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• Immigration officials at Ellis Island had to process an average of 5,000 people per day and for them processing people simply became a numbers game.

• Also be aware that immigrants often could not spell their own name. Many errors passed through the system (in addition to the usual problems of misspelling that occur in old documents).

• Immigrants who arrived with proper documentation (such as a passport, as shown below) were much less likely to have spelling issues. 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.

ellis island passport
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. It also generally makes it easier to trace your ancestors. Source: Library of Congress

• 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).

• Many 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.

ellis island immigrants
Some immigrants had strong reasons for wanting to hide their past. This is more common than you might think. This unfortunately also makes it hard to trace your ancestor back to the old country. One potential clue that you might be dealing with this type of situation is if your ancestor has the name of a famous person or a famous aristrocat from the old country. It might have been the only last name they could think of when the immigration officers asked for a name.

• Another reason immigrants masked their identity was 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.

• Some Americans 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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