The Persistence of Myth

Your family’s name was not changed at Ellis Island. And yet, again and again, the response to that factual statement is a retort of “well, in my family it was.” I understand. No one wants to call their grandparent a liar.

  • Grandpa said his grandpa was called Schwartz and now our name is Black. It was changed at Ellis Island.
  • Grandma said our name was Weiss and now it’s White. They were given that name on color day at Ellis Island.

I’ll tell you what is black and white – records. The documents have the facts, which are not always the same as the oral history. Previously, I documented the evolution of the surname on my paternal side. Let’s break down the myth again looking at my maternal line.

Growing up, I was told that this document was my great-grandfather’s steamship ticket – in reality it is an inspection card. The inspection card, issued to immigrants and steerage passengers, was filled out in Southampton, England. It bears the stamp of the US Consulate in Southampton.[1]1904 Gotcher inspection card

This little card provides multiple points for cross-referencing:

  • the ticket number (upper right – 20600)
  • the ship and date of departure
  • last residence
  • page of the ship manifest (stamped “AA”)
  • number on the page AA of the ship manifest (5)

and, of course, the name in the center – Solomon Gotcher. That’s not his signature. This was filled out for him. How do I know it’s not his signature? Other documents required his signature, such as his Declaration of Intention to become a US citizen.[2]

1917 Dec of Int sig

But this signature says “Solomon Ketcher” not “Solomon Gotcher.” How did the name change happen?

A look at the ship manifest[3] shows a mirror of the inspection card. Solomon Gotcher appears on sheet AA, line 5, with the ticket number 20600 penciled in. That’s not his signature, either.

1904 Gotcher St Paul Manifest

How did Solomon get from Gotcher to Ketcher? Well, it was more of a return. In February of 1904, Solomon married in Daugavpils, Latvia.[4] The surname, written in Cyrillic, Кацерь, is underlined. It transliterates to “Katsher,” which is pretty close to Ketcher. And it has nothing to do with Ellis Island, or baseball.

1904 Dvinsk marriage

Resources on Inspection Cards:

More resources on name changes that never happened:

[1] A faded stamp to the right shows he passed inspection in New York.

[2] US District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, Declaration of Intentions. Vol 40 p365, 1917 Solomon Ketcher, Declaration 18469, citing St Louis County Library Film 68, FHL Film 1749653.

[3] New York Passenger Arrival Lists (Ellis Island), 1892-1924, database with images, FamilySearch, Roll 473, vol 928-929, 2 Jul 1904-5 Jul 1904; citing NARA publications T715 and M237.

[4] Latvijas Valsts Vēstures Arhīvs, Rīga. Latvijas Ebreju Rabinātu Metriku Grāmatas. Fond 5054, Apraksts 2, Lieta 276, page 15, entry 35.

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