Our last names can tell us so much about ourselves. They provide a way to connect our present to the past and give us more insight into how our families formed, moved and experienced what they did.
While there’s a lot about our last names we do know, there are certain myths and legends that have persisted over time about the surnames of people in the United States. Here are five major myths.
1. Family surnames were changed at Ellis Island.
One of the most prevalent genealogical myths? Ellis Island officers changed people’s last name as they arrived in the U.S. It was said the officials working at the New York island’s entry port weren’t familiar with all the immigrants’ languages, so they had to anglicize the names.
However, records show that the names of passengers were actually collected in Europe and used for the ships’ manifests. Therefore, the officers at Ellis Island only needed to check names off these lists, not write them out.
Then why were so many names changed during the immigration booms of the 19th and 20th centuries? One possible conclusion for the various surname changes: The immigrants may have changed the names themselves in order to fit in better in their new country.
2. If your last name is the same or close to another person’s last name, you are related.
If you have the same last name as a historical figure or a modern celebrity, it’s easy to draw conclusion that you must SOMEHOW be related. Sometimes that’s true (woot!). But that’s not always the case.
Last names started in Western Europe during Medieval times, and there were a few ways people could get a last name. It could come from the location they lived or their occupation.
Not all blacksmiths were related, despite all having the same last name. Thus all modern day Smiths aren’t necessarily related.
3. Every African American person’s surname comes from the family’s name that owned their ancestors.
While not every African American person has ancestors who were enslaved, enough African Americans can trace their family roots back to enslaved ancestors that this myth about surnames and slave owners came to be.
And while some slaves took the last name as their master, not every slave held the name of the men who owned them. Records from the time even show that slaves on the same plantation often didn’t have the same last name, which could possibly be explained by being sold from one plantation to another.
However, after slaves were emancipated, many former slaves were able to choose their own last names. Some emancipated slaves stayed near their former plantation, and it behooved them to keep their former slave family’s name.
Meanwhile other people reinvented themselves by taking new surnames such as Freeman or Newman or that of two of the founding fathers: Washington and Jefferson.
4. Just because someone’s name sounds like it originates from one country does not mean that it actually does.
Don’t assume your last name is Italian just because it sounds like an Italian word. Your surname could have been changed by your ancestors, either intentionally or accidentally, over time.
Also, it’s worth noting that map lines change, and languages are used in countries other than their homebase: i.e. People speak primarily German in countries that aren’t Germany.
And over generations, families migrate. So even if your last name originates from one country, it doesn’t mean most of your ancestry does. One woman named Julie Martini, for instance, had an Italian last name and assumed she was Italian. Then she discovered her family had moved to Germany hundreds of years ago, so she was more German than Italian.
5. Coats of arms are associated with surnames
Coats of arms can be traced back as early as the 11th century. In the English, Scottish, and French traditions coats of arms were tied to a single person, not to a family.
The emblem could be passed down to that person’s direct heir, but it was not used by the rest of the family.
This reflects the original purpose of coats of arms, which was to identify individual soldiers on the battlefield, as they were heavily armed and otherwise hard to distinguish.
Uncover the Myths Behind Your Last Name
As you go on your journey into your family’s past, the best way to dispel myth from fact, yarn from true account, is to keep these myths in mind and go all in.