Name changing Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Modern Americans researching their family histories have often been stymied by name changes made when their ancestors immigrated to the United States. For many, it can be unsettling to learn that a family name held in much pride is little more than one century old. Some Americans have changed their names back to their ancestors’ original surnames, but understanding the reasons for the name changes can help in providing a better understanding of what ancestors experienced when they immigrated.

It is sometimes difficult for twenty-first century Americans to understand why immigrants of the past were willing to change their surnames when they entered the United States, as name changing tended to cut them off from their ancestors and even from their contemporary relatives. However, connections between immigration and name changing are not merely from the past. As late as the early twenty-first century, the very first section of the U.S. government form on which immigrants apply for naturalization still contained a space for name-change requests. Its location near the top of the form highlights the continuing connection between changing one’s citizenship and changing one’s name. However, while the motivations of modern immigrants for changing their names are seldom as strong as they were for immigrants a century earlier, many immigrants still choose to start their new lives in the United States with new names.Name changingName changing[cat]FAMILY ISSUES;Name changing[03710][cat]LANGUAGE ISSUES;Name changing[03710][cat]WOMEN;Namechanging[03710]

Involuntary Name Changes

Many modern Americans believe that their family names were changed by lazy or careless immigration officials at immigration reception centers such as Ellis IslandEllis Island;and name changing[name changing] in New York Harbor and Angel Island Immigration Station;and name changing[name changing]Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. This idea has become entrenched in American thought by family traditions, popular literature, films, and even some scholarly works. However, a close study of the procedures followed at these immigration centers shows that casual name changes were rare. Government regulations were not always followed by immigration officers, but it is important to note that a federal regulation specifically prohibited officials from altering the names of immigrants. However, this regulation was not drafted to protect the integrity of ancestral histories, but to prevent the entry of "Undesirable aliens"[Undesirable aliens];and name changing[name changing]undesirable aliens into the country.

One reason behind misconceptions about name changing at immigration reception centers is the false notion that immigration officials asked immigrants what their names were and then simply wrote down something phonetically close to what they heard without bothering to ask the immigrants how to spell their names. In reality, however, immigration officials did not get the names from the immigrants, but from the passenger lists of the ships on which the immigrants arrived. Many photographs of newly arrived immigrants at Ellis Island show them standing in long lines wearing what appear to be name tags. In fact, the tags the immigrants were wearing bore the names of their ships and the numbers of the lines on the ships’ manifests on which they were listed. Immigration officer simply copied the names from the passenger lists, including whatever errors may have been on those lists.

Language differences can certainly cause confusion with names, particularly when the languages are written in different alphabets or systems. However, immigration officials at major centers such as Ellis Island;immigration officialsEllis Island usually spoke the languages of the immigrants to whom they were assigned. In fact, around the turn of the twentieth century, one-third of all Ellis Island officials were themselves immigrants. A small army of translators were also on duty, available to assist in getting correct information. Because immigrants later often described their entire immigration processing simply as “Ellis Island” or “Angel Island,” it was easy for family traditions to incorporate the idea that their surname had been changed at one of those reception centers.

There is little doubt that many immigrant name changes were involuntary; however, it is much more likely that such changes can be attributed to errors in the ships’ passenger lists than to mistakes made by immigration officials. Errors could find their way into those lists several different ways. For example, some surnames had no single spelling that was recognized as standard at the time they were recorded. Moreover, many immigrants were illiterate and could not spell their own names if they were asked when they boarded the ships taking them to America. Those who could spell their names may not have been asked for the preferred spellings by shipping line clerks.

Some involuntary name changes came after the formal immigration process was completed. In one representative case, when a child of Polish immigrants reached school age, a school refused to register the child unless the long Polish family name was simplified. The child took the mother’s maiden name as a family name and later passed it on to his own descendants. In another case, a well-meaning teacher persuaded the parents of the only Jewish boy in a small school to call him “Jack” instead of “Israel,” his real name. She was concerned that the boy would be teased by the Christian children. The parents complied but made sure the boy understood that “Jack” was short for “Jacob,” who took on the name “Israel” in the Bible. During the twenty-first century, such actions by schoolteachers would bring on lawsuits and firings, but until the late twentieth century, immigrants were rarely in a position to argue against changing their names.

Voluntary Name Changes

Immigrants arriving in America actually changed their names voluntarily much more often than they did involuntarily. The vast majority of them had already left their homes and relatives behind and made an arduous journey across the ocean to build new lives in a country whose main language many of them did not even speak. During the early twentieth century, few employers had qualms about discriminating against prospective employees for any reason they chose. If an immigrant’s name was difficult to pronounce or spell, many employers would simply hire someone else with a more “American” name. While changing a family name may seem an extreme step to modern, native-born Americans, it was probably seen as a minor sacrifice by impoverished early immigrants who had already given up so much simply to reach America.

Ethnic Naming Conventions

Confusion caused by differences in naming conventions among different ethnic groups has often been the cause of immigrant name changes. Even during the twenty-first century, such differences cause some immigrants sufficient problems to move them to change their names.

Chinese naming conventions place family names first, followed by given names. Sometimes given names include generation names, which are shared by other members of the same generation. Generation names fall between the family and individual given names. For example, the name “Lee Qin Chun” indicates a person in the Lee family and the Qin generation with the given name “Chun.” If Lee Qin Chun were to have two sons, they might be called “Lee Han Li” and “Lee Han Chou.” Because Western naming conventions have no equivalent for generation names, opportunities for confusion are obvious.

Another Chinese convention that causes confusion for Westerners is the practice of Chinese women retaining their own family names when they marry. However, they sometimes add their husbands’ family names to their own given names. Children take the family names of their fathers. Western women have only recently begun to retain their maiden names after marriage, but this relatively new custom has done little to eliminate Westerners’ misunderstandings of Chinese married names. A question faced by married Chinese women when they immigrate to the United States is whether they will retain their maiden names or take their husbands’ family names.

Before the nineteenth century, Jewish immigrants;name changingGerman Jews did not use surnames. Fathers’ first names were used in a form that would translate into English as “Jacob the son of Isaac.” In 1808, Napoleon INapoleon I decreed that all Jews living within his empire must adopt family names. In some places, the government gave them a list of names from which to choose and assigned names to those who failed to make selections. When these European Jews came to America, their attachment to the family names imposed on them was often tenuous, making them more prone to change their names after arriving. In addition, Jewish merchants quickly learned that in America their gentile customers were more likely to patronize stores with Anglo-Saxon-sounding names than those with Jewish names. Discrimination in hiring, housing, and other aspects of everyday life also made name changing acceptable to Jewish immigrants.

By the early twenty-first century, a large portion of immigrants to the United States were Hispanics, making the naming conventions used in Spanish-speaking countries important. Traditional Spanish names combine the surnames of both mothers and fathers. Full names are usually made up of two given names and two surnames. For example, the name “José Rafael Sepulveda Calderon” indicates a person whose mother’s surname is Calderon and whose father’s surname is Sepulveda. However, confusion arises from the practice of omitting the mother’s surname in informal usage. Small differences such as these can cause problems when filling out forms such as employment applications.

Spelling and Pronunciation

The Russian immigrants;name changingCyrillic alphabet is used by dozens of Central Asian and eastern European languages, most notably Russian. Created during the early nineteenth century, this alphabet has many characters that resemble characters in the Latin alphabet used by English and many other languages. However, some of the characters that appear to be the same actually represent different sounds, and each alphabet has characters not in the other. Because Cyrillic and Latin characters do not match perfectly, names transliterated from Cyrillic forms often have several different possible spellings in the Latin alphabet. Moreover, some transliterated names appear to Westerners to be missing vowels, such as the name “Aleksandr.” Spelling and pronunciations of Slavic names are particularly difficult for Americans and non-Slavic people. Recognizing this fact, many Slavic immigrants chose to simplify the spellings of their own names or to change their names entirely to avoid problems in their newly adopted country.

Chinese languages present even more difficult pronunciation challenges. Cantonese and Mandarin are tonal languages in which the meanings of words depend on their rising or falling tones when spoken. Mandarin, for example, uses four different tones to give meaning to spoken words: mid-level, low falling, high rising, and high creaky-rising. For a Westerner used only to placing stress on some syllables more than others, subtle tonal variations used to convey differences of meaning of a word open the door to considerable confusion. Consequently, some Chinese immigrants avoid such problems by simplifying their names.Name changing

Further Reading
  • Belli, Melvin, and Allen P. Wilkinson. Everybody’s Guide to the Law: All the Legal Information You Need in One Comprehensive Volume. New York: HarperCollins, 2003. Contains a good chapter on the legalities of name changing.
  • Morgan, George G. How to Do Everything with Your Genealogy. New York: McGraw-Hill Osborne, 2004. Excellent guide to genealogical research; contains a good section on name changing.
  • Szucs, Loretto Dennis, and Luebking Hargreaves. Guidebook to American Genealogy. Provo, Utah: Ancestry Publishing, 2005. Informative book on genealogy with sections on immigrant name changing.
  • Wilton, David, and Ivan Brunetti. Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Contains an informative section on the myths surrounding involuntary name changing.

Angel Island Immigration Station



Atlas, Charles

Chinese immigrants

Ellis Island


Identificational assimilation

Jewish immigrants


Categories: History