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Surname changes in genealogy

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How many times have you heard the line: My ancestor had his name changed at Ellis Island? This is one of the most common myths (along with the three brothers story and the Indian princess story) in genealogy.

Scenario 1

An Irish man came to the United States and “at Ellis Island changed his last name to Green.” The family didn’t know what the original name was or why it may have changed. Tracing the family through the censuses, however, showed the immigrant claimed he arrived in 1888, four years before Ellis Island became an immigration station (1892-1954).

Ellis Island was the most well-known and busiest immigration station in the country. Before that, immigrants arriving in New York were processed at Castle Garden from 1855 to 1890. On the northeast and mid-Atlantic coast, other popular ports were Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Boston—in addition to Canadian border crossings. Ellis Island, however, marked the 1890 transition when the federal government took control of immigration and inspection.

When people disembarked from a ship, they were greeted by an immigration officer who spoke the same language, or were sent to one who did. That officer had the original ship manifest in his hands and checked off the names—which were written when the people boarded the ship in the first place—as the passengers shuffled through his station. He did not misinterpret what someone said and wrote down something totally different, declaring “from now on your name will be Smith.” Besides the checkmarks, you’ll see the American immigration officer’s notations on the ship manifests, sometimes telling the story of immigrants who were ill upon arrival and ended up in the immigration hospital or the ones who were deported for communicable diseases or political views or mental illness.

It’s quite possible that the Irish immigrant decided to switch his name to Green (and lose his Irish brogue) after seeing anti-Irish signs in windows (“Help Wanted. No Irish Need Apply”), which would diminish his prospects. Since he became a naturalized citizen, if the immigrant did change his name shortly after coming to this country, his naturalization papers would show his original name and alias because he needed to prove his arrival date and length of residency. From naturalization papers, obituaries, and possibly the Irish immigrant’s gravestone, the family may be able to gather enough clues to cross the Atlantic to do research in Ireland.

Scenario 2

Other people may have changed their names to sound more American or to break away from the past and start a new life. The surname of one Charlton family, who came from Italy in 1904, changed over time. You could see the surname’s evolution when you put records in order by date. Sometime after the deaths of two young daughters in 1908, the family used the new surname. Why it was chosen is a mystery. The name could have stemmed from a city in Italy, but not the one connected to the family’s known origins. But it also could have come from a shortened but jumbled version of the original surname. The spelling of both the immigrant name and the American name was inconsistent in early records, probably because the record taker was not Italian speaking and the family was not yet fluent in English.

At first thought, perhaps the surname changed because the husband was a notorious adulterer. (It was even a story in the local newspaper!) But that didn’t explain why his brother and family, who arrived in 1910, changed their surname too. Although it’s a stereotype, the name change could be an attempt to hide from the criminal element in the States or to cover up the family background in the mother country.

Scenario 3

A first-generation American living in Taunton officially changed his surname several years after his marriage in the 1930s. With almost a quarter of the population from Portugal or the Azores, the city had so many families using the same Portuguese surname that they had aliases or descriptions added to their names to tell them apart. He adopted the surname of the family he lived with, which people already used as his alias. His name change was recorded in the court house.

Be wary of family stories that start with a name change at Ellis Island, but dig deep and you may be able to uncover whether and why a surname was changed.

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