Question: What happens when you have relatives that came to America in the early 1900s, but through immigration their names were changed to sound/appear more “American?” Records become hard to find, before and after. Now I’m stuck in my tree?!?
Answer: Oh those delightful name changes. And sometimes it wasn’t a name change. Our ancestors just didn’t care that much about spelling either. I have a page from a Bible, where someone wrote the name Gillespie in two different ways on the same page at what appears to be the same time.
Snavely is a German name in my family tree, but it evolved from Schabely over the years and had many variations over time. Pronounce it with a German accent to a southern census taker and you can imagine the searching fun!
Many immigrants came through Ellis Island in the 1900s and there are many stories of names that were changed by clerks at Ellis Island in odd ways. But that is a myth. Manifests were created at the port of departure with the name the traveler gave. Typically it was an ethnic version of the name. Now there is no guarantee that the clerk at departure spelled the name correctly – there is also no guarantee that your ancestor knew how to spell his name. Or cared how it was spelled.
Sometimes immigrants chose to change their names to make them sound more American. Or they chose to shorten names to make it easier for others to say and spell.
Naturalization records often included name change because the officials would go back and look for the manifest – they needed to know what name they traveled under so they could locate the entry and verify residency requirements had been met.
There are two excellent articles that will help you understand this:
Searching for Immigrant Names
I consulted with Juliana Smith, who knows much more about immigration than I do, and asked her for some search tips that might help you out. She gave me these 10 tips for translating names:
- Use the Internet to help you determine the ethnic equivalent of an ancestor’s name. Sites like BehindtheName.com let you type in your ancestor’s given name and search for related names that include various ethnic equivalents.
- Study the alphabet of the country of origin. The Polish alphabet, for example, contains the letter ę, which is pronounced ”en“ and can explain certain surname changes (ex: Mękalski becomes Menkalski).
- Look for literal translations. The German surname Schwartz may have been changed to Black just like the French surname LeBlanc may have been changed to White.
- Lengthen and shorten names. And remember that more than one ancestor may have changed a surname. Weisenberger may have become Weisenberg then Weisen and finally Wise.
- Try a wildcard search in which you use asterisks to replace some of the letters in a name. For example, if the surname was Berlengauem, B*rl*g*m* would produce it as well as Burlingame and other variants.
- Search by criteria. Forego the surname and search using birthplace, age, gender, occupation and other details to find people who match the ancestor you’re seeking. Pay special attention to the names in your search results. Do any of them seem to reflect your family?
- Follow your ancestor backwards by address in a city directory – you may get lucky and discover that, while the name changed, the residence remained the same.
- Check immigration records and passports carefully – at times they may include notations indicating a previous name change.
- Try maiden names. Female ancestors may have travelled using them, even when married. (This was very common with immigrants from Italy.)
- Listen for stories. There may be more truth in those tales than you realize – including a clue about a person’s birth name.
About Anne Gillespie Mitchell
Anne Gillespie Mitchell is a Senior Product Manager at Ancestry.com. She is an active blogger on Ancestry.com and writes the Ancestry Anne column. She has been chasing her ancestors through Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina for many years. Anne holds a certificate from Boston University's Online Genealogical Research Program, and is currently on the clock working towards certification from the Board for Certification of Genealogists. You can also find her on Twitter, Facebook and Finding Forgotten Stories.
[...] about ancestors who changed the spelling of their last name at some point in time. The “Ask Ancestry Anne” blog has a nice list of suggestions for what you can do to try and break through this [...]