Many genealogists who trace
their family history find themselves with the additional burden of
losing their name in translation.
Mark Dennen believed that his surname was rare when he began
exploring his family history. Knowing it was Irish in origin, he
began his search among the records of Ireland. He was surprised to
discover that Dennen was a derivative of O'Doineannaigh and that
there were many who descended from that surname. Rather than having
few who shared his origins, the opposite turned out to be the case.
From Dennen to Dennehy to Denenshe, there were many who had similar
names, and all were related. Whether slightly or dramatically, names
often changed when families emigrated to America. In order to
Americanize themselves, some immigrants Anglicized their name by
translating it literally. Thus Rousseau became Brooks, and so on.
Language and cultural difference
forced many immigrants to undergo significant changes as they
adjusted to their new home. Some names were deliberately changed by
families who preferred to be assimilated quickly into the lifestyle
of their new country. Families named Schmidt who emigrated from
Germany sometimes adopted the name Smith once they were established
For years, there was a common
conception that many names that were changed at Ellis Island used to
be accepted, but that idea had since been challenged. In an article
on the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) site, Marian L.
Smith, a historian with the INS, reveals that immigrants were given
more attention at Ellis Island than had been previously thought. She
notes that passenger lists of names were compiled abroad before
departure. According to records, a third of immigrant inspectors at
Ellis Island had emigrated from foreign countries and spoke other
Even Christian names were
sometimes abandoned in an immigrant's new country, not necessarily
through any legal process but rather for the sake of convenience.
Around 1882, Koleda Schaffer
immigrated to America with her father following the death of her
mother in Bavaria. She took a job as a domestic with a New England
family. When the children in the family found it too difficult to
pronounce the name Koleda, she changed it to Anna.
The American name she had selected
appeared on her tombstone as well as her death certificate. Her own
children later remembered hearing their mother say that her name had
been Koleda before she changed it. Since there was no further
reference to her given name, no legal record remains of it in
Chinese names often feature
adaptations of the same origin. Wang, Wong, and Huang all derive
from Wang, since traditionally the ruler or king (translated as
Wang) would name the people in villages he visited. While the
spelling of the name might have changed once an immigrant reached
America, the origins remain.
Ironically, the common ancient
English names that represent occupations such as Miller or
Cartwright usually survived intact. Names representing locations
like Woods or Barnes also survived because they required no
In cases where immigration records
cannot be found, a thorough knowledge of siblings' names is helpful.
Siblings often made the passage from the old country to the new,
confirming the family connection when original names get lost in
For more information; Changing
American Names/Declaring Independence by Marion Smith, INS Historian
Karen Frisch has spent years
getting lost in cemeteries. With a background in Victorian studies,
teaching, and writing, she has traced her lineage back thirty
generations. Her interest in genealogy began as a child when her
grandmother gave her a collection of old photographs from Scotland.
For more information, please contact GEMS of Genealogy, Bay Area
Genealogical Society, Inc., PO Box 283, Green Bay, WI 54305-0283.