The Ellis Island Myth on the Genealogy Roadshow


The PBS series “Genealogy Roadshow” is the same as only different from “Who Do You Think You Are?”.  The refreshing premise is that professional genealogists are working for average people who are looking for genealogical answers: Am I descended from Ponce de Leon? Am I related to George Washington, Abraham Lincoln or any famous or infamous person?


“Who Do You Think You Are?” (WDYTYA) is a very entertaining show.  Famous personalities who jet off to Barcelona as easily as I go to Home Depot.  OK, I can accept that.  They live in their world and I live in mine.  The upside of this all is that the stories are compelling.


“Genealogy Roadshow” is equally entertaining and equally compelling.  And it’s the opposite: Famous person to average ancestors versus average person to famous ancestors.


I was a bit taken aback when Joshua Taylor‘s comments about the Ellis Island myth seemed to substantiate that people’s names were changed at Ellis Island.  The simple answer is that they were not.  Joshua attributes the way his comments came across to editing.  Here’s a link to his blog on the subject.  He states here what I’ve already learned and what I say to people who seem to have the name-changed-at-Ellis-Island syndrome.  The manifests were written in the country of origin and, for the most part,  WHERE THE LANGUAGE WAS SPOKEN.  Most of the documents that were used at Ellis Island were handled by people who were familiar with those languages.  Did anyone’s name change? Absolutely.  Was it a capricious act by a government official who was too lackadaisical to “get it right”? Absolutely NOT!  Were there spelling errors? Absolutely.  Did the immigrant him- or herself make the change? More than likely.

English: Ellis Island's Immigrant Landing Stat...

English: Ellis Island’s Immigrant Landing Station, February 24, 1905. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Consider someone of Eastern European origin with a name that was profoundly unpronounceable by a native born citizen.  How could that person even begin to be accepted in a community, get a place to live in that community and most importantly, get a job?  Were some (or many) of these folks illiterate?  Sure.  Did it make a big difference to them if their name was misspelled?  Probably not.   Did Wojzonowska become Waters? Maybe!


So Joshua Taylor does a little bit of a walk-back which I’m glad he did.  As I watched the Roadshow and heard Joshua, I said to myself, “What???”


At least he cleared it up.  Good for you Joshua!



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2 thoughts on “The Ellis Island Myth on the Genealogy Roadshow

  1. I, too, wondered about that Ellis Island comment. I’m glad they corrected it. I’m also glad they have started to state the degree of relationship between the average person and the famous person. This week one woman was related to Ponce de Leon, but 15 generations removed. That puts the whole situation in a better perspective. On the first show they didn’t explain the degree of relationship


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