One of my favorite subjects is history, and I’ve always loved to read historical fiction. Historical accuracy is important when writing about history, as readers will catch the most subtle errors.
Recently I was reading “The Shoemaker’s Wife,” by Adriana Trigiani, a good read but for one slip.
The main character, Ciro Lazarri, passed through Ellis Island on his way from Italy. The immigration officer presented him with a list of names and suggested he select one for his American surname. They included Smith, Brown, Jones, Hill and other simple English names, but the inspector suggested changing his surname to Lewis since his Italian surname started with an “L.” Wisely, Ciro refused to change.
This Ellis Island rumor just won’t die, and it’s sad to see it encouraged, even in fiction. Genealogists will readily agree no immigrant had his name changed at Ellis Island; certainly there is no documented evidence of it.
If names had been arbitrarily changed when new arrivals reached our shores, we would not see the diversity of ethnic names in this country that we have today.
To begin with, the immigrant arrived with a passenger list created in his home country, another foreign port from which he embarked. If his name was not accurately recorded, it might be due to his illiteracy, to a language difficulty with the agent in a foreign port, or just simply to misspelling it.
Many of the Ellis Island inspectors had been immigrants themselves and were sensitive to the problems facing the newly arrived. It’s said they had to be able to speak at least three languages to qualify for the job and to increase their likelihood of being able to understand the immigrants they were processing.
Many immigrants did change their names after they settled here, but it was by their own volition, not at the request of a government official.
Many of the changes were made simply to Americanize the name and make spelling it easier. Some names were hard to pronounce or spell due to the many syllables or to letter combinations not used in English. Bearers of these names often changed them just to make their life simpler and communication easier. Changes usually made a name spell the way it sounded.
My husband’s birth certificate is for Joseph A. Milewski, the name his immigrant great-grandfather arrived with in 1882. His father began spelling their name Malesky in 1941 when he joined the Army.
When Joe entered grade school, they had to attach a notarized statement to his birth certificate saying that Joseph A. Milewski and Joseph A. Malesky was one and the same person.
Some surnames in my family changed similarly, even though they were English names. Richard Baildon settled in Connecticut in the 1640s, but his name quickly became Belden. In the 1800s, when my ancestor moved to Ohio, he began spelling it Belding.
My Gant ancestors arrived in Virginia in the early 1700s spelling their name Gaunt. My great-great-grandfather died in the Civil War as Ambrose Gaunt, but his son grew up as Ambrose Gant, and thus it has remained.
Spelling of surnames in the U.S. didn’t really resolve until the late 1800s, when public education was available to the masses and literacy rates climbed. It’s not unusual to find deeds and other records from Colonial days in which a man’s surname is spelled three different ways in the same document.
When doing family history, we learn to record a man’s surname the way he spells it himself. But unless we have evidence of how he signed his name, we may have to guess at the “real” spelling.