There is a persistent story in a lot of American families that their last name was changed at Ellis Island, garbled by an agent who simply wrote it down incorrectly. Now, it's possible that the name really was changed at some point, but it didn't happen at Ellis Island. Here's why.
Image via NYPL.
Philip Sutton, who works in the New York Public Library's Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, explains that the Ellis Island story, while very common among Americans whose ancestors immigrated through the island, is, in almost all cases, a myth.
In fact, Sutton points out, Ellis Island agents did not usually even record the names themselves:
Inspectors did not create records of immigration; rather they checked the names of the people moving through Ellis Island against those recorded in the ship's passenger list, or manifest. The ship's manifest was created by employees of the steamship companies that brought the immigrants to the United States, before the voyage took place, when the passenger bought their ticket. The manifest was presented to the officials at Ellis Island when the ship arrived. If anything, Ellis Island officials were known to correct mistakes in passenger lists. The Encyclopedia of Ellis Island states that employees of the steamship companies,
"…mostly ticket agents and pursers required no special identification from passengers and simply accepted the names the immigrants gave them. Immigrant inspectors [at Ellis Island] accepted these names as recorded in the ship's manifests and never altered them unless persuaded that a mistake had been made in the spelling or rendering of the name. Nonetheless the original name was never entirely scratched out and remained legible. (p.176)"
So some names might have been changed before immigrants reached Ellis Island, but Sutton also notes that many immigrants changed their family names themselves. For example, an immigrant who moved into a predominantly Swedish neighborhood might change their name to give it a more Swedish-like spelling. One historian Sutton cites mentions that many immigrants referred to the years following their immigration as the "Ellis Island experience," which might explain how the idea that names were changed at Ellis Island itself got started.
There was, in fact, only a single contemporary claim of a name being changed at Ellis Island. Harry Zarief, an assistant concert manager, did say that an inspector recorded his name as "Friedman" at Ellis Island, deeming "Zarief" too complicated. Years later, Zarief changed his name back. There are, however, reports of immigrants changing the spellings of their names on their naturalization applications.
Read Sutton's full essay for more on the Ellis Island records, American name changes, and one very unusual case of an identity revealed at Ellis Island.