immigrant arrived in Ellis Island, he would be questioned about his identity and his paperwork would be examined. Packed with quotes from and photos of the children and adults who passed through Ellis Island. How do you wipe out a myth that is so pervasive, so persistent, so popular, that if it were a book it would’ve spent a century on the bestseller list? Once upon a time…someone, somewhere, said their last name was changed by the evil overlords at Ellis Island, and a great American myth was born. It made for a great story—one that often sounded a lot better than the truth—so it was repeated by Aunt Maria and Uncle Dominic as well as the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker. That movie came out almost forty years ago and clients still reference that scene when they call me for help tracing their Italian roots. Briganti offered one explanation for why the legend has not only survived, but thrived, for so long, (other than the fact that it’s hard to disbelieve sweet, old Aunt Maria), stating that “Ellis Island was closed for a long time so for years there was no one to rebut it”.
In fact, Briganti himself confessed that he “thought that was the case” before he started working there.
It would be impossible to detail the “whole process” in this article, but let’s hit some of the highlights. Manifests were created by the ship’s purser (clerk), who almost assuredly spoke the immigrant’s language.
More often than not, the “mistakes” people find are actually not mistakes on the manifest but transcription errors that were made many years later as people (in recent decades) tried to decipher that old, cursive handwriting. Truth:This is one of those myths that makes a lot of sense on the outset, but quickly loses credibility when you know the facts. Inspectors cross-checked information provided by each immigrant in their verbal interview with what was written on the passenger list.
A number of inspectors were immigrants themselves and knew at least one foreign language, but Interpreters were also on staff as a back-up. Truth: The immigrant did not write their names down during processing at the port, and neither did the inspector. You may be thinking, “So if Ellis Island didn’t change names, who did?” The answer to that may be a bitter pill to swallow: more often than not, it was our beloved ancestors—the immigrants themselves—who changed the spelling of their own names. Why would our ancestors, many of whom were so proud of their Italian heritage and their names, intentionally change them? And oftentimes, when we do look at things from their point of view, that view isn’t pretty. I’ve heard dozens of stories of Italian discrimination as a genealogist, but Karen Fato’s story struck me to my core when I heard it.
He was so proud of how much he accomplished and thought he’d finally made it when he was called in for an interview with a well-known engineering company.
Discrimination and the desire to assimilate in their new environment certainly played a big role in those intentional name changes, but there were other reasons too. My Great Uncle Al Giammatteo, seen playing golf with President Eisenhower, changed his surname to Jamison to make it easier to make his way in country club circles. Quite a few immigrants, or descendants of immigrants, changed their names for similar reasons, even if they weren’t playing golf with the President of the United States. Al Jamison, left, (formerly Giammatteo) with President Eisenhower, circa 1954, Marine Golf Course, Quantico, VA. While the majority of name changes were intentional, there were also plenty of unintentional name changes as immigrants started their new lives.
To see just how easy it was for a name to be accidentally changed—again, after arrival—take a look at the provided image. But sometime after Ellis Island, someone saw the name written in that old, cursive handwriting and didn’t notice the dot on the second “i” so the “gli” looked like “gh” and the name was changed to “Famighetti”. All it took was for one person to misinterpret the writing and a name could be forever changed. The Famiglietti name (#27) was spelled correctly on this ship manifest so no error was made upon entry. As much as I’d love to finally set the Ellis Island record straight as a family historian, this isn’t about me, or you, or even Ellis Island, for that matter; It’s much bigger than that. People tend to have a short memory when it comes to history and they often end up paying a price for that forgetfulness. Many immigrants had to swallow their pride and change their names so they could put food on the table. Aliza Giammatteo is the owner and lead genealogist at Roots in the Boot, an Italian heritage firm headquartered in Las Vegas, NV.
Yes, misspellings could happen on ship manifests, but those manifests were not created at Ellis Island. The manifests were usually created in the passenger’s home country prior to departure (or shortly thereafter). One possible explanation for a change in spelling of a name on a manifest is that the name may have originally been different in Italy.
The only way to know for sure and get the full story in cases like that is to do some do digging and see what else turns up since a manifest will only give you part of the story.
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Fact #1: Ellis Island did not produce any written documents with immigrants’ names on them. Contrary to what you may have heard, or seen in a movie, inspectors at Ellis Island did not write down the immigrants’ names during processing.
If your ancestor’s ship record is one of the rare* ones that does have an ancestor’s name misspelled, Ellis Island had nothing to do with it. Lists were created by the ship’s Chief Purser, usually in the immigrant’s home country, before the ship ever set sail.
Providing false information was a criminal offense so great care was taken by the ship companies to provide accurate manifests.
So, yes, mistakes could happen, but they were rare*; and if they did happen, they were made by the ship companies, not by Ellis Island.
Fact #3: Most “mistakes” that people see on an Ellis Island passenger list are not mistakes.
Then you can probably imagine how challenging it can be for someone in today’s day and age to decipher the old, cursive handwriting that we typically find on passenger lists.
Most “mistakes” that people claim to have found on passenger lists are due to someone – in modern times — misinterpreting that old handwriting, not to an actual mistake on the list. TIP: Because the transcription errors are so common, it’s always a good idea to view a copy of the original manifest with your own eyes when you find a ship record online instead of relying upon someone else’s interpretation of what the record says. This transcription error example probably took place within the last decade, about 100 years after the Iacino family arrived in 1908.
There are many other interesting Ellis Island facts that disprove the “Ellis Island changed our name” myth, but we’ll have to leave it at this for now. The author has outlined some of that “process” above to promote a better understanding of what did and what did not take place on Ellis Island in an effort to separate fact from fiction and put a dent in this longstanding myth, once and for all.
Neither the author, nor her company, Roots in the Boot, have any affiliation with Ellis Island. The opinions, articles, and statements expressed herein are solely for the use of our readers. The materials on this UpFront blog are under copyright of the National Genealogical Society. However, all Ellis Island inspectors operated under rules that did not allow them to change the identifying information for any immigrant unless it was requested by the immigrant or unless the interrogation demonstrated that the original information was in error. Compare and contrast a firsthand and secondhand account of the same event or topic; describe the differences in focus and the information provided. Briganti, who seemed both thrilled that I was making an attempt to “shake” it and cautiously optimistic at the same time.
But he quickly added that “when you have an understanding of how the whole process took place, you know that it simply couldn’t have happened”.
Ellis Island did not create ship manifests—ever—so if a name’s misspelled on a passenger list, (or appears to have been misspelled), it wasn’t done by anyone at Ellis Island. They also had the manifest tag to refer to, which was created by the steamship company and pinned to each immigrant’s clothing. All interpreters had to pass reading, writing, and oral exams in their language(s) of expertise. Contrary to what you might have seen in the movies or heard in a story, no written document was produced at Ellis Island. During the height of Italian immigration (late 1800s-1924) and the decades immediately following, prejudice against Italians was at an all-time high.
Gildo sat down for the interview, only to almost immediately be told “we don’t hire spaghetti-eaters here”. The height of discrimination against Italians had passed, and with his natural talent for golf, he probably could’ve made it just fine keeping the name Giammatteo, except for one, crucial thing: How do you make a name for yourself if nobody can say or spell your name? You’ll notice that the “Famiglietti” name is spelled correctly on the ship manifest, so there was no mistake upon arrival. So if they were applying for a job, for example, they might have just handed someone a piece of paper with their name written on it instead of spelling it. But the name was later changed to “Famighetti” with a “gh” instead of “gli” as someone misread the name. If our ancestors’ names were changed, that change in all likelihood came about as a result of the trials and tribulations they suffered as newcomers trying to navigate their way in a new world in a new language—a world where they were not always welcome. She’s a syndicated columnist and feature writer for Italian American publications across the United States.
I noted in the article that no written documents were produced at Ellis Island — that includes manifests. And they were almost always written by someone who was a native of their country or knew the native language fluently so it wasn’t necessary for the passenger to know English. There were no standardized spellings back then and name spellings could change from town to town or generation to generation.
The Chief Purser, as well as the Chief Doctor and the ship’s Captain, had to provide a copy of the passenger list and swear an oath to its accuracy before being allowed entry to Ellis Island.
In addition to the threat of a criminal charge, ship companies could be made to deport the immigrant at their own expense if certain information was incorrectly reported. The “mistake” is commonly a result of someone transcribing the record, usually decades later, and again, it had nothing to do with Ellis Island.

Second, when you look at the copy of the actual manifest (link below, lines 2 & 4), the name is spelled correctly as “Iacino”. So once again, if the family’s name was changed, it had nothing whatsoever to do with Ellis Island.
Briganti stated in an interview with the author that “when you have an understanding of how the whole process took place, you know that it simply couldn’t have happened”. The article was published in the fall 2012 issue of Ambassador Magazine in honor of Ellis Island’s 120th anniversary. Briganti, Senior Vice President, Peg Zitko, and the Ellis Island team who spent time digging up images for her to share and the executives who gave her permission to share them.
In fact, ship manifests are so reliable that if you want to find out how a name was spelled in an immigrant’s home country**, obtaining that person’s passenger list is the next best thing to getting a record from their homeland. There were no standardized spellings of names back then so there’s always a chance of a variation in spelling from any record from that time period (even in records from the immigrants’ homeland).
Experts in other areas of research can speak to the accuracy of the spellings of immigrants’ names who came from other countries. Neither the reviews nor the reports may be used in advertising or for any commercial purpose. Inspectors were usually foreign-born immigrants themselves and spoke several languages so communication problems were nearly non-existent. Vito Andolini arrives in New York from Sicily and the careless inspector at Ellis Island mistakes Vito’s last name for the name of his hometown of Corleone.
Many of those descendants have their own version of this myth, so if you’re one of the ones who’s heard—or even passed on—the story, you’ve got a lot of company. Briganti says these intentional changes were the “number one reason” for names being altered. Discrimination was a leading cause—if not the cause—of the intentional name changes Briganti mentioned. He was so dedicated to achieving his American dream that the librarians nicknamed him “old faithful” because he showed up every weekend at the same time, like clockwork.
And especially during tough times like the two world wars or the Great Depression, anything that made life easier was a good thing. Oftentimes, the story of their struggles, the humiliation they endured, were not passed down to us. The best way to honor Gildo Fato, or “old faithful”, and all the others like him, is to tell their real stories.
Sometimes a family might even intentionally alter their name to distinguish them from another family in the area of the same name. Old handwriting is different from how we write today and many “mistakes” on passenger lists are actually transcription errors as people try to interpret them decades later. But the way the “I” is written in that old handwriting is very similar to how we might write a cursive “G” today, so someone – again, in modern times – misinterpreted it. NGS and the authors disclaim any liability, loss, or risk, personal or otherwise that is or may be incurred as a consequence, directly or indirectly, of the use and applications of any of the products, techniques, and technologies mentioned herein.
Ellis Island would even call in temporary interpreters when necessary, to help translate for immigrants speaking the most obscure languages.This is not to say that the surnames of many immigrants were not changed at some point after their arrival in America. The inspector scribbles the new name down and from that point on Vito Andolini is known as Vito Corleone. It would be nonsensical to judge a 19th or early 20th century decision from a 21st century point of view. And when you read the story below, you’ll see why many immigrant families were only all-too eager to Anglicize their names. So for their sake and ours, the next time you hear someone’s name was changed at Ellis Island, set the record straight. NGS does not imply endorsement of any outside advertiser or other vendors appearing in this blog. In reality, passenger lists were not created at Ellis Island - they were created by the ship's captain or designated representative before the ship departed from its port of origin. Millions of immigrants had their names changed by schoolteachers or clerks who couldn't spell or pronounce the original surname. The Ellis Island myth thrived for so long, in large part, because we never knew the real story so we substituted the fairy tale for the missing facts. Many immigrants also voluntarily changed their names, especially upon naturalization, in an attempt to fit better into American culture.
Some families even ended up with different last names since everyone was free to use the name he or she preferred. The name change most likely did not originate with the immigration officials at Ellis Island!

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