Posted by Anne Gillespie Mitchell on January 14, 2014 in Ask Ancestry Anne

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?!?


Amy Olson

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!


snavelyMany 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:

  1. Use the Internet to help you determine the ethnic equivalent of an ancestor’s name. Sites like let you type in your ancestor’s given name and search for related names that include various ethnic equivalents.
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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?
  7. 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.
  8. Check immigration records and passports carefully – at times they may include notations indicating a previous name change.
  9. Try maiden names. Female ancestors may have travelled using them, even when married. (This was very common with immigrants from Italy.)
  10. Listen for stories. There may be more truth in those tales than you realize – including a clue about a person’s birth name.

Happy Searching!


Anne Gillespie Mitchell

Anne Gillespie Mitchell is a Senior Product Manager at She is an active blogger on 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. You can also find her on Twitter, Facebook and Finding Forgotten Stories.


  1. Hannah Spalding

    Great clear explanations from both ladies. So happy to see Annie state that changing names at Ellis Island is a myth. You hear that myth frequently. It is hard for us, so used to standardized spelling, to realize that our ancestors did not read or write and, as you mentioned, gave little importance to consistent spelling of their names. As for the census you are never sure who the enumerator actually spoke to when getting the info. and then it has been transcribed and indexed several times. Lots of error room there.

    I keep records for my husband’s family back to the 15th century. Last time I counted I had 18 name variations for Spalding.

    Thanks for your help.

  2. Janine Navarro

    I was happy to read your article on name changing at Ellis Island, as my grandmother’s name was changed on some of her papers when she arrived in America from Hungary. Her name was Mary Petras and because of her accent (she was 12, and travelled across Europe to America (seasick) alone) some of her papers had “Minnie Peaches” on them because the intake ? workers apparently had a difficult time understanding her.

  3. shirley chewning harris

    I to have researched my family’s name of Chewning. My dad was Roy Chewning and in research we found that before the first Chewning came here from Ireland the name was Chowning. That is how we found that this was the name of Samuel Chowning/ Chewning. That took us our the US in to Ireland. This was when we found why we have lots of redheaeded people in Missouri in the Chewning family that we could not research back very far as the name was Chowning.

  4. Lynn David

    Then there is the immigrant such as mine who evidently changed his own name, though luckily for the family history researcher, not fully. My research seems to indicate that a court case in Belgium may have been the impetus in changing his name. My ancestor initiated a notorial act (he was an attorney in Belgium) to distribute an inheritance from his mother to his two sisters in 1853. That notorial act was later adjudged in 1855 to have defrauded a the creditors of a company in receivership. This is now known to be true. But before that the ‘family myth’ specifically said he made sure his two sisters had received an inheritance after his father’s death (it is now known the notorial act was initiated a week before his father’s death).

    Luckily, we were able to independantly determine his wife’s (Catherine Boulanger) ancestry in Belgium because our Indiana family made contact with her siblings in Wisconsin after the Peshtigo Fire. But his name change along with the lie that he was from a family from Paris; France, which his wife went along with for 35 years after his death; and news stories concerning the Comte de Buisseret, who was a Belgian envoy to the US, all made for a family mythology which stifled the hunt for his ancestry.

    The name he used for most every record in Indiana was Eugene de Buisseret. But everyone in the family remembered him by the prenom of Camille. One writing within the 1910 diary of his son-in-law and daughter’s European trip gave what they thought was his full name: Camille Eugene Oswald Englebert de Buisseret. And then I chanced upon a Belgian in GeneaNet by the name of Camille August Oswald Englebert. Then two records came to light within the proper time-frames which spoke of Camille Englebert and Catherine Boulanger. The first was a ships list between Antwerp, Belgium, and Harwich, England. The second was a Catholic Church marriage record for them in St Louis, Missouri, which included the parents of both of them, matching the known records in Belgium. That cinched the name change.

    Strangely enough, the marriage occurred 6 months after the two of them had bought land near Vincennes, Indiana; two months after a child had been born to them and died; and two days before our ancestor loaned the Catholic Bishop of Vincennes, Indiana, $3520 – all of which used the name Eugene de Buissseret. We suspect there may be a civil marriage – somewhere in Belgium, or even England. Thereafter, they returned to Indiana and never again used the surname: Englebert.

    There was an aspect of the family myth which did point to St Louis as a possible record location. One aspect of the myth stated that for a short time Camille considered pursuing a career as a lawyer in St Louis but the Bishop of Vincennes (then Maurice de St Palais) convinced him to settle on a farm near Vincennes, Indiana. This may have been something our ancestor (Catherine Boulanger) created to point to their marriage record.

    On the other hand it may be a truthful account. Bishop Maurice de St Palais was in Europe during parts of 1851 and 1852 soliciting funds for his diocese and men and women who might take up religious vocations as well. During the latter half of the winter and into the spring of 1852 the Bishop was in Belgium where it was said he was well received and the aristocracy “disputed the honor of… hearing the account of his needy diocese.” The Englebert family was not noble, but Camille’s father and grandfathers had been mayors in various Belgian towns. So it is quite likely that Camille Englebert did attend a function for the Bishop in Belgium and was thereby influenced into coming to Vincennes.

    Indeed, one part of the family myth (from one family branch) did claim that our ancestor had emigrated on the same ship as did the Bishop return to America in 1852. That was easily determined not to have been true from that ship’s list. But the point of this is that myths all have a kernal of truth from which a family history researcher should glean possible avenues of research, even for an ancestor who purposefully changed their own name.

  5. John Aronson

    If Olson is the name you are interested in it will help enormously if the country of origin was Sweden. The Swedish spelling is typically Olsson or Olafsson. The Danes would spell it Olsen and the Norwegians might use Olsson, Olson or Olsen.

    But Olson also crops up in Scotland and England, particularly north of the Umber.

    The Swedes maintained excellent exit records from Gothenburg (Göteborg) and the vast majority of Swedes and very many Norwegians did leave through Gothenburg.

    One thing to keep in mind is that at least through 1900, passengers who were not in steerage but rather in 1st through 3rd class did not necessarily pass through immigration, particularly if the destination was not New York. Boston, Halifax and Montreal were a very common destinations from Göteborg, particularly for voyages that originated in Göteborg and docked in Southampton before crossing the Atlantic.

    The usual practice for non-steerage passengers was to register with the clerk of local district court in the state in which they intended to settle. That event started the naturalization clock ticking. Most of these records were destroyed or lost long ago and the best you will get are likely to get are self-reports on census and draft records to the effect the individuals were born in another country or were naturalized through their parents.

  6. Ginny Siggia

    Immigration records within the ship manifests are gold mines. From the records I’ve used in my own research, a person could not just show up and begin a new life without listing both a sponsor in the US and a contact in the old country. You could try working from both ends, gaining new information (name spellings, more precise information) in every leg of the quest. The US sponsor may be an immigrant as well, with records to be explored, or may have sponsored other family members or neighbors already. The census may show groups of people with similar last names who could be part of a family or from the same area. Look for individuals in census records with different surnames than the rest of the household. Could be a mother-in-law or unmarried sister. Brothers and fathers may have preceded the immigrant.

  7. peggie spinner love

    Im glad you answered that because I learned that my mm’s dad, my grandfather his family came from Ireland and they dropped the O from O’Cooney.

    How about what happened to the Indians, First Nation or Native Americans from tribes in scattered Northeast. My grandmother who was married to the guy Im talking about above, Frank Cooney, she said to my mom that her mother’s mom was full blooded Indian from that lower area of Pennsylvania. When they registered her the who evers dumped her Native name to last name of Gibson what do I do to find information. She would most likely have come from the Lenape tribe or ban via Delaware or possibly even Iroquis.


  8. Andrew Greene

    Two tricks that have worked for me:

    Naturalization petitions often have the “Americanized” name, and the name of the ship on which the person arrived. Even when the dates are off, looking at all the manifests for that ship for that year can be tedious but fruitful. (In my case, it helped me match “Leo Wertheim” back to “Leibish Werdesheim”)

    Also, Steve Morse’s website lets you search Ellis Island manifests for cases in which two people are traveling together. So if you use a wildcard search for the last name, and the “traveling with” feature, you can sometimes turn up families arriving together.

  9. Adriana

    I have an ancestor Domenico who appears as “Domenico,” “Dominic,” “Dominik,” “Dominick,” and finally “Daniel” throughout his life. “Daniel” is even the name on his grave marker. My other ancestors were Andrea and Lucia, but often referred to themselves as “Andrew” and “Lucy.” All their daughters had Italian names, but anglicized them in every census record. I’m still not sure what some of their real names are!

    My surname was also shortened, but not by Ellis Island. The family just dropped the vowel at the end over time. I don’t know the motivations, but it was self-imposed.

  10. josef

    I have been looking for relatives and the only ones I have found is the one I have put in myself and keep getting the same connection of what I put in on this site.

  11. Virginia Cornelius

    Have been looking for an Abraham Cornelius. It seems through all of the family trees that have been posted, his fathers and mothers names are unknown. He was born in Albany New York in or about 1807–not sure how other members found this out. The clues you have given on Ancestry about name change will help, I am sure. We will keep looking.

    Also, he is listed as an American Jew on the rosters for the Civil War, 1860 and on. Two of his sons are also listed, as such.

  12. Diane Westbrook

    All of the comments are wonderful and so interesting. I have been working on my father’s side of the family and have many questions. Where do I find marriage records in Wisconsin or Minnesota for one. How do I find cousins in Norway? I tried with the addresses from over 20 yearsago and ran into a dead end. Grandfather came to America with his entire family from Sweden when he was around 7or10. No records at Ellis island perhaps it was the name changes. My other grandmother came to America ftom norway on to England and then Minnesota no records of her at Ellis either. Pretty stumped.

  13. My father-in-law emigrated from Gamelbo, Gnojö, Jönköpings lön (Småland) in 1923. His birth name was David Simon Andreas Nilsson (son of Nils). He told me that he wanted to become a true American. Therefore, he changed his last name to Nelson, and “erased” any dialect or Swedish accents he may have spoken so that his English would be void of Swedish influence. I don’t know if this happened at Ellis Island, or later when he became an American citizen.

    I can vouch for this personally.

  14. Rhonda Brooks

    Diane Westbrook – my g-g-grandfather also immigrated from Sweden via England. He didn’t go through Ellis Island, he landed at Quebec and then made his way down to Minnesota. As for the marriage records, the only place I’ve had any luck with the older marriage records from Minnesota is on

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