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Changing Italian Surnames at Ellis Island

We've all heard at least one story about an ancestor changing their name or the spelling of their surname after their arrival in America. In fact, many family legends have incorrectly attributed these name changes to mistakes made by "officials at Ellis Island who didn't understand what great grandpa was saying". Well — for those of you who are descendants of Italian immigrants, you may find the following article interesting and a partial explaination of why your ancestor may have been motivated to alter their Italian surname.

The following is transcribed as it appeared on page 14 of the New York Times, April 27, 1890. This was less than two years before Ellis Island opened and the flood of Italian immigrants came pouring into the United States.



    Watson C. Squire, Senator from Washington, made his first appearance in Castle Garden yesterday at the hearings of the sub-committee of the Joint Congressional Committee on Immigration, of which he is a member. Chairman Owen and Congressman Stump were also in attendance.

    George H. Simonds, a Castle Garden missionary, testified that the immigrants suffering the greatest hardships were those above the level of common laborers, who were not physically able to cope with the others. John Offermann, book-keeper of a Mission House at 27 State Street, and the Rev. Father Reuland of the German Catholic Mission House at 6 State Street, testified to the methods of running their mission houses. There were no bars connected with these houses, but there were chapels where the immigrants could worship twice a day.

    John J. Simpson, Landing Superintendent of the Bureau of Emigration, testified that he had referred 1,500 immigrants for final inspection to the Commissioners. Of these, 600 were ordered to be returned. Sixty per cent of those returned were women. Mr. Simpson had found 280 Scotch immigrants last Spring bound for Boston to get employment as stonecutters. He detained them, and they protested against the detention, saying that they would not live in this country, and that they had been coming here for ten years, working through the season and returning to Scotland when it ended. Mr. Simpson regarded the Italians, Hungarians, and Slovacks as the most undesirable immigrants. Daniel Hamilton, a boarding house keeper at 2 Front Street, testified that he ran a bar in connection with his establishment, but said that his bar receipts were not more than $10 per day, of which sum $6 came from selling postage stamps. The commission smiled broadly at this statement.

    Henry Rice, President of the United Hebrew Charities, testified that 25,000 Hebrew immigrants had come here on an average during the past four years. Seventeen thousand of these were Russians and Poles. He thought that a medical inspection of all immigrants should be made, and widows with four or five minor children should not be permitted to land, as they quickly became charges. There were not more than 500,000 Hebrews in the United States, of whom 130,000 were in New-York City.

    Arthur Reichow, Manager of the Free Employment Bureau of the United Hebrew Charities, said that few Hebrew immigrants come here without money. The bureau had furnished employment during the past year to 2,335 Hebrew immigrants, representing 154 different occupations. Police Justice Charles N. Taintor testified that he had formerly been President of the Bureau of Emigration, and that in his six years' service as a member of the board he had noticed a marked falling off of English-speaking immigrants and an increase of Italians and Slavs. The influx of a vast horde of ignorant foreigners without money or baggage was not conducive to the morals of the country. He thought there should be a more explicit definition of the powers of the Emigration Bureau, to prevent the landing of immigrants. The class of prohibited immigrants should be enlarged, and an immigrant assisted by any one of whom he had no natural dependence should be excluded. More time should be given to the inspection of immigrants on arrival, and steamship companies should be penalized for importing improper immigrants.

    William W. Vaughn, official stenographer of the First District Court of New-York City, was examined with regard to the case of Capri against Marticelli, wherein the plaintiff sought to recover $80 paid to the defendant for obtaining work in the Street-Cleaning Department for two Italians, who were discharged within a month after appointment. The object of the testimony was to show that such a practice obtained in New-York.

    The Rev. Axel B. Lilja, a Lutheran missionary of seven years' experience in Castle Garden, testified that his mission was supported by voluntary contributions by people in the West, chiefly farmers of Minnesota. The witness dealt chiefly with Scandinavians, who were always desirable immigrants. They brought an average of $75 each with them, and many of them had as much as $7,000 on landing. Seventy-five per cent of them were men, and they were generally farmers. A large majority of these immigrants went directly West and engaged in farming.

    John W. Keogh testified that he had been connected with the Bureau of Public Works since 1883. He had had much experience with Italian laborers and entered into a minute explanation of the system of sub-letting public contracts to padrones. Four-fifths of the laborers employed by the Department of Public Works in the city of New-York were Italians, who held their places by reason of the padrone sub-contract system. They had driven all other laborers from that field, because no other people could compete with them in the cheapness of labor. The headquarters of all the padrones throughout the United States was situated in New-York City, whence Italian laborers were sent out in droves all over the country. These immigrants worked more cheaply than machinery. They spent absolutely nothing in the country, and finally took their savings back to Italy. The witness thought that no contract labor law could be more effective. He favored a head tax of $25 for all males over twenty-one years, and thought that an oath of citizenship on landing would be a good thing, every one refusing to take it to be sent back to the country from which he had come.

    E. L. Ridgway, President of the Board of Emigration, testified that he had held that position since last July and that he believed immigration was growing steadily worse. He regarded the Russians and Italians as the most undesirable immigrants. He believed that there should be further restrictions on immigration, and suggested a closer co-operation between the Federal Government and that of individual States. Immigration should be regulated on the principle of supply and demand. The State Governments should ascertain when immigrants were needed and should inform the Federal Government. The latter in turn should instruct its agents abroad and these should inform the people, with whom they were located, of the true state of affairs. The Consuls should also ascertain the character and condition of the immigrants about to sail, at least thirty days before sailing, and advise the home Governments. The witness also favored an annual tax on aliens living and working here without intending to become citizens. Any excess of immigration above the absorbing power of the labor market was bad. The witness believed that at least 75 per cent of the people receiving charity in the city of New-York were foreign born. The last witness was Col. John B. Weber, United States Superintendent of Immigration. He said that he had been in office only a week, and did not care to make any suggestions.

    The committee adjourned to meeting in Washington at the call of the Chairman. Mr. Owen said that there were some points which the committee desired to investigate further, and that it would probably come back here at some future time to hold another hearing.

(Source: New York Times, April 27, 1890, page 14)

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