They Changed Our Name at Ellis Island

by Donna Przecha

We have all heard someone say that their family name was “changed by the inspectors at Ellis Island.” Nowadays our names are recorded when we are born and are virtually never changed. You can still use any name you want as long as you do not intend to defraud but, in fact, with drivers’ licenses, social security numbers, credit cards, etc., it is just too complicated to try to alter your name except through a court proceeding.

People seem to feel that it was the same way at the turn of the century. They think that immigrants had one correct way to spell their name in the old country, when they encountered the clerk at Ellis Island it was changed to something else and then it was spelled that way ever after in America. The explanation usually is that the immigrant spoke little or no English, so either the immigrant inadvertently gave an incorrect reply to the question of “What is your name?” or the clerk misunderstood the name or decided it was too complicated.

In reality, it is highly unlikely that this happened. The Immigration and Naturalization Service has a good article on immigrant name changes that explains why this wonderful story is a myth: the clerks at Ellis Island didn’t write down names. They worked from lists that were created by the shipping companies. What usually happened was the emigrant bought a ticket from an office near his home. So, the seller probably spoke the same language and transcribed the name correctly. In cases where the name was recorded incorrectly, it likely occurred in the old country, not at Ellis Island.

There are several questions to consider when talking about the accuracy of name spellings on records:

  1. When the record was created, was there a standard (“correct”) way to spell the name?
  2. Did the individual know how to spell the name himself? (Was he literate?)
  3. If he did not write the name himself, did the recording clerk ask him his preferred spelling?

So much of the time, the answer to at least one of these questions was “no.” However, let us assume that your emigrant knew how to spell his name and it was written correctly on the list created by the shipping company and used by the inspectors at Ellis Island. When he arrived at Ellis Island, he was checked against the list. With all the immigrants coming through the facility, many translators were employed so language problems were rare.

Bear in mind that name changes were often made by the immigrants themselves. Let’s see what some of those possible reasons are.


The vast majority of immigrants came to the United States to get jobs. There was a huge pool of workers, usually unskilled, who were desperate to work. Employers didn’t have to abide by anti-discriminatory laws and were not given sensitivity training. They often found foreign names difficult and preferred workers who were somewhat Americanized. If an immigrant had family or friends who arrived earlier they may have advised the new arrival to take an easier, more Americanized name. Similarly, a boss may have found the foreign name too difficult to say and suggested a simpler name (he might say, for example, “That name is too difficult for me. How about I call you Sam?”). The new employee didn’t object and he may have just decided to use the new name for everything. And, since wages were usually paid in cash, he didn’t have to worry about a name on a check being the same as the bank account or a Social Security investigation.

While a new arrival might quickly choose a simpler name in order to get a job, he might later have second thoughts and choose yet another one. For example, he might have selected “John” originally because it was the first American name that came to mind. However, after being in the United States for a while he might learn that his foreign name actually had an equivalent in English and decide it would be more accurate to use that name.

Fitting In

Assimilating into American culture is another reason why your ancestors might have changed their names. While some immigrants came with the idea of working for a while and returning home, most came to stay forever. Many wanted to become Americans as fast as possible so they changed their style of clothes and adopted a more American name.

The immigrants who came as children were especially eager to assimilate. With their friends at school urging them to modernize their names, they may not have wanted to be saddled with an old-fashioned sounding name.


Also consider that even if an immigrant wasn’t pressured into making a change, a foreign name can be annoying when you have to spell it for everyone. (I know from personal experience!) If the immigrant lived where most people spoke the same language, it wasn’t a problem. But if he had to mix with other nationalities regularly, he would have an incentive to change.

Similarly, the naming custom from the old country might have been totally foreign to America. For example, the Norwegians used the patronymic system whereby a child’s surname was based on his or her father’s first name. If a man named Lars Pederson had a son named Anders, he was called Anders Larson. A daughter named Anna would be Anna Larsdatter and would use this name even after she married. In America this was too complicated so when she married a man named Ole Swenson, she simply became Anna Swenson. However, in correspondence with the people back in Norway, she would probably continue to sign herself Anna Larsdatter. (Read moreabout Norwegian naming customs.)

Types of Changes

In the United States around 1900, there were no rules about names so immigrants could alter their names, first or last, any way they wanted. For example,

One of the easiest changes was to simplify the pronunciation and spelling. So, the German “Nüchter” could get rid of the un-American umlaut and change the sound to one more familiar to English speaking people, ending up with “Nichter.”
A name with too many syllables might be shortened.
Combinations of letters not usually used in America — especially those with lots of z’s — could be modified so the sound was similar.
A completely different, English name might be adopted.
A person with a long name such as “Finkelstein” might shorten it to “Finkel” or “Stein.”
People might pick a given name that is very American and sounds somewhat like their original name. For example, the Japanese “Tamio” could become “Tommy.”

One thing to note is that immigrants often used two given names during their lives: an Americanized name for outsiders and the original foreign name within the family. The possibility for confusion could arise when it wasn’t clear if an occasion was public or private. For example a wedding was a family celebration, so a person would feel comfortable using his foreign-sounding name. However, filing for a marriage license was a public event in an Anglo setting so the immigrant might feel he should use the American name. He might end up being recorded in church under the foreign name and in public records under his American name.

Literal Translation

Another way of coping with awkward names is a literal translation. The German “Schneider” could be literally translated to “Taylor.” “Schwarz” would become “Black.” The family of Prince Philip of England translated its name from the German “Battenberg” to the English “Mountbatten.” Most first names had commonly accepted translations so there was usually an equivalent available without thinking about it. However, in some cases the literal translation might go from an impossible foreign name to a very ugly English name that no one really wanted to use. “Waclawek” might translate to the English “Wenceslaus” but that wouldn’t help too much. The immigrant might find “Walter” a better substitute. “Lukrecia” might translate to “Lucretia” but a young girl might find “Lotty” or “Laurie” to be more to her taste. Similarly, “Waldek” is translated into English as “Oswald” or “Valdemar” but a man might prefer “Wally,” “Walter” or even “Victor.”

Sometimes a name could have two different translations. The Polish “Wojciech” could be “Albert” or “George.” It is possible that at different times one man could have used all three names. Not knowing his preference of the moment, it is necessary to look for all three variations when you are searching records. (You also have to keep in mind that a “w” in Polish is pronounced like a “v” so “Wojciech” could end up being recorded as “Voychek!”)

Whimsical Reasons

There are also hundred of stories about how immigrants picked names for purely whimsical reasons. The INS gives the example of a young Vietnamese man who changed his name to “Bonus” because when he first arrived he would buy “bonus paks” of chewing gum to get him through his busy day of working several jobs and studying English.

It is also possible that an immigrant might change his name to match some obscure happening in his life that later descendants knew nothing about: the name of the street where he first lived, a person he read about in the paper, a village back home, a relative, a new American food he liked. Girls, especially, might admire a film star or singer and adopt that name.

Imagine that you were going into the witness protection program tomorrow and had to decide on your new name. Where would you start? You would want a name that sounded pleasing to you, one that you felt comfortable with. If you were blonde, you probably wouldn’t want a Greek sounding name nor would an African-American choose an Asian-sounding name. As a first name you might pick one you always admired. Or, you might select a relative’s name or a movie star’s. A last name would be more difficult — perhaps a mother’s maiden name or a town, river or mountain name. You might begin looking around you and trying out names of trees, birds or animals. Selecting a new name is not an easy thing to do!


Name changes can have unforeseen consequences. For example, since everyone was free to use the name he or she preferred, some families would end up with different last names. Since foreign-born children derived their citizenship from their parents, the diversity of names sometimes caused problems later when the child had to prove the identity of his father. The INS web site has several letters from people who wanted to reassume their original name or change it to correspond with the rest of their family.

Who Changed Your Name? Your Ancestor

If your family name underwent a change in America, you can be pretty certain that the only person responsible for the modification was your ancestor, not an inspector at Ellis Island! And, it is important to remember that the name may have evolved over time. Keep this in mind as you hunt for your immigrant ancestor in the records of his new homeland.

Another Look At The Term “Cousin” 

If someone walked up to you and said “Howdy, I’m your third cousin, twice removed,” would you have any idea what they meant? Most people have a good understanding of basic relationship words such as “mother,” “father,” “aunt,” “uncle,” “brother,” and “sister.” But what about the relationship terms that we don’t use in everyday speech? Terms like “second cousin” and “first cousin, once removed”? We don’t tend to speak about our relationships in such exact terms (“cousin” seems good enough when you are introducing one person to another), so most of us aren’t familiar with what these words mean.

Relationship Terms

Sometimes, especially when working on your family history, it’s handy to know how to describe your family relationships more exactly. The definitions below should help you out.

Cousin (a.k.a “first cousin”)

Your first cousins are the people in your family who have two of the same grandparents as you. In other words, they are the children of your aunts and uncles.

Second Cousin

Your second cousins are the people in your family who have the same great-grandparents as you., but not the same grandparents.

Third, Fourth, and Fifth Cousins

Your third cousins have the same great-great-grandparents, fourth cousins have the same great-great-great-grandparents, and so on.


When the word “removed” is used to describe a relationship, it indicates that the two people are from different generations. You and your first cousins are in the same generation (two generations younger than your grandparents), so the word “removed” is not used to describe your relationship.

The words “once removed” mean that there is a difference of one generation. For example, your mother’s first cousin is your first cousin, once removed. This is because your mother’s first cousin is one generation younger than your grandparents and you are two generations younger than your grandparents. This one-generation difference equals “once removed.”

Twice removed means that there is a two-generation difference. You are two generations younger than a first cousin of your grandmother, so you and your grandmother’s first cousin are first cousins, twice removed.

Relationship Charts Simplify Everything

Now that you have an idea of what these different words mean, take a look at the chart below. It’s called a relationship chart, and it can help you figure out how different people in your family are related. It’s much simpler than it looks, just follow the instructions.

Instructions for Using a Relationship Chart

  1. Pick two people in your family and figure out which ancestor they have in common. For example, if you chose yourself and a cousin, you would have a grandparent in common.
  2. Look at the top row of the chart and find the first person’s relationship to the common ancestor.
  3. Look at the far left column of the chart and find the second person’s relationship to the common ancestor.
  4. Determine where the row and column containing those two relationships meet.


ChildSister or BrotherNephew or NieceGrand-nephew or nieceG-grand-nephew or niece
GrandchildNephew or NieceFirst cousinFirst cousin, once removedFirst cousin, twice removed
G-grandchildGrand-nephew or nieceFirst cousin, once removedSecond cousinSecond cousin, once removed
G-g-grandchildG-grand-nephew or nieceFirst cousin, twice removedSecond cousin, once removedThird cousin

 Just When You Thought You Had it

What’s Your Family Ranking?

Does birth order determine an individual’s personality traits?

The Only Child

The characteristics of a first-born child are magnified in the only child. You can rely on an only child to be fairly loyal as the loneliness of their childhood translates into a desire to be true. When only children set goals, they are able to accomplish things that seem impossible to others.

But the only child is less of a perfectionist than the oldest child and more likely to stray in a relationship, especially in a situation where it seems they will never get caught, such as a solo vacation or while their mate is out of town for an extended period. the only child tends to play by the rules but works behind the scenes to bend the rules their way.

First-born child

Oldest children lend to be leaders. With an inclination toward following social norms, they tend to find success within established boundaries, and they take responsibility, sticking to the rules.

First-born children are more likely than others to marry their childhood sweethearts. They are also the more likely to stay in relationships that aren’t working and try to fix things. If your soul mate is a first born, you are in a relationship that has a good chance of lasting a lifetime.

Middle child

Well-adjusted middle children occupy the happy middle. Because they are part of a hierarchy, they learn negotiating tactics very well. If your manager at work is a middle child, expect the best treatment your company has to offer.

Middle children either marry very early (in an effort to be first at something) or late in life when they have found the perfect match. And they are great lovers; their desire to please their partner comes from an upbringing of learning how to cooperate and coexist. But be forewarned: Although they may seem generous and conciliatory most of the time, middle children are the fiercest competitors.

Youngest child

Far from being the runt of the litter, the youngest child is usually the most outgoing. They are also very low-maintenance lovers. Once in a relationship, it doesn’t take much to keep a youngest child interested. But while they may be competent lovers and affectionate spouses, don’t ever try to dominate them.

Last-born children live to question authority. Far from parroting the ideas of others, look at them to be innovators in technology and fashion. The youngest child also has the best sense of humor in the family.

Ghost child

This is the child born into a family after a miscarriage, stillbirth, or child who dies as an infant. A ghost child combines the competitive qualities of the middle child with the responsibility attributes of the older child.

Ghost children are very spiritual partners, melding effortlessly with almost any person who desires them. The problems in a ghost child’s relationships usually center on their ambiguous attitude toward commitment and a tendency to end things quite suddenly.


The firstborn of a set of twins does not necessarily take on the role of the first-born child. Twins establish their own hierarchies in childhood and suddenly, usually between ages 11 and 22, switch into the opposites roles. One twin will exhibit characteristics of a first-born child and the other will adopt the role of a youngest child.

The switch will usually be triggered by a traumatic or important event, such as a death in the family, or a move to a new city. Once the switch happens, it is permanent. Twins usually make understanding parents who want to sample what the world has to offer.



I am my own Grandpa

(Lyrics of the song by Dwight Latham and Moe Jaffe, 1947.  Based on a Mark Twain Anecdote)

Many many years ago when I was twenty-three,
I got married to a widow who was pretty as could be.
This widow had a daughter who had hair of red.
My father fell in love with her, and soon the two were wed.
This made my dad my son-in-law and changed my very life.
My daughter was my mother, for she was my father’s wife.
To complicate the matters worse, although it brought me joy,
I soon became the father of a bouncing baby boy.
My little baby then became a brother-in-law to Dad.
And so became my uncle, though it made me very sad.
For if he was my uncle, then that also made him brother
To the widow’s grown-up daughter who, of course, was my step-mother.
Father’s wife then had a son, who kept them on the run.
And he became my grandson, for he was my daughter’s son.
My wife is now my mother’s mom and it surely makes me blue.
Because, although she is my wife, she is my grandma too.
If my wife is my grandmother, then I am her grandchild.
And every time I think of it, It simply drives me wild.
For now I have become the strangest case you ever saw.
As the husband of my grandmother, I am my own grandpa!


Figuring Your Family

From the book “Tribal Living,” by David Levinson & David Sherwood

Figuring Cousins

“The only American kin term that is confusing is cousin. Different people use the term in different ways or use different terms for the same thing. There are cousins, first cousins, second cousins, third cousins, cousins once removed, cousins twice removed, and country cousins.” The easiest cousin variation to understand uses the terms once and twice removed. “Removed simply means the number of generations away from ego.” (Ego being a term used here to designate – you.) “People sometimes use second cousin to mean what we call once removed and third cousin for twice removed. Others use second cousin to mean children of first cousins. The children are second cousins to each other, the parents are first cousins to each other, and the parents and children are first cousins once removed to each other.”

Think about it, it really isn’t hard to figure.



German Trivia – Minnesota

In the early 1900’s, the Minnesota legislature empowered a Safety Commission to defend the World War I war effort.  One of the actions started by the Commission was the creation of the volunteer group called the Home Guard.  Acting like a police force, they spied on German individuals and groups. All aspects of German life was scrutinized by the Guard; language, customs, and culture or societies.  The Commission recruited help from other patriotic societies in their campaign against he German-Americans forcing oaths of  loyalty to America, and requiring donations to the Red Cross and Liberty Drives. German communities in Minnesota went so far as to rename their parks, and even rename “Sauerkraut” to “liberty cabbage.”