Myths of Ellis Island

3 years ago

Ellis Island has the mystique of being the premier port of entry for immigrants.  But many of the stories about the island have no foundation in fact.  If you think your ancestors entered the U.S. through Ellis Island, you could be right — or are you? 

Let’s explore some of the most common myths about Ellis Island and whether your ancestors likely were there.

Myth No. 1.  All immigrants to the East Coast came through Ellis Island.  Built on an island in New York Harbor, the facility began processing immigrants starting in 1892.  Destroyed by fire in 1897, it reopened in 1900. By 1924 it no longer processed immigrants.  Prior to 1892, immigrants to New York City came through a facility known as Castle Garden. Immigrants could also be processed at any U.S. port with a Customs House.

Myth No. 2.  Names were changed at Ellis Island.  No matter what you saw in “Godfather II,” this is false.  When immigrants boarded a ship to the U.S. they had to give their names and/or produce a passport along with a ticket.  Their name was then recorded on the official passenger list.  When the ship landed the passenger list was turned over to U.S. authorities, and woe betide the person who tried to use a different name to get into the country.  They were immediately turned back. Trust me, no one’s name was ever changed at Ellis Island.  If Giuseppe Verdi later became Joe Green, he did it after he landed, most likely when he was naturalized.

Myth No. 3.  Sick people weren’t allowed off the ship.  Some entire ships were indeed quarantined due to a widespread outbreak of disease onboard but most people were allowed to disembark.   There were thorough medical examinations before they were processed.  If an immigrant was ill he or she was treated at what was then a state-of-the-art hospital, part of the Ellis Island complex.  Remember in “Godfather II” when young Vito is quarantined for smallpox? The filmmakers got that right.  The hospital staff did their best to cure people so they could enter the country.  People deemed mentally defective were sent back at the ship’s expense.  This often meant separating families where some were allowed to stay and others had to return. Most of the testing to determine mental defectiveness was primitive and not medically sound.  

Myth No. 4.  It was easy to get into the U.S.  The laws for immigrants kept changing, but usually they were required to identify a contact in the U.S., possess enough money to survive, pass the medical exam, swear they weren’t anarchists, though I suspect no one ever admitted they were, and identify where they were going in the U.S.   Immigrants had to swear they hadn’t already been recruited by an employer such as a mine owner. Women traveling alone had to be met by a relative or someone respectable.  Later literacy was also a requirement.  

In my next column we’ll examine where you can find more information about your immigrant ancestors, passenger lists and naturalization records..

  Columnist Nancy Battick of Dover-Foxcroft has researched genealogy for over 30 years. She is past president of the Maine Genealogical Society, author of several genealogical articles and co-transcribed the Vital Records of Dover-Foxcroft.  Nancy holds an MA in History from UM and lives in DF with her husband, Jack, another avid genealogist. Reader emails are welcome at