03 August 2013


I once had a potential client that I decided not to work with because of her rigidity! 

Seriously, this woman was a highly educated and successful social worker of Jewish background with a very unusual surname.  My preliminary research based on the town that she said her family was from, but a town she was distanced from by three generations, revealed a cluster of this unusual name - with spelling variations.  SHE REFUSED TO BELIEVE THAT THESE PEOPLE COULD BE RELATED based on the idea that surname spellings never changed.  She was arguementative and I could tell that she would never be able to take the small leap of faith required and that I'd be fighting to prove things to her all the way.

The fact is that surnames have been very changeable through history.

African American slaves who were freed got to choose their own names.  Sometimes siblings all chose different surnames.  Did they do this formally and legally?  NO.  Assuming a name for some time is all it took - to be KNOWN by a name.  Some tried out a name, didn't like it, and went with another.

This is just one example of the flexibility or a surname.

Another ; I've heard the "They Changed Our Name At Ellis ISland"  so many times.  I don't argue it but this is 99% of the time pure bunk. They did process people quickly and we always have the problem of bad handwriting or misinterpretations of a name, but a mispelling or misunderstanding at Ellis DID NOT CHANGE AN IMMIGRANT'S NAME LEGALLY.  They did not have to go with a mispelling.  In the five minutes or so that they were processed, clerks were not changing the family name.  End of that old story.

Many people did decide to AMERICANIZE their surname, sometimes by spelling it different or spelling it more according to how it would be written in English.  Few went with legal proceedings, which cost money, to take off an ending, or ad or subtract a letter.  As a result, I have found so very many documented families with a wide variety of spellings.  In one family the name was slightly different on Ellis, on naturalization, or WWI draft registrations, and on census.  They were the same family though.

As I mentioned on a recent post, there is also the SPANISHIFICATION of certain surnames due to immigration. So, it's not always about ANGLICIZING!

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