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
There are several questions to consider when talking about the accuracy
of name spellings on records:
When the record was created, was there a standard ("correct") way
to spell the name?
Did the individual know how to spell the name himself? (Was he literate?)
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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!
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
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.