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They Changed Our Name at Ellis Island

by Donna Przecha
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How Spellings Really Changed
In this article, expert Donna Przecha dispels some common myths about name-changing at various points of immigration.

We have all heard someone say that their family name was "changed by the inspectors at Ellis Island." Nowadays our names are recorded when we are born and are virtually never changed. You can still use any name you want as long as you do not intend to defraud but, in fact, with drivers' licenses, social security numbers, credit cards, etc., it is just too complicated to try to alter your name except through a court proceeding.

People seem to feel that it was the same way at the turn of the century. They think that immigrants had one correct way to spell their name in the old country, when they encountered the clerk at Ellis Island it was changed to something else and then it was spelled that way ever after in America. The explanation usually is that the immigrant spoke little or no English, so either the immigrant inadvertently gave an incorrect reply to the question of "What is your name?" or the clerk misunderstood the name or decided it was too complicated.

In reality, it is highly unlikely that this happened. The Immigration and Naturalization Service has a good article on immigrant name changes that explains why this wonderful story is a myth: the clerks at Ellis Island didn't write down names. They worked from lists that were created by the shipping companies. What usually happened was the emigrant bought a ticket from an office near his home. So, the seller probably spoke the same language and transcribed the name correctly. In cases where the name was recorded incorrectly, it likely occurred in the old country, not at Ellis Island.

There are several questions to consider when talking about the accuracy of name spellings on records:

  1. When the record was created, was there a standard ("correct") way to spell the name?

  2. Did the individual know how to spell the name himself? (Was he literate?)

  3. If he did not write the name himself, did the recording clerk ask him his preferred spelling?

So much of the time, the answer to at least one of these questions was "no." However, let us assume that your emigrant knew how to spell his name and it was written correctly on the list created by the shipping company and used by the inspectors at Ellis Island. When he arrived at Ellis Island, he was checked against the list. With all the immigrants coming through the facility, many translators were employed so language problems were rare.

Bear in mind that name changes were often made by the immigrants themselves. Let's see what some of those possible reasons are.

Employment

The vast majority of immigrants came to the United States to get jobs. There was a huge pool of workers, usually unskilled, who were desperate to work. Employers didn't have to abide by anti-discriminatory laws and were not given sensitivity training. They often found foreign names difficult and preferred workers who were somewhat Americanized. If an immigrant had family or friends who arrived earlier they may have advised the new arrival to take an easier, more Americanized name. Similarly, a boss may have found the foreign name too difficult to say and suggested a simpler name (he might say, for example, "That name is too difficult for me. How about I call you Sam?"). The new employee didn't object and he may have just decided to use the new name for everything. And, since wages were usually paid in cash, he didn't have to worry about a name on a check being the same as the bank account or a Social Security investigation.

While a new arrival might quickly choose a simpler name in order to get a job, he might later have second thoughts and choose yet another one. For example, he might have selected "John" originally because it was the first American name that came to mind. However, after being in the United States for a while he might learn that his foreign name actually had an equivalent in English and decide it would be more accurate to use that name.

Fitting In

Assimilating into American culture is another reason why your ancestors might have changed their names. While some immigrants came with the idea of working for a while and returning home, most came to stay forever. Many wanted to become Americans as fast as possible so they changed their style of clothes and adopted a more American name.

The immigrants who came as children were especially eager to assimilate. With their friends at school urging them to modernize their names, they may not have wanted to be saddled with an old-fashioned sounding name.

Simplicity

Also consider that even if an immigrant wasn't pressured into making a change, a foreign name can be annoying when you have to spell it for everyone. (I know from personal experience!) If the immigrant lived where most people spoke the same language, it wasn't a problem. But if he had to mix with other nationalities regularly, he would have an incentive to change.

Similarly, the naming custom from the old country might have been totally foreign to America. For example, the Norwegians used the patronymic system whereby a child's surname was based on his or her father's first name. If a man named Lars Pederson had a son named Anders, he was called Anders Larson. A daughter named Anna would be Anna Larsdatter and would use this name even after she married. In America this was too complicated so when she married a man named Ole Swenson, she simply became Anna Swenson. However, in correspondence with the people back in Norway, she would probably continue to sign herself Anna Larsdatter. (Read more about Norwegian naming customs.)

Types of Changes

In the United States around 1900, there were no rules about names so immigrants could alter their names, first or last, any way they wanted. For example,

  • One of the easiest changes was to simplify the pronunciation and spelling. So, the German "Nüchter" could get rid of the un-American umlaut and change the sound to one more familiar to English speaking people, ending up with "Nichter."

  • A name with too many syllables might be shortened.

  • Combinations of letters not usually used in America — especially those with lots of z's — could be modified so the sound was similar.

  • A completely different, English name might be adopted.

  • A person with a long name such as "Finkelstein" might shorten it to "Finkel" or "Stein."

  • People might pick a given name that is very American and sounds somewhat like their original name. For example, the Japanese "Tamio" could become "Tommy."

One thing to note is that immigrants often used two given names during their lives: an Americanized name for outsiders and the original foreign name within the family. The possibility for confusion could arise when it wasn't clear if an occasion was public or private. For example a wedding was a family celebration, so a person would feel comfortable using his foreign-sounding name. However, filing for a marriage license was a public event in an Anglo setting so the immigrant might feel he should use the American name. He might end up being recorded in church under the foreign name and in public records under his American name.

Literal Translation

Another way of coping with awkward names is a literal translation. The German "Schneider" could be literally translated to "Taylor." "Schwarz" would become "Black." The family of Prince Philip of England translated its name from the German "Battenberg" to the English "Mountbatten." Most first names had commonly accepted translations so there was usually an equivalent available without thinking about it. However, in some cases the literal translation might go from an impossible foreign name to a very ugly English name that no one really wanted to use. "Waclawek" might translate to the English "Wenceslaus" but that wouldn't help too much. The immigrant might find "Walter" a better substitute. "Lukrecia" might translate to "Lucretia" but a young girl might find "Lotty" or "Laurie" to be more to her taste. Similarly, "Waldek" is translated into English as "Oswald" or "Valdemar" but a man might prefer "Wally," "Walter" or even "Victor."

Sometimes a name could have two different translations. The Polish "Wojciech" could be "Albert" or "George." It is possible that at different times one man could have used all three names. Not knowing his preference of the moment, it is necessary to look for all three variations when you are searching records. (You also have to keep in mind that a "w" in Polish is pronounced like a "v" so "Wojciech" could end up being recorded as "Voychek!")

Whimsical Reasons

There are also hundred of stories about how immigrants picked names for purely whimsical reasons. The INS gives the example of a young Vietnamese man who changed his name to "Bonus" because when he first arrived he would buy "bonus paks" of chewing gum to get him through his busy day of working several jobs and studying English.

It is also possible that an immigrant might change his name to match some obscure happening in his life that later descendants knew nothing about: the name of the street where he first lived, a person he read about in the paper, a village back home, a relative, a new American food he liked. Girls, especially, might admire a film star or singer and adopt that name.

Imagine that you were going into the witness protection program tomorrow and had to decide on your new name. Where would you start? You would want a name that sounded pleasing to you, one that you felt comfortable with. If you were blonde, you probably wouldn't want a Greek sounding name nor would an African-American choose an Asian-sounding name. As a first name you might pick one you always admired. Or, you might select a relative's name or a movie star's. A last name would be more difficult — perhaps a mother's maiden name or a town, river or mountain name. You might begin looking around you and trying out names of trees, birds or animals. Selecting a new name is not an easy thing to do!

Consequences

Name changes can have unforeseen consequences. For example, since everyone was free to use the name he or she preferred, some families would end up with different last names. Since foreign-born children derived their citizenship from their parents, the diversity of names sometimes caused problems later when the child had to prove the identity of his father. The INS web site has several letters from people who wanted to reassume their original name or change it to correspond with the rest of their family.

Who Changed Your Name? Your Ancestor

If your family name underwent a change in America, you can be pretty certain that the only person responsible for the modification was your ancestor, not an inspector at Ellis Island! And, it is important to remember that the name may have evolved over time. Keep this in mind as you hunt for your immigrant ancestor in the records of his new homeland.


About the Author
I began genealogy in 1970 when we were living in Ogden, Utah for a short time. I was immediately hooked when, on my first visit to the local Family History Center, I found my great-grandparents in the 1850 Ohio census. I have been researching ever since on my own family and for others. I soon recognized the value of computer programs for keeping track of the data. I was a founding member of the Computer Genealogy Society of San Diego and editor of the newsletter. I have written a third party manual on ROOTS III and, with Joan Lowrey, authored two guides to genealogy software. Using ROOTS III and WordPerfect, I have written several family history books for others, but have yet to stop researching long enough to complete my own family history!

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