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Guide 2 Genealogy   >   Name Changes

 

Name Changes


There are probably around 1.5 million last names currently in use in the United States. At first sight this may sound like a large number, but when you consider the huge numbers of immigrants who have brought Western and Eastern European names into the country, it is actually a surprisingly low figure.

One reason for this is that new immigrants often either got their name changed or were given a new name, when they entered the United States. The changing of an immigrant's name was done for a variety of reasons, perhaps the most common being to "Americanize" a name. Consequently many new citizens took similar names: Smith, Jones, Johnson, and Brown are the most common names in the United States today, just as they were at the time of the American Revolution.

The name "Smith" provides an excellent demonstration of how this worked. Immigrants from different countries whose name meant "blacksmith", for example, the German "Schmidt" or the Italian "Ferraro", adopted the name "Smith" when they reached America. Thus numerous surname variations tended to get merged into one name in America.

The result was an enormous amount of people having the same name and making that name extraordinarily popular for succeeding generations.

Another example was that many German immigrants discovered that Americans had trouble pronouncing their names, especially the German "ch" sound, and thus "Koch" became "Cook" and "Albrecht" became "Allbright."

Name changes for easier pronunciation were also very common in the case of Polish immigrants. When someone from Poland with a name such as "Marcizszewski" entered the country, out of confusion or simply laziness, an immigration official would often change the spelling to the closest English pronunciation he could come up with on the spot, such as "Muskie.".

Another source of confusion is that in the past spelling was more variable than today. Welfare agencies and church officials back in an immigrants' native country also often changed spelling, as did our ancestors themselves. Even United States Federal census takers also proved inept at recording correct name spelling, and the census of 1790 finds even simple names spelled dozens of ways. Just one example is that Daniel Boone is known to have signed his name "Bone" and "Boon" in addition to the spelling we are familiar with, "Boone."

When doing your genealogical research you will need to take into account the possibility of both spelling and complete name changes. Name variants can prove absolutely crucial when searching for your family roots. If you don't consider the different spellings of your ancestors' surnames, you may well over-look key pieces of information that could unlock the door that leads to a whole branch of your family tree.
  • Think of all the different ways that you can possibly spell your last name. For instance, if your last name is "Kane," you might write "Cain,", "Cane,", "Caine,", "Kain,", "Kaine," and "Kaines".

  • Sometimes, saying your name out loud a few times can help you think of additional possibilities.

  • Try to mispronounce your name to see whether that raises additional possible spellings.

  • Be sure to include the spellings and pronunciations that other people have mistakenly used during your lifetime.

  • A good place to look for original, pre-immigration surnames, is on tombstones in cemeteries, as many of our ancestors chose to be buried with their original name as opposed to the name that they either adopted or were forced to adopt upon landing in the United States.

  • Death certificates are another good place to look for an ancestor's original name. If you encounter several death certificates from members of one family, and one certificate contains a different spelling of - or even a completely different - last name, don't dismiss it as a clerical error. That ancestor may have given you a valuable clue through his or her choice to be buried with his original name.

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