Many of the guests on last night’s “Genealogy Roadshow,” filmed in Detroit, had done their own research into family history claims. I love to see all that genealogical interest, and the impact that family history knowledge can have on someone.
The young woman at the center of my favorite story was adopted as part of an open adoption. She knew a lot about her white birth mother’s family tree, and little about her African-American birth father’s family. All four parents were with her as Kenyatta Berry took her back in time along her paternal line.
Among the other stories was a woman whose English ancestors founded a royal bookstore that still exists today—but later in that line, a physician ancestor went to jail for murder. The final guest learned she was in fact related to Ponce de Leon.
One thing that surprised me in this episode was the show’s handling of a guest’s tale of his family name change at Ellis Island, a common belief.
Taylor told the man (I’m paraphrasing) that Ellis Island arrivals were brought into a room with a clerk at a desk, and the clerk may not have spoken the languages of the immigrants. When the clerk asked the passenger’s name, he would write down what he’d heard, which often wasn’t the spelling the passenger used.
He made it pretty clear that Ellis Island officials didn’t deliberately change passenger names because they were hard to pronounce or not American enough.
I’ve always read, though, that passenger lists were created by shipping line agents at ports of departure, and turned over to US officials after arrival here. US immigrant inspectors would then check off the passengers’ names on those lists—they didn’t write down any names. Ellis Island also employed translators in a wide range of languages to speak with immigrants. TV shows are often heavily edited, so what was actually said could’ve been quite different from what ended up on screen.
You can read more about the Ellis Island name-change myth in this article by Marian L. Smith, a historian at the Immigration and Naturalization Service (now the Citizenship and Immigration Service). The New York Public Library has a similar article, with details about how passenger lists were created.
Many immigrants, like the one in question on last night’s show, changed their own names after arrival. Someone could do this legally, but more often, people would just start using the new name.
Two good resources for learning about your ancestor’s immigration experience are
- They Came in Ships: Finding Your Immigrant Ancestor’s Arrival Record by John Philip Colletta
- Ellis Island: Tracing Your Family History Through America’s Gateway by Loretto Dennis Szucs
Also keep an eye out for the December 2013 Family Tree Magazine, which will have a workbook to help you find your ancestors on passenger lists. Also check out these immigration research resources.
You can watch last night’s “Genealogy Roadshow” here. Next week’s episode takes us to San Francisco. I’m hoping to see some Gold Rush stories!