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• Also be aware that often immigrants could not spell their own name. As a result, many errors (like the one noted above) passed through the system in addition to the usual problems of misspellings that occur in old documents. Remember, immigration officials at Ellis Island had to process an average of 5,000 people per day and for them it simply became a numbers game.

• Of course, immigrants who arrived with proper documentation (such as a passport, as shown below) were much less likely to have spelling issues. In addition, even if the immigrant could not spell their own name, the name on the passport would be written by a government official from the old country who was much more likely to know how to spell it. Therefore, if possible, check to see if your ancestor travelled to Ellis Island with passports and other official documents. Knowing this fact will likely result in less spelling errors and this generally makes it easier to trace your ancestors.

Ellis Island passport
Passport of a typical immigrant who arrived at Ellis Island. (courtesy of Ellis Island)

• Some immigrants who arrived in America also deliberately masked or hide their identity. New country, new life, new name. This was typically done to hide an immediate problem from the old country (such as a criminal past or an unfortunate family situation). Basically, the immigrant did not want to bring problems with them from the old country to the new country. In fact, the reason some immigrants decided to go to America was specifically to avoid serious problems at home, such as a potential jail term.

• Sometimes immigrants masked their identity out of concern they may be rejected. In other words, they had a reason to lie. For example, indentured servitude was not allowed in the United States (and would be grounds for rejection) even though some companies in America tried to recruit people in Europe under these conditions. Basically, the company would pay for the passage to America in exchange for a couple of years of labor (this approach apparently was tried by some coal companies in Virginia according to Ellis Island officials). These immigrants were likely coached by the company that recruited them on how to lie to immigration officials. People also tried to recruit indentured servants from Europe using a similar approach. Immigration officials were on the lookout for this kind of activity and would reject immigrants based on indentured servitude.

Ellis Island hallway
This is the back hallway of Ellis Island where the problem immigrants were processed. Courts with special officials passed judgement in rooms off this hallway. If your ancestor ever saw this hallway, it was not a good sign.

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