02 October 2013

Bizarro Genealogy World

One thing that really sets me off is getting facts wrong. You can ask any of my friends. If anything they post on Facebook is urban legend or just a flat out lie I'm there with the link to the Snopes.com article.
Sadly last Monday's episode of Genealogy Roadshow (PBS) continued the spread of a common genealogical myth. You can view the episode here. The following starts at about the 32:30 mark.
D. Joshua Taylor, Roadshow genealogist, speaking:
This is something, as a genealogist, we get asked all the time. People say, "My name was changed at Ellis Island." That's partially true. It wasn't necessarily a case of you saying, "My name is Abraham Blechmann" [pronouncing it as Bleekman] and we say, "Okay your new name is John Smith." Didn't exactly happen like that. When you arrived you were basically taken to a room and they asked you what your name was. The person sitting behind the table might not speak German. Might not speak Russian, or Italian or whichever country they are dealing with. They are literally processing thousands of immigrants. They would spell the name how they heard it. So in this case we don't know how Abraham pronounced his name. What we know is that the person who wrote down the name spelled it b-l-e-c-h-m-a-n-n.
If you aren't familiar with this particular myth here is an explanation from Megan Smolenyak's book Who Do You Think You Are? The Essential Guide to Tracing Your Family History.
Our name was changed at Ellis Island. No, it wasn't. Your ancestor changed it after the fact, probably Americanizing it by lopping off a couple of syllables (Villapiano becomes Villa), translating (Weiss becomes White), dropping accents or "extra" letters (Smolenyak used to begin with Szm), picking an Anglo-sounding version (Lewinsky becomes Lewis), and so forth. Ellis Island was staffed with people who spoke dozens of languages and were mostly checking names against lists generated at the port of departure. In spite of what you might have seen in The Godfather, they didn't substitute village names for surnames or arbitrarily assign "more American" names to immigrants.
Is it possible someone changed their name before getting on the boat? Yes, but whatever name they gave for the ship's manifest before it set sail was the name they had when they left Ellis Island. 
To Mr. Taylor's credit he published a correction on his blog on Tuesday. Unfortunately the average viewer isn't going to ask, "Is that really true?" They saw it on television, on PBS even, so it must be true and so the myth will live on. A great opportunity to dispel the myth and it's gone.
This episode had another genealogical Bizarro World moment. Not only did Ellis Island intake agents just write down what they heard but census enumerators were completely accurate. Josh Taylor again:
It isn't until the 1910 census he delivers his name as Blackman. [Census image is shown on the screen.]
Really? So that's it? The census shows "Blackman" so their name is Blackman? Census takers rarely asked for the spelling of someone's name. They really did just write down what they heard. My ancestors are on two censuses as Galespy and Gilaspie. That doesn't make either of those the definitive spelling of my surname.
On Monday I'm hoping to just sit back and enjoy the show. We'll see.

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Your Ancestor's Immigration Experience and the Ellis Island Myth from the Genealogy Insider Blog
Why Your Family Name Was Not Changed at Ellis Island (and one that was) from the New York Public Library Blog


  1. I saw and heard that too. How funny, my first reaction was . . . that's NOT TRUE!! And, my second reaction was, I can just hear, err see, what BUWT will be posting on next. LOL!

    Great post as always.

    1. Thanks Tracy! I almost turned the television off. Probably should have since I didn't enjoy the show after that segment :-(