Now What: Moniker Mystery

Now What: Moniker Mystery

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.

To determine your great-grandfather’s original name, seek all records he might’ve created or appeared in: censuses, naturalization records, WWI draft registration cards, and so on. In the earliest records you can find, look for others who lived nearby or witnessed his documents. Those neighbors and witnesses might be relatives who didn’t change their names, or immigrants from the same place as your ancestor. For instance, a branch of one family I’ve researched used the name Ferry. I ended up discovering they were related to the Sferras who lived next door and were buried in the cemetery plot next to them.

Finally, it wouldn’t hurt to look in court records for a possible legal name change. Check with your ancestor’s state and county of residence to determine which court — perhaps district or probate — had jurisdiction over name changes.

From the October 2006 issue of Family Tree Magazine.

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