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Family History Friday: The real scoop about name changes in immigration records.

by on December 18, 2009


Have you ever had an immigrant ancestor whose name appeared to change after they came to America?  It was a very common occurrence, but the popular perception is that U.S. immigration officials deliberately changed a person’s name if they couldn’t understand the verbal information relayed to them by the immigrant.  In fact, this is one of the biggest myths surrounding immigration history in the U.S.  Federal immigration agents were never authorized to change anyone’s name–think about it for a moment, would it really make sense for an official to tell an immigrant, who might barely understand English, “Your name is now Joe Smith, don’t forget it!”

To further debunk the myth, most immigration passenger arrival lists that we have at the National Archives were not prepared by U.S. officials, they were instead filled out by the vessel master or shipping company BEFORE the vessel left Europe!  Any mistakes in spelling or name alterations likely happened then, not after the immigrants arrived at Castle Garden or Ellis Island.  I’m sure many people will persist in believing family traditions about how their ancestors’ names were changed after coming to America–it certainly makes for a good story–but the records rarely support the myth.


Comments

Becky December 18, 2009 at 11:23 am

Marian Smith, the historian at the US Citizenship and Immigration Services wrote an article on this subject. Few people realize that the INS employed interpreters at Ellis Island and other ports so there would not be language barriers. http://www.ilw.com/articles/2005,0808-smith.shtm

points of origins « by the wayside December 19, 2009 at 2:23 am

[...] at least in simplest form, are very unlikely to be true. As the U.S. National Archives blog points out, most of the arrival records for immigrants – passenger manifests and the like – were [...]

Madaleine J Laird December 21, 2009 at 5:35 pm

I love that the link in this post leads directly to search results in the ARC! What a great way to introduce new users to the catalog, and a real convenience to those who are a bit more adept with such tools. I narrowed the 537 results to just 36 by hitting Refine Search, then entering California as an exact phrase. Thank you for the important work that you do. I’ll be visiting this blog more often!

Kristen (admin) December 22, 2009 at 10:06 am

Hi Madaleine,
We’re so glad that you like NARAtions! We’re finding that some of these specialty posts (like Family Tree Fridays and NARA Staff Favorites) are great opportunities to highlight records in NARA’s collection, while adding some extra context that not everyone may be aware of. Thanks for your tips on customizing the canned searches too- I’m sure they’ll be helpful to other readers!

For anyone interested in learning more about searching in the Archival Research Catalog, check out our search tips at http://arcweb.archives.gov/help/searchtips.htm or email us at arc@nara.gov.

Michael December 24, 2009 at 5:05 pm

Ah this makes sense! The shipping company or vessel manager got the names wrong and thus they were never corrected.

Anthony Masiello January 2, 2010 at 4:50 pm

Thank you for clearing up the “name change” myth. Growing up we were always told buy our grandfather names were changed by immigration officials. I am curious as to how that myth was started?

John January 4, 2010 at 12:16 pm

Hi Anthony,

It’s always hard to know how any urban legend begins, especially one so persistent as the immigration “name change” myth. Popular culture seems to lend a big hand, however. Remember the scene in “The Godfather, Part II” where a young Vito Andolini arrives at Ellis Island, identifies Corleone as his hometown in Italy, and the immigration agent mistakenly writes it down as his surname? It’s a purely ficticious scene (including the role of the immigration agent) meant to advance the storyline of the Corleone family origins, but yet here is a classic example how a hugely successful 1974 Hollywood film, probably seen by millions, perpetuated the myth. (I’m not saying the movie was solely responsible, by the way! We don’t really know how long the myth has existed.)

Mike January 15, 2010 at 6:58 pm

Interesting write up. My grandmother and I have been researching ancestry for years and never came across this. We always assumed the family changed their name themselves. I will need to pass this info along and dig into this topic more. Thanks for the post!

John January 20, 2010 at 2:52 pm

Hi Mike,

I’m glad you found the immigration posting useful! Just to clarify quickly, many immigrants did in fact change or Americanize their own names after they arrived in the U.S., but most often they did so after settling down in a community, not as they were being processed through immigration centers. Many did so to fit into the local culture better and find work (especially in those days when anti-immigrant sentiment was very prevalent and before anti-discrimination laws existed). The point of the blog was just to underscore the fact that the federal government played no official part in affecting those name changes.

John Mentos February 3, 2010 at 3:28 pm

Thank you for interesting reading;-)

Laura August 24, 2011 at 7:40 pm

Thanks for the article. I always assumed that some of my ancestors changed their names at Ellis Island, but I guess I’ll have to look into that more closely. I ran across your site because I am learning genealogy and specifically learning about family traditions and genealogy at the moment. I’ve posted a few video tutorials I’ve found on the subject here: http://sites.google.com/site/genealogyvideos/family-records-traditions Thanks for your blog! I’m looking forward to visiting the Chicago NARA repository once I get brave enough :)

Richard Lowe January 24, 2012 at 2:58 pm

My grandfather’s name is William Lowe (b 4/6/1984 Greenville, TX & died 10/2/1935 El Paso TX) but I discovered in researching his family tree that his real name was Gilford Bloyd (Bloyed) and I think he changed his name between 1910 and 1917 (when he entered the Army). The mystery is why, when, & where did he change his name? I have tried everything on Ancestry.com but no luck. How would I find the answer to this question?

Thanks,
Richard William Lowe

John January 25, 2012 at 11:19 am

Hi Richard,

I’m not really certain there is an answer to your question. In the early 20th century, there was no formal or legal procedure for someone to change their name, and a lot of men apparently enlisted in the military under an alias. Of course, there were also no regular forms of personal ID as well. So what I’m saying is, an official paper trail probably does not exist to explain why he changed his name. Unless he shared that information directly with family members or left behind some kind of written account, it might be impossible to determine the reasons. You can always check to see if he has a military personnel file at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, MO (a file may or may not exist because of the Army records that were destroyed in the 1973 fire), but I’m not certain if there would be any pertinent documents that verify his identity. You can find information on how to request records from St. Louis on the NARA web site. Good luck!

John

Richard Lowe September 11, 2012 at 12:53 pm

Thanks John. I have his discharge papers from the military and he was discharged as William (Bill) Lowe. So he entered and was discharged from the military as William (Bill) Lowe. I even have the love letters (post cards) he sent my grandmother from France and Germany. They were only married a year and had my Dad (Robert Gilford Lowe) as their son. My Dad never knew his father and was raised by his grandmother because when his Mom re-married, her new husband didn’t want my Dad as a son. My Dad is 92 years old and was and is a terrific father (was married to Mom for 66 years!).

Richard

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