Questioning Common Knowledge—Part I

For those of us whose ancestors came from Europe many years ago, the family often has a story explaining how their surname was changed upon coming to America.  For example: "My great-grandfather was called Rogarshevsky, but when he arrived at Ellis Island, the immigration officer couldn't understand his accent.  So he just wrote down 'Rogers,' and that became my family's name."

In the journal Azure (Summer 2010), Dara Horn makes a strong case that these stories, accepted as fact, just aren't true.  For one thing, the new immigrants encountered immigration staff who spoke their language.  The intake officers at Ellis Island had to know two or more languages.  In addition, numerous interpreters, who were fluent in the immigrants' native tongue, were available as well.  Mistakes were unlikely.

More importantly, though, "Ellis Island officers never wrote down the immigrants' names."  Instead, the inspectors used the ship's manifests, which were compiled by local officials at the point of embarkation—and these officials used passports, visas, and other identification papers to obtain a passenger's name.  A great effort was made to get the names right since a mistaken name could cause the person in question to be forcibly deported back to the point of departure at the shipping company's expense.

This is not to say that immigrants did not change their names.  They did; only later, after they arrived safely in America.  So why did these Ellis Island stories develop and achieve near-sacred status? 

The suggestion is made that the immigrants had conflicting desires.  They wanted to blend into their new country, hence the name change.  But the immigrants also sought to remain true to their heritage as well.  If the name change was considered to have been forced upon them, even if by "accident," then the the immigrants were not seen as actively denying their connection to the old country.

That received truth may not be accurate is an interesting and important concept.  We often make important decisions based on these "facts."  In upcoming newsletters we will look at how common wisdom may not be true in the political realm and the economic realm. 

Words of Wisdom

I never know how much of what I say is true.
-- Bette Midler