Why My Name Wasn’t Changed at Ellis Island (And Neither Was Yours)

One of the most persistent myths in American culture is that our family surnames were changed at Ellis Island.  Just how ingrained is this myth?  Well, when my younger two children were in 5th grade, their school included an Ellis Island simulation as part of a learning module on immigration.  After learning about the “great American melting pot,” the economic and social factors that prompted immigration, and some of the contributions and impact that immigrants had on American society, the students capped off the unit with an Ellis Island Day immigration simulation. Prior to the simulation, students were assigned names and identities (hypothetical, not historical) of various”immigrants” from the late 19th century. They created costumes that would have been typical for their assigned immigrants and when Ellis Island Day came, these “immigrants” were “processed” by teachers and parent volunteers posing as immigration officials.  Processing stations included mock health inspections and checking of documents, and at one station, parent volunteers were instructed to inform some of the “immigrants” that their names were “too foreign-sounding” so, “we’ll call you Mary Smith from now on.”

Although I applaud the idea of an immigration learning module and think that the Ellis Island Day simulation is a fun way for the kids to experience what the process might have been like, I found this particular element of the simulation to be appalling since it reinforces the very myth that so many of us genealogists have tried to dispel. When I attempted to explain this to the teacher, and then to the school administration, I was told, “You’re arguing with History.”

Really?

One of my favorite articles that debunks the Ellis Island Name Change myth is this one,1 and one of my favorite passages from that article is this:

The idea that names were changed at Ellis Island raises lots of questions. For instance, if names were changed, what happened to the paperwork? And if inspectors were charged with changing names, why are there no records of this? Where are the lists of approved names? Where are the first hand accounts, of inspectors and immigrants? If immigrants had name changes forced upon them, why did they not simply change their name back when they entered the country? Or, if they could not, where is paperwork describing the roles of Federal officials charged with making sure that names were not changed back?

It underscores the lack of thought that goes into the knee-jerk assertion about those name changes.  The myth of Ellis Island is so easily accepted that most people don’t bother to consider the implications, but if one takes a moment to do that, the myth quickly falls apart.

So what really happened?  How did we end up with so many distorted, truncated, or translated versions of our immigrant ancestors’ surnames?  Here’s one example from my own family history.

My maiden name, Roberts, was originally Ruppert.  My immigrant ancestors were the family of Franz and Catherina Elisabeth (née Schulmerich) Ruppert, who were married in the little village of Heßloch in 1830, in what was at the time the Grand Duchy of Hesse, colloquially known as Hesse-Darmstadt (Figure 1):

Figure 1:  Marriage record from the Roman Catholic parish in Heßloch for Franciscus Ruppert and Catharina Elisabetha Schulmerich, 15 January 1830.2  Translation: “On the 15th day of January is married Franz Ruppert, young man, legitimate son of the late spouses Franz Ruppert and Margaretha née Kron — with the young woman Catharina Elisabeth Schulmerich of Hillesheim, legitimate daughter of Georg Schulmerich and the late Anna Margaretha née Appelmann, in the presence of witnesses Gerhard Kron and Sebastian Eckert, blessed by Fr. [illegible]”franz-ruppert-catharina-e-schulmerich-1830

The Ruppert family included their three sons, Johann Georg, Michael, and Arnold, as well as daughter Catherina Susannah.  Michael was my great-great-great-grandfather.  In 1851, Georg traveled to the U.S.,3 followed by the rest of the family in 1853.4 Their passenger manifest is shown below (Figures 2a and 2b).

Figure 2a:  Passenger manifest from the William Tell, arriving on 4 March 1853, showing parents Franz and Catherine and son Michael Ruppert.ruppert-manifest-crop-and-marked-first-page

Figure 2b:  Passenger manifest from the William Tell, arriving on 4 March 1853, showing Franz and Catherine Ruppert’s children, Arnold and Catherine Ruppert.second-page-of-ruppert-manifest-marked-cropped

 

To me, the name looks like it’s written as “Rupert,” although the transcriber at Ancestry indexed it as “Rupard.”  The ages of the family members agree well with their ages based on their baptismal records from Germany.  The manifest is not especially informative, which is typical for earlier manifests like this, mentioning only that their place of origin was Württemberg, their destination was the United States, and Franz’s occupation was a brewer.

One might argue that my family surname clearly wasn’t changed at Ellis Island because in the case of my Rupperts, they didn’t enter the U.S. through Ellis Island at all. The Ellis Island inspection station didn’t open until 1892, and its predecessor, Castle Garden, did not open until 1855. In the first half of the 19th century, when the Rupperts came over, immigrants merely landed at docks around South Street in Manhattan. However, I’m willing to bet that the vast majority of people who purport that their family names were changed at “Ellis Island” probably have no idea at which port or on what date their immigrant ancestors actually arrived in the U.S. When it comes to the myth, the main idea seems to be that the name change resulted from something the immigrants were told by someone in an official capacity when they entered the U.S.

So, my ancestors were Ruppert in Germany, and a reasonable misspelling thereof was recorded on their passenger manifest.  What happened in the U.S.?

By 1860, the family had settled in Detroit, Michigan and had already begun using the name Roberts, as evident from the 1860 U.S. Census (Figure 3).5

Figure 3: Excerpt from the 1860 U.S. Census for Detroit, Michigan, showing the Michael Roberts and Frank Roberts households.roberts-fam-1860-census

The first part of the Roberts family is the family of Michael and Mary (also known as Maria Magdalena) Roberts, with their children Michael and Catherine.  Below them are the elder Michael’s parents, Frank and Catherine. The younger Michael, also known as Michael Frank, also known as Frank Michael, was my great-great-grandfather.

As anyone who has ever done genealogy for more than five minutes can tell you, names were pretty fluid up until, say, the 1930s. So in 1870, the family surname was recorded as Robert (Figure 4).6

Figure 4: Excerpt from the 1870 U.S. Census for Detroit, Michigan, showing the Michael Robert and Franz Robert households.roberts-fams-1870-census

In this census, we see that Michael “Robert” was still employed as a carpenter and that two more children had been born to the family, daughters Paulina and Anna and a son, Heinrich. Michael’s wife Mary’s name appears here as Magdalena. Michael’s parents, Frank and Catherine Robert were still living nearby, and the fact that their name was also recorded as “Robert” and not “Roberts” suggests that this was a version of the surname that the family was collectively trying out at that time, rather than simply a recording error on the part of the census-taker. Frank was also recorded as Franz once again.

By 1880, Franz and Catherine were living on Prospect Street and were continuing to use the surname Robert, although Franz was recorded as Frank once again, as shown in Figure 5.7

Figure 5: Excerpt from the 1880 U.S. Census for Detroit, Michigan, showing Frank Robert family.1880-u-s-census-frank-roberts-household-crop

Frank, God bless him, was still a laborer at age 72, while Catherine continued to keep house. The 1890 census cannot be consulted to see what name they were using at that time, since most of the returns were destroyed in a fire.  Catherine passed away in 1892 at the age of 84, and her funeral card was preserved in the family (Figure 6).8 At that time she was “Roberts” again.

Figure 6:  Funeral prayer card for Catharine (née Schulmerich) Roberts.death-card-for-catherine-schulmerich-roberts-001

As for her widower husband, Frank, by the 1900 census, enumerated a year before his death, he had come full circle and was listed under the name Fran(t)z Ruppert once again (Figure 7).9 At that time he was living with his daughter, Mary, and her husband, Robert Standfield. This final use of the Ruppert surname doesn’t reflect a lasting change, however, as subsequent generations of the family have continued to use Roberts.

Figure 7:  Excerpt from the 1900 U.S. Census for Detroit, Michigan, showing Frantz Ruppert in the Robert Standfield household.1901-census-crop

One might ask why the Ruppert family felt compelled to change their surname upon immigration to the U.S.? The answer might lie in the political situation at that time.  During the mid 1850s in the U.S., precisely when Franz and Catherine brought their family to America, the American Party, also known as the “Know Nothing movement” was gaining in popularity on the U.S. political scene.  This movement arose as reaction against immigrants, mostly Irish and German Catholics, such as Franz and Catherine Ruppert’s family.  Know Nothings believed that these immigrants would subvert traditional American values and ultimately make the U.S. subservient to the Pope.10

Of course, one could also just ask Aunt Mary Roberts Standfield for her version of the story, recorded in a letter to my great-grandfather (Figure 8).11

Figure 8:  Letter from Mary Roberts Standfield to J. Frank Roberts, unknown date.letter-from-mary-roberts-standfield-to-john-frank-roberts

So there you have it. It was the immigrants themselves, or their descendants, who initiated these name changes. Those poor, maligned Ellis Island officials were almost always blameless. Misspellings may have occurred on passenger manifests, but they were nothing more significant than that. So if you have a story in your family about your name being changed at Ellis Island, dig a little deeper and see what you find.

Sources:

Sutton, Philip,”Why Your Family Name Was Not Changed at Ellis Island (and One That Was),” New York Public Library Blogs, 2 July 2013, accessed February 18, 2017.

Roman Catholic Church (Heßloch {Kr. Worms}, Hesse, Germany), Kirchenbuch, 1715-1876, marriage record for Franciscus Ruppert and Cath. Elisabetha Schulmerich, 15 January 1830, Family History Library microfilm # 948719.

3 New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957 (image), Geo Rupert, S.S. Vancluse, 30 May 1851, http://ancestry.com, subscription database, accessed February 2017.

New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957 (images), Franz Rupert family, S.S. William Tell, 4 March 1853, http://ancestry.com, subscription database, accessed February 2017.

5 1860 U.S. Census (population schedule), Detroit, Wayne, Michigan, p. 142, Michael Roberts and Frank Roberts households,  http://ancestry.com, subscription database, accessed February 2017.

6 1870 U.S. Census (population schedule), Detroit, Wayne, Michigan, p. 126, Michael Robert and Franz Robert households,  http://ancestry.com, subscription database, accessed February 2017.

7 1880 U.S. Census (population schedule), Detroit, Wayne, Michigan, E.D. 306, Sheet B, Frank Robert household,  http://ancestry.com, subscription database, accessed February 2017.

Carol Roberts Fischer funeral home prayer card for Catharine Roberts, 1892; privately held by Carol Roberts Fischer, Hamburg, New York, USA, 2017

9 1900 U.S. Census (population schedule), Detroit, Wayne, Michigan, E.D 126, Sheet 16B, Robert Standfield household, http://ancestry.com, subscription database, accessed February 2017.

10 “Know Nothing,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org, accessed February 2017.

11 Mary Roberts Standfield (Detroit, Michigan, USA) to “Frank” (Mary’s grand-nephew, John Frank Roberts), letter, unknown date; after 1901; privately held by Carol Roberts Fischer, Hamburg, New York, USA, 2017.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2017

Thank Goodness for Godparents! Researching my Ancestors’ FANS, Part II

In my last post, I wrote about using Elizabeth Shown Mills’ FAN principle with an emphasis on godparents, as a means to extend one’s family history research in the absence of direct evidence.  As Mills defines it, “FAN” is an acronym for Friends, Associates, and Neighbors, and godparents fall squarely into that category. Previously, I had analyzed data from the Polish vital records database Geneteka, and discovered a woman named Marianna (née Naciążek) Kowalska, who might have been a cousin or sister of my great-great-grandmother, Antonina Naciążek.  To gather additional evidence to substantiate this hypothesis, I examined the godparents of Antonina’s children to see if Marianna Kowalska was named among them.  Sure enough, one of the godmothers was a Marianna Kowalska, and even given the popularity of the Kowalski surname, it seems likely that she is the same as the woman I suspect to be my great-great-grandmother’s sister (or cousin, at least), under the circumstances.

This kind of analysis can also be used in reverse, to suggest a possible mother’s maiden name, which is what I’d like to illustrate today.  A few years ago I was working on my Schulmerich line which I had traced back to Hillesheim, Mainz-Bingen, Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany.  Records are on microfilm from the LDS, but they’re also indexed and searchable online at Family Search.  I had worked my way back to my 5x-great-grandparents, Johann Georg Schulmerich and Anna Margaretha Appelmann, who were married in 1797 (Figure 1):

Figure 1:  Marriage record from Hillesheim (kr. Oppenheim) for Johann Georg Schulmerich and Anna Margaretha Appelmann, 5 July 1797.1j-georg-schulmerich-am-appelmann-1797

In translation, this reads, “July.  On the 5th day of this [month] were married the honorable widower Georg Schulberich, townsman residing in Hillesheim, with the honorable, upright maiden Anna Margaretha Appelmaenn, surviving daughter of the late townsman Michael Appelmann. [The marriage was] blessed by the Most Reverend Pastor of the parish in Hilsheim before the congregation and in the presence of required witnesses.”

As you can see, the parents of Georg Schulmerich are not mentioned.  The record indicates that he was married previously, however, which is a valuable clue.  Perhaps his first marriage record contains his parents’ names?  A search of indexed records at Family Search suggests that Georg’s first wife was Apollonia Weber, as there are a number of birth records for children of Georg Schulmerich and Apollonia Weber that can be found in the parish records for Weinolsheim, just 5 km north of Hillesheim.  Unfortunately, no marriage record for Georg and Apollonia was found in any of the indexed records on Family Search, nor was I able to find one in the microfilmed records for Weinolsheim that the indexers might have missed.

Lacking a marriage record, we can still estimate that Georg Schulmerich married Apollonia Weber circa 1786-1787, since existing birth records suggest that their oldest child was their daughter Anna Maria, and Georg and Apollonia were already “conjuges legitimi” (lawfully married spouses) by the time she was born in October 1787 (Figure 2).2

Figure 2:  Baptismal record from Hillesheim for Anna Maria Schulmerich, born 4 (?) October 1787.2anna-maria-schulmerich-1787

Assuming that Georg was at least 18 when he married, and probably a few years old than that, this suggests a birth year between about 1761 and 1768.  Lo, and behold!  There’s a birth record that fits perfectly for Johann Georg Schulmerich in in the records of Hillesheim in 1766 (Figure 3).

Figure 3:  Baptismal record for Johann Georg Schulmerich, baptized 21 December 1766 in Hillesheim.3johann-georg-schulmerich-1766

In translation, this record reads, “[On] 27th December in Hillesheim was baptized Johann Georg, [son of] the lawful spouses Philipp and Margaretha Schulmerich, [who was] lifted up by Johann Georg Lindhoff.”  The word “levabet” that appears in this record is presumably a misspelling of “levavit,” meaning, “lifted up.”  This is a reference to the child’s godfather, who lifts him out of the waters of the baptismal font during the sacrament of baptism.  The record even includes Johann Georg’s death date, 20 March 1836, in the marginal note.  This is another valuable clue because it suggests that the Johann Georg Schulmerich who was baptized here, remained in the parish until his death, which is consistent with what we know of “my” Johann Georg Schulmerich.

For those who might not be familiar with German genealogy, it’s worth mentioning that the difference in the names used on the marriage and baptismal records, “Georg” on the marriage vs. “Johann Georg” on the baptismal, is not cause for concern.  According to German tradition, it was common for all the boys in a family to be  baptized with the first name Johann, and then called by their middle name (see this article for more details).  So although the names on the records are not a problem, and the date of baptism fits with what we’d expect for “our” Johann Georg Schulmerich, there is still the problem of no maiden name for Margaretha Schulmerich.  Maybe it’s recorded on the birth record of one of their other children?

A search in the indexed records at Family Search for children of Philipp Schulmerich and Margaretha, no maiden name specified, results in four birth records, which are summarized in Figure 4.

Figure 4:  Summary of Information Recorded in Baptismal Records for Children of Philipp and Margaretha Schulmerich.

baptism-summary-table

From this, we can guess that Philipp and Margaretha Elisabeth were married circa 1765-1766, since Johann Georg appears to be their oldest child.  Although the spacing of births is typical, the relatively small number of children suggests that Margaretha died young, assuming that she was in her late teens or early 20s when she began having children.  Once again, a search of the indexed records for the Rhinehessen region on FamilySearch failed to produce Philipp and Margaretha’s marriage record or a death record for either of them, nor were these found in a subsequent search of microfilmed records. However, the fact that Johann Georg remained in the parish, as did his sister Anna Elisabeth, suggests an error or omission on the part of the priest keeping the records, rather than a migration out of the area.

So, is this the end of the line?  Can we learn anything more about this family? Of course we can! Note that two of the godmothers had the maiden name Hausmann, and one was a Schulmerich.  The godmother, Maria Magdalena Schulmerich, might have been either a sister or sister-in-law to Philipp, but the sparsely available records from this time period offer no insight there. However, a search for Anna Elisabeth Hausmann’s birth record turns up a promising candidate:  one Anna Elisabeth Hausmann, born in 1744 in Hillesheim (Figure 5).

Figure 5:  Baptismal record for Anna Elisabeth Hausmann, baptized 30 October 1744 in Hillesheim.7anna-elisabetha-hausmann-1744

In translation, this states, “On the 30th day of October in Hillesheim was baptized Anna Elisabeth, legitimate daughter of the spouses Nicolaus and Christina Haussmann, [she was] lifted up by Anna Elisabeth Schad.”

Nicolaus and Christina Hausmann!  Might there be more records for their children, and might these records include evidence for a daughter named Margaretha Elisabetha?  Since her oldest son, Johann Georg Schulmerich, was born in 1766, we can guess that Margaretha would have been born circa 1746.  And voilà!  The FamilySearch index shows nine births to Nicolaus and Christina Haussmann including the births of daughters Margaretha Elisabetha in 1743 (Figure 6) and Maria Charlotta, who was noted as the godmother of Maria Charlotta Schulmerich.

Figure 6:  Baptismal record for Margaretha Elisab. Haussmann, baptized 2 January 1743 in Hillesheim.8margaretha-elisabetha-hausmann-1743

 

In translation, this record reads, “On the 2nd day of January in Hillesheim was baptized Margaretha Elisab., legitimate daughter of the spouses Nicolaus and Christina Haussmann, [she was] lifted up by Margaretha Rudolf, single.”

Taken all together, this is pretty good indirect evidence that Margaretha Elisabeth Haussmann, daughter of Nicolaus and Christina, was the wife of Johann Georg Schulmerich.  Paying attention to the names of the godparents paid off, and I was able to push the family tree back one more generation.  It should be noted that this information is only available when one views the images of the parish register on microfilm — the FamilySearch index does not include godparents’ names.  This is one of many reasons why one should never rely solely on the information found in an online index, which is a common rookie mistake.  So the next time you think you’ve hit a brick wall with researching your Catholic ancestors, take a look at the list of people they asked to be godparents to their children.  You just might find some clues in there!

Sources:

Roman Catholic Church (Nieder Saulheim [Kr. Oppenheim], Mainz-Bingen, Rheinhessen, Germany), “Kirchenbuch, 1756-1797,” 1797, Marriage record for Georgius Schulberich and Anna Margaretha Appelmaenn.; FHL Film #997333 Item 2.

Roman Catholic Church (Weinolsheim [Kr. Oppenheim], Mainz-Bingen, Rheinhessen, Germany), “Kirchenbuch, 1740-1876,” Baptisms, 1787, record for Anna Maria Schulmerich.; FHL Film #949088.

Roman Catholic Church (Weinolsheim [Kr. Oppenheim], Mainz-Bingen, Rheinhessen, Germany), “Kirchenbuch, 1740-1876,” 1766, Baptisms, record for Johannes Georgius Schulmerich; FHL Film #949088.

Roman Catholic Church (Weinolsheim [Kr. Oppenheim], Mainz-Bingen, Rheinhessen, Germany), “Kirchenbuch, 1740-1876,” Baptisms, 1768, record for Anna Elisabetha Schulmerich; FHL Film #949088.

5 Roman Catholic Church (Weinolsheim [Kr. Oppenheim], Mainz-Bingen, Rheinhessen, Germany), “Kirchenbuch, 1740-1876,” 1770, Baptisms, record for Maria Magdalena Schulmerich; FHL Film #949088.

Roman Catholic Church (Weinolsheim [Kr. Oppenheim], Mainz-Bingen, Rheinhessen, Germany), “Kirchenbuch, 1740-1876,” 1773, Baptisms, record for Maria Charlotta Schulmerich; FHL Film #949088.

Roman Catholic Church (Weinolsheim [Kr. Oppenheim], Mainz-Bingen, Rheinhessen, Germany), “Kirchenbuch, 1740-1876,” 1744, Baptisms, record for Anna Elisabetha Haussman; FHL Film #949088.

Roman Catholic Church (Weinolsheim [Kr. Oppenheim], Mainz-Bingen, Rheinhessen, Germany), “Kirchenbuch, 1740-1876,” 1743, Baptisms, record for Margaretha Elisab. Haussmann; FHL Film #949088.

Featured Image:  Pietro Longhi, The Baptism, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, accessed on 11 January 2017.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2017