(Thanks to Crestleaf family tree for sharing their blog post with us.)
You’ve probably heard this story from at least one of your family members: “Your ancestors’ names were changed by inspectors at Ellis Island.”
Though this theory behind ancestral name changes is still a popular one, there is historical evidence that tells a different tale. So why do you stumble upon so many instances of ancestral surname changes while conducting family history research? We’ve decided to debunk the mythical Ellis Island name change story and provide you with the real truth behind the name changes of your immigrant ancestors and why you may not be able to find family members in your research activities.
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Myth #1: Clerks Incorrectly Spelled Immigrant Names
One theory behind immigrant name changes is that when speaking to clerks upon their arrival to Ellis Island, your ancestors may have spoken with heavy accents that resulted in first and last name spelling errors. For example, the clerk may have spelled surname Jensen as Jenson.
Myth #2: Clerks Americanized Immigrant Names
Another theory behind the infamous tale of Ellis Island name changes is that the clerks felt they needed to change your ancestors’ names in order for them to sound more “American.” Perhaps Peeters looked too European, so the inspector wrote it as Peters instead.
Myth #3: Immigrants Couldn’t Comprehend English-Speaking Clerks
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As you likely know, some of our ancestors didn’t speak a lick of English upon arriving to the United States. Another theory expands on this subject saying that your ancestors could’ve simply given incorrect replies when the Ellis Island inspectors asked them questions regarding their names.
Maybe the inspector wrote down first name Tomas as a surname — or even spelled it Thomas.
The Truth Behind Ellis Island Name Changes
This article by the Immigration and Naturalization Service debunks these three mythical name change tales. So what’s the real story behind Ellis Island name changes of your ancestors and even famous celebrities?
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The article mentions that Ellis Island clerks weren’t actually given the job of writing down names of arriving immigrants. In fact, their job was to check names from passenger lists already created prior to your ancestors’ long journeys.
And those passenger lists could’ve been recorded incorrectly, thus containing mistakes made in their own homelands prior to traveling abroad. Another truth is that Ellis Island inspectors wouldn’t have been able to land their jobs if they didn’t first speak several languages.
So even your ancestors who spoke with heavy accents and those who didn’t understand English could still communicate rather easily with Ellis Island clerks whether they were Irish…
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The fact of the matter is, name changes did occur for various reasons, but not until after your ancestors passed through Ellis Island.
Real Reasons Your Ancestors Changed Their Names
For Employment Purposes
Your immigrant ancestors likely came to the United States to find work. Back then, anti-discriminatory laws were not in place so workers with foreign names were often overlooked if they didn’t change their names. Sometimes, they would find work, but then their bosses would change their names so they were simpler to pronounce.
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To Look and Sound More “American”
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Some immigrants came to the United States to make money only to eventually return to their homelands, but most wanted to stay in America for good. And those that did stay often felt inadequate to their American-born peers and Americanized their names themselves to fit in with the crowd.
Most of Your Ancestors Weren’t Literate
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Prior to the late 1800s most of our ancestors couldn’t read or write. Literacy wasn’t even widespread in the United States until the 20th century. In fact, as long as a written word was able to communicate a message, it didn’t matter if the spelling was off — only pronunciation and sound were taken into consideration back in the day. That means your immigrant ancestors themselves “misspelled” their own names quite frequently. And if they were completely illiterate, a lot of times a literate non-family member would record vital information without ever asking how to spell a name. This resulted in different variations of surnames in civil records, church records, census records and wills.
For Simplicity’s Sake
Think about it. If your Russian ancestors with the last name Vokov had to constantly spell their name for their peers, it would get quite frustrating. Oftentimes when an immigrant encountered difficulties with this, they would change their name. So, your Vokov ancestors could’ve changed their last name to Wolf — the literal meaning of this Russian surname.
Because of these constant name changes, it’s likely resulted in some genealogy brick walls when you’re trying to research your family’s history. Even back when the name changes occurred, they created some problems within the family. For example, too many different last names would end up in one family making it hard for those who later had to prove their relation to birth parents and other family members.
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Other Popular Reasons for “Incorrect” Names
Other reasons for incorrect names include your ancestors using:
- A fictitious name
- The name of another person
- The surname of the stepfather instead of the natural father
- The surname of a putative father in the case of an illegitimate child
- A nickname
- The name used because of foreign custom, such as the given name of the father (with or
without prefix or suffix) for the surname, the name of the farm, or some other name formulated by foreign custom
- The maiden name instead of the married name
- The maiden name of the mother instead of the father’s surname
Tips on Finding Alternate Surname Spellings
If you’ve been unable to find certain ancestors due to name changes, try some of the following tips:
- Search different spellings of your ancestors’ surnames. For example: Mitchell could also be Mitchel.
- And if you come across a misspelling of your surname, don’t assume it isn’t of a family member! The surname Noel could also be spelled Noell or Noelle.
- If the name begins with a vowel or an “H” you should look for similar spellings with all vowels considered.
- Whether your family spells their name with an “S” on the end or not, always try adding (or removing) an “S” on surnames. For example, Bell, Bells.
- Silent letters such as “E” or “Y” can often get overlooked. Try adding them to your family surname: Smith, Smithe
- You can also try removing or adding suffixes, prefixes and superlatives to your family surname while searching: Petersmith, Peterschmidt.
- Check yourself when it comes to phonetics, translation equivalents and other spelling irregularities — you could find a long lost family member! Use this helpful phonetics substitutes table from Family Search.