Interesting Facts and Myths about Ellis Island


Although Ellis Island is now a mere relic of the past, Ellis Island facts, figures, and myths continue to fascinate people today. This fascination is likely because Ellis Island served as the port of entry for millions of people during one of the largest migration periods in the history of the world.

If you and your parents were born in the United States, then there’s a fair chance that one of your ancestors passed through Ellis Island en route to his or her new home.

In other words, not only is Ellis Island an important chapter in American history, it could be an important chapter in your own family history as well.

Learn a little bit about what your ancestor experienced with the following list of facts and myths about Ellis Island. Then see if FamilySearch can help you find his or her immigration records.  

1. Immigration officials at Ellis Island likely changed my ancestor’s name to make it sound more American.

This is a myth. Immigration officials at Ellis Island rarely wrote anything down—in terms of names, that is. They merely asked the immigrants the same questions that the immigrant had to answer for the ship’s manifest before the voyage ever began. The purpose was to confirm the immigrant’s identity and his or her reasons for entering the country.

So who changed the name? Very likely it was the immigrant himself or herself—to fit in better with neighbors or perhaps to help people pronounce the name more accurately. But this change would have happened later on.  

immigrants wait on benches at ellis island.

2. Nearly everyone living in the United States of American today has an ancestor who passed through Ellis Island.

This, of course, is a myth. Ellis Island was in operation only from 1892 until 1954. So if your ancestor came before 1892 or after 1954, then he or she most certainly arrived and entered the country somewhere else.

With that said, experts estimate that somewhere between 33 and 40 percent of all Americans have an ancestor who came to the United States through the immigration offices at Ellis Island.

3. Standing in line at Ellis Island to enter America was a long and arduous ordeal.

This statement is partly true and partly a myth, depending on your definition of “long.” Most immigrants passed through Ellis Island in 3–5 hours. When it was their turn at the clerk’s desk, immigrants were asked a series of questions about their intentions. Then they were examined by a doctor. While it’s true that those who failed the doctor’s examination were detained and possibly sent back to Europe, the doctor’s examination lasted, on average, only about six seconds.

immigrants wait in line at ellis island.

4. Everyone who arrived in New York from Europe during this period passed through Ellis Island.

This is a myth. People who traveled first or second class unloaded before Ellis Island and passed through a special immigration facility—a customized customs office, if you will, for those with money—very, very quickly.

Members of the lower class—passengers from the ship’s steerage—were typically sent to Ellis Island for processing.

buildings at ellis island.

5. Ellis Island got its nickname, “The Island of Tears,” from having so many people turned away and sent back to Europe.

Again, this is partly true and partly a myth. Failing any of the examinations at Ellis Island was certainly a cause for tears. But only 2 percent of the people who came were ultimately turned back. For 98 percent of the immigrants who arrived, Ellis Island was quite literally the island of hope.

6. My ancestor’s immigration records can lead me to incredible discoveries about my family history.

a young immigrant girl

This last statement is definitely true! Your ancestor’s immigration records are historical treasures—for you, your children, and anyone you are related to. They symbolize a pivotal moment of sacrifice, endurance, and optimism from your family’s history.

Such records might also contain information about your ancestor that you wouldn’t be able to obtain from any other source—details about his or her occupation, appearance, homeland, and even relatives.

A trio of free FamilySearch databases allows you to search Ellis Island records for free. Read this article by FamilySearch to learn more, or visit the databases directly by clicking the links below:

The subject of this article and some of its material was taken from Kathy Tarullo's class, “Ellis Island: Myths and Truths ,” at the 2019 BYU Conference on Family History and Genealogy.

The BYU Conference on Family History and Genealogy is held annually and offers classes for genealogists and others wanting to learn about their ancestors. Keep an eye on the BYU conference page for announcements about next year’s schedule and when registration opens.

Read More from 2019 BYU Genealogy Conference Archives

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