Now What: Moniker Mystery
10/1/2006
Answers for the beginner, the befuddled and anyone hitting a brick wall.
Q. After my great-grandfather came to the United States around 1903, he changed his Italian surname to Roberts. Did courts require individuals to change their surnames during that time?

A. It was quite common for immigrants to change their names after arriving in the United States — in many cases, they purposely assumed new sobriquets to fit in, sound more American and avoid prejudice. (By the way, it's a myth that Ellis Island officials changed immigrants' surnames upon their arrival — officials simply checked off names already written on passenger lists created at the port of departure.) But names sometimes were changed inadvertently. When immigrant children attended school, for example, the teacher may have started calling them by more American-sounding names that the children eventually adopted. Occasionally, the new name was a variation of the original one, as was the case in my family. And it wasn't always the immigrant who took on the new moniker: My father — the son of Italian immigrants — changed our surname from DeBartolo to Bart.

Immigrants could change their names legally, but they weren't required to and most often didn't. Most would simply choose a new moniker and start using it.